Cara Cookson: Prioritize family leave

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Cara Cookson, of West Bolton, who is a lawyer and crime victim advocate.

When I was a little girl in the 1980s, I took at their word all those who told me that “girls can do anything.” For 33 years, I have worked to fulfill my half of the bargain. I became the first in my family to go to college. I shoveled horse manure through law school in exchange for rent. I interned through summers — I never went on spring break. My mom always told me to establish myself first before starting a family, something she didn’t have the chance to do. And so in January, when my daughter was born, I got to marvel at how a life that already felt so wonderfully full with my career could only continue to expand and grow.

If men were the primary caregivers during the first months of life in mainstream culture and needed six months or a year to jump start their little ones, it’d be happening.

 

When my daughter turned 11 weeks old, a mix of new emotions flooded in. At 12 weeks, I would go back to work and show her that girls can do anything — even though such young babies don’t sleep through the night yet and tend to struggle to nap in someone else’s arms. I’m supposed to be grateful that I have a job waiting for me, and that my husband and I could swing the reduced income while I was out. I’m supposed to be grateful that I didn’t have a c-section, and so I didn’t spend my 12 weeks simply recovering my ability to walk and sit and pee. I am grateful for those things for sure. My heart breaks for parents who are not so privileged or whose babies are not as healthy as mine.

But also, I am disappointed. Twelve weeks is not an amount of time that corresponds with a child’s developmental needs; it’s a political compromise. Current conversations about “scaling back” the proposed paid family leave program are not responsive to public health research or the daily realities facing working families, especially working moms. If men were the primary caregivers during the first months of life in mainstream culture and needed six months or a year to jump start their little ones, it’d be happening. Look at the tradition of the sabbatical in the legal profession or in academia — historically male-dominated professions that treat the occasional six months off as a professional necessity, not a vacation. When someone takes a sabbatical, no one says, “If you want to take a break to write a book (or clean your closets or take care of your sick parent or whatever) you might need to chose a different career.” But women like me must confront this question whenever we find ourselves wanting more time for our families.

I am more convinced now than ever that our family leave problem is a problem with our cultural values and our priorities as a country. As we pour money into health care and prisons but not paid family leave, we tell women like me that the girl power slogan I grew up with comes with a huge asterisk. Because we would rather run this country like an emergency room than recognize that women belong in every sector of our workforce, that being a human who responds to one’s biological instincts as a parent is not a weakness. I want my daughter to know that when we tell her girls can do anything, we mean it.

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