My friend’s mother is dying of frontotemporal dementia.
The final diagnosis came after a roughly four-year trial of misdiagnoses and inexplicable confusion. Dismissed by multiple therapists as an overeducated, unfulfilled housewife and mother, my friend’s mother was encouraged to return to work or explore new hobbies. After she was finally referred to a neurologist at Johns Hopkins who specializes in FTD, it took one brain scan to determine what was wrong.
At the age of 57, portions of her brain had already completely deteriorated. FTD is the most common form of dementia for people under 60 years old and may have genetic roots. While a diagnosis of FTD is clear-cut, the prognosis is less certain. My friend’s mother may live with the disease for years with slowly deteriorating health beyond the capabilities of an untrained caregiver.
Despite her potentially great need, this woman is not eligible for social services such as Social Security Disability or Medicare because of her lack of work history. She became ill before the age of 65, and her work as a stay-at-home mother of two children does not legally qualify her for public benefits tied to paid work.
Almighty Government to the Rescue?
Many employees who undergo a debilitating illness can receive care from employment benefits, but our nation’s mothers accrue very little, even after years of caregiving. Attempts to address such situations by expanding government programs or initiating new ones, however, may not necessarily solve such problems.
That doesn’t stop politicos from trying. Recently, presidential candidate and Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed “a tax credit that offsets 25% of the cost for employers that provide at least four weeks of paid family leave.” The credit would be capped at $4,000 per employee.
A bill introduced last week in Washington DC would allow any employee in the nation’s capital four months of paid leave for the birth of a child, adoption, care for a sick family member, or to recover from a serious health issue. The Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015, lauded by labor activists but decried by the DC Chamber of Commerce as injuring economic competition, certainly would allow for extended leave while forcing employers to absorb another diversion from their self-determined missions, but perhaps structures too many government mandates around individual mothers.
The State of the American Mother
This family’s experience is a telling one. The occupation of mothering has undergone a cultural demise in America. Although the number of stay-at-home mothers of young children has slowly increased since the late nineties, daycare, preschool, and outsourced childcare are on the rise as the task of mothering in the home has become less celebrated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, 42 percent of stay-at-home mothers were under age 35, had less education, and were more likely to live in poverty than their working peers. Pew Research found that most mothers not working would like to be if the opportunity arose.
Rather than viewing time home with young children as a unique and valuable time in life, many American mothers are opting to be home only until work outside of the home is viable. Staying at home with young children is often not their top choice or priority.
This is a shift in family culture. But did it precede or follow a cultural shift in how Americans view motherhood? And how do office politics, versus government policy, come into play?
When on a break from full-time employment, my friend decided to apply for life insurance. The most she could access was $100,000: “They told me the underwriter was unable to quantify my worth to my family because of my lack of employment,” my friend said.
A Private Consideration Becomes Political
Life insurance options for stay-at-home mothers may be limited for a variety of reasons. Perhaps a more quantifiable depiction of our culture’s low regard for mothering is how postpartum American women and newborns lack basic financial support.
Feminist activists decry the lack of government-mandated maternity leave policies, and for good reason: U.S. businesses trail most countries in offering paid maternity leave, and those early weeks can be truly foundational to a mother and child’s relationship.
But the cry for policy change seems superficial when it insists government must determine and dictate what is adequate for a new mother. Employers and employees deserve to make individual determinations that support a healthy balance between mothering and continued professional life. Can the needs of an infant and mother be quantified in a number of mandated weeks of leave? Or would hybrid options including paternal leave, telecommuting, shift-sharing, and more flexible options for new mothers be a more appropriate focus?
Another friend of mine had planned to continue her full-time work as a Department of Justice attorney after giving birth, but spent those early postpartum moments allowing her well-thought plans to crumble. An eclectic combination of paternity leave, flexible work scheduling between her and her spouse, and job-sharing allowed her to achieve what became the more fulfilling choice: to be home with her children the majority of the week. A generous maternity-leave policy could not have afforded the long-term, family-based work schedule she was able to negotiate with her employer.
My friend’s mother, the one with FTD, also held a law degree when she had her firstborn. She opted not to pursue a career in law at all. Her life of raising two children certainly holds no less value.
A Myriad of Intangible Benefits to Attentive Parents
In many cases, a family that depends on a mother’s salary faces a real financial crisis when children are born. We know the economic deterrents, but often lose sight of the less quantifiable incentives. Research suggests that a parent staying home during a child’s first year of life has long-term benefits to the child and thus society.
An involved and available parent has an incredible and incalculable potential effect on human life. This is most evident during the early months and years, when mother-child bonding and nurturing can determine breastfeeding habits and language development, when the brain grows and develops at an incredible rate and an incalculable collection of neural connections are made.
New research even suggests the benefits of a stay-at-home parent extend far beyond a child’s first year. Eric Bettinger, an associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, worked alongside Norwegian researchers to study academic data gathered on 68,000 school children, and found an increase in school performance especially between age 6 and 7 for children who had one parent stay home.
Home-schooled children, a population perhaps most directly impacted by a stay-at-home parent, are also academic high-achievers and qualitative studies have found home schoolers to hold healthier relationships with their peers and parents well beyond childhood.
Celebrate Mothers with More than Money
Mothering holds great importance, not just in the home, but for our entire society because it creates long-term benefits beyond what any institutionalized childcare setting can achieve.
As a culture and a country, we have devalued the importance of motherhood. In doing so we drastically belittle the value of our children and future generations who will carry our names, manage our care, and govern our country.
Sunday marked the end of the first World Frontotemporal Dementia Awareness Week. My friend’s mother may not live to experience the benefits of a culture that recognizes the invaluable years she spent dedicated to her husband and children. But we can do better.
Mothers are deeply valuable members of society who should be recognized, supported, celebrated, and encouraged, not dismissed with prescriptive monetary mandates. They deserve respect that translates into honoring their unique capability to cultivate life.
Mothers should not be treated with programs pandering for their votes. They deserve the trust and freedom to arrange individual work-family balances that meet the needs, primarily, of the children they will raise to be the future of our country, without trying to tip the scales in favor of a highly prescribed form of paid work at the expense of mothering on terms we set ourselves.