Is America Finally Giving New Moms a Break?

There's been a noticeable change in society's treatment of new moms in the run-up to the 2016 election. It's good news for women and parents, but is it enough?

Is America Finally Giving New Moms a Break? Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

We've come a long way since the 1950s when women were expected to forego careers in order to stay at home and take care of the family. But we still have a long way to go. It's disheartening, to say the least, that the United States remains the only industrialized nation without laws granting paid maternity leave. And although we've been talking about "having it all" for the past few years, it's unclear when all that talk is going to turn into action.

There is some indication that change is afoot, however, with the announcement of Vodafone's new maternity leave policy, which sets a global minimum of at least 16 weeks of paid leave, in addition to instituting a 30-hour workweek for new mothers during the first six months of their return to the office. And that's all with full-time salary. In a country where almost half of the women receive no paid, or even unpaid, leave due to part-time or contracted status, this is huge ... at least for some of us.

"In professional workplaces where there's a desire to retain talented workers, those companies will go out of their way to accommodate working families. But in other environments where people work on an hourly basis or have very little control over their schedules or access to private benefits, there's not much incentive for employers to provide those benefits," says Kathleen Gerson, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at New York University and author of The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family. "We've been slow to create social policies like paid parental leave and universal high quality daycare."

This, of course, forces a difficult choice on many employed parents in America: continue to work and try to find reliable, reasonably priced childcare, or leave a job to stay at home with a child? "Women need to work, both for economic as well as social and psychological reasons," says Gerson. "The good news is that we've finally woken up to that reality. The bad news is that we still tend to expect individual women and families to come up with solutions on their own."

Thankfully, we're starting to see a move towards more accommodating environments at work and in life, from pumping in the office to breastfeeding in public. Just last week, The New Republic senior editor Rebecca Traister made an appearance on MSNBC's "All In with Chris Hayes" with her infant daughter, Bella, strapped to her chest during the live television interview. It was a breath of fresh air for such a visible figure to nonchalantly obliterate the formal personal-professional barrier that exists for so many U.S. workers, especially moms. However, it's important to note that Traister was in fact on maternity leave when she did the interview.

Meanwhile, Ikea UK has begun inviting breastfeeding women to test out their in-store display seating. Given that so many women have recently been admonished for nursing in public places, it's encouraging to see a major retailer welcome new mothers with an open mind. "People are starting to understand, from a human development perspective, that babies need to be near their parents," says parenting coach Carrie Contey, Ph.D.

While more corporations and organizations are accommodating families in a variety of ways, the overarching issue will likely get even more attention at the next presidential election, according to Gerson. "We have a long way to go and the political responses to social changes are never as easy to predict," she says.

Still, small steps in the right direction for modern moms are continuously cropping up in our newsfeeds. And that's definitely good news for all of us.