Column

The U.S. Should Be Paying Parents to Stay Home

Not just during the pandemic, but forever

Photo: Mariana Alija/Getty Images

One of the great ironies of being a mother in the United States is that while you’re told you have the “most important job in the world,” you are given zero money, little support, and none of the protections or respect that one would expect to accompany a role society says is indispensable. Mothers are supposedly invaluable, but our payment only comes in platitudes.

As we stretch into the ninth month of the pandemic, things are still looking grim: Over 1,000 people are dying of Covid every day, unemployment is at record rates, and women are leaving the workforce in numbers so high it could undo decades of economic progress. And while a vaccine appears on its way, it’ll be months before its availability and impact will change Americans’ everyday lives. Given this new reality, it’s absurd that this country hasn’t started to pay people to stay home. Parents, especially — who don’t know whether their children will be in school from one week to the next and who are navigating the full-time work of caring for children during a national crisis — need to be paid.

This is not a radical idea. Other countries are finding ways to compensate parents, whether it’s the full pay given to those in France who can’t find care for their quarantined children, or the year of paid time off that Denmark is offering to parents whose children get ill. Japan has paid family leave for parents with children whose daycare has been closed, while Ireland is paying for three months of childcare fees.

Mothers are supposedly invaluable, but our payment only comes in platitudes.

Governments across the world are finding a way to offset the financial damage so many families are facing, and it’s a scandal that the U.S. isn’t doing the same. Ideally, parents wouldn’t just be compensated during the pandemic, but forever. I realize that’s a tall order, though — so for the time being, I’d settle for a commonsense policy that recognizes that parents need help right now.

That this country’s leadership would disregard the needs of parents is not surprising, of course — nor is it specific to the Trump administration. The U.S. has consistently lagged behind the rest of the world when it comes to mandatory paid parental leave (we’re the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have it), we don’t have quality subsidized or affordable childcare, and despite feminist progress made in politics, women continue to do the vast majority of domestic and childcare work — a disparity that has only grown since the pandemic started.

In September, for example, the number of women who left work was more than four times the number of men. (I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that September also marks the start of school — with more than half of the nation’s children doing remote learning from home.) One study showed that mothers still in the labor force reduced their working hours up to five times more than men, and another found that moms were spending 15 more hours per week on education and household tasks than fathers.

This kind of economic and cultural setback won’t be easily fixed, but giving parents full pay while their children are learning from home — or are unable to go to summer camps should the pandemic stretch past spring — is the best way to stop that bleeding. Paying parents would also help American children, who are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis, and would be better served by parents who aren’t depressed or worried about how they’re going to pay the next month’s rent.

Even without the destructive impact of Covid, parents should be paid for their work at home — not just because of the wages they’re losing by choosing to care for their children, but because parenting is labor. That’s why we compensate childcare workers (though not nearly as well as we should)!

If we truly believe that raising children is important, treating parents with the care and pay they deserve shouldn’t be controversial. Unless, of course, we don’t really value parenthood in the U.S., and the praise we heap on mothers isn’t genuine admiration — but an easy way to mollify women into working for free.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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