Equal and Different

Much has been written and there has been much discussion about a current case before the Supreme Court that is of great significance for working mothers.  The case concerns Peggy Young, a United Parcel Service driver who was put on an unpaid disability leave after her doctor told her to avoid lifting bundles that weighed more than 20 pounds.  Although her job was primarily delivering envelopes, this did not alter the company’s ruling at the time, although its policy now is to make reasonable accommodations.

Congress is now considering the Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act which would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers who become pregnant.  Reasonable accommodations would seem to be a reasonable approach to pregnancy rather than disability leaves.  It is puzzling that pregnancy would be considered a disability.  A great effort has been made over time to gain acceptance of the fact that pregnancy is not a disability but a normal condition for women as part of procreation.      

Dealing with a pregnancy concern through a disability law apparently is a consequence of laws written to deal with and avoid gender discrimination.  The problem lies in establishing equality between the sexes while acknowledging the differences that exist.  The modern women’s movement worked hard to achieve the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which ultimately did not succeed.  One criticism that has been leveled at this effort is that the focus on equality denied the need to address differences for women relating to childbearing and childrearing.   

This early focus on equality led to various attempts to demonstrate that differences in size or strength between men and women were not a valid basis for employment discrimination.  This has also been a factor in the deployment of women in the military.  It all brings to mind a lyric line from the Irving Berlin musical, “Annie Get Your Gun” – “anything you can do I can do better.”   

Other Western democracies focused early in the struggle for women’s rights on the need to address the reality that having children required policy adjustments. This included substantial maternity leaves as well as both child-care facilities and financial provisions for child-care.  These policies expanded to encompass families as well as mothers themselves.  In our country the child-care question still has not been well answered and the Family Leave Act does not adequately address the needs of families, not just women.

By and large the rules and regulations of our society have been shaped to meet the needs of business.  In a capitalist economy there is a conflict between the needs of business and the needs of mothers – beyond that, the needs of families.  Increasing numbers of men are discovering the constraints on advancement in work resulting from a greater involvement in child-care and family life – constraints that women have long experienced.

Of course, there are other more subtle constraints women often experience as working mothers.  These are the internal or emotional constraints that are the legacy of idealized motherhood but also perhaps of biology.  A strong argument has been made that there is no biological basis for making the care of children the woman’s role in society.  It is also clear that while children need good care it is not essential that it be the mother’s care.

Nonetheless, many working mothers struggle with feelings of guilt about not being the ones caring for their children and the fear that their children are being deprived in some way by not having a full time mother’s care.  It is perhaps one of the reasons children are so over-scheduled with various kinds of lessons and groups – the feeling that a mother’s absence has to be compensated for in some way.

Many mothers have expressed these conflicted feelings.  Recently, I spoke with the mother of a young child who raised such concerns about taking a job she was considering.  The focus was on what her working would mean to her child, rather than on what her own feelings of loss might be in spending less time with her child.  Such feelings of conflict are understandable and should not mean to someone that she is doing a bad thing.  Her child protesting her absence also would not mean she is doing a bad thing.

Even good laws cannot provide accommodations for such feelings.  What they can do is change social attitudes about mothers and children that may in time help to alleviate guilt.  In the meantime, it is left to us to recognize and accommodate to our feelings, separating what is real from what is idealized.