WHILE the excitement over Nancy Pelosi, most likely to be our first female speaker of the House, is still fresh, and while those of us who care about these things are still bubbling over the election of the highest number of women to Congress in history, I’d like to issue a challenge: Ladies, step up to the plate on behalf of the rest of America’s women — and their families.
This shouldn’t be a radical idea. Ms. Pelosi has, after all, spent months now reminding us that she is not merely a capable leader, not just a whiz-bang political fund-raiser, but, first and foremost, “a mother and a grandmother.”
That’s lovely for her; but if Ms. Pelosi’s experience of motherhood is to have any meaning for the rest of us, or any relevance to her life as a politician, we’ve got to see some follow-through. Because if, as Ms. Pelosi has repeatedly said, she’ll be taking up the speaker’s gavel “on behalf of America’s children,” there’s a lot of work to do. For children can’t thrive if their families are stressed and, at every point on the socioeconomic spectrum now, it seems that American families are cracking at the seams.
The Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law released a study last month noting that “workplace inflexibility, the lack of family supports and workplace bias” are forcing American mothers out of the work force — whether they can really afford to “opt out” or not.
This comes on the heels of news articles showing how working-class moms are putting their youngsters in all-night child care, and how couples are increasingly enduring split-shift work schedules — putting their health and marriages at risk — to avoid the costs and anxieties of day care. All this paints a picture of family life in America that is very grim for all but the very privileged.
A picture of family life in America that is very grim for all but the very privileged. Finally, someone in the mainstream media has the nerve to say what many of us have been lamenting for years: we have lost sight of, and hope for, the notion that a normal, not-rich, American middle-class family can actually have time together, can actually enjoy their lives--and enjoy each other--on a daily basis as opposed to working nonstop all week, every week, and squeezing in bits and pieces of togetherness at holidays for the sake of the photo album. And we've abandoned the notion that getting sick or injured doesn't have to mean going bankrupt, along with the notion that being paid enough to support a family without both parents having to work 60-hour weeks is something realistic and healthy.
Worst of all, we've set aside the notion that there is something more to life than the Almighty Dollar, and we've had to do this. Not because we have coldly chosen the Almighty Dollar over the pleading eyes of kids who want an impromptu soccer game with Dad or a bedtime story from Mama, but rather, because the cost of living (rent or mortgage, food, health insurance, car payments, and clothing spring immediately to mind) in most metropolitan areas is so high, it simply isn't possible to support even a small family--hell, an individual, in many cases--on a single income any more. Forget six-week vacations every summer, something the middle-class French family takes for granted. American families consider themselves lucky if the repo man isn't darkening the door.
For years now, there have been murmurings — and more — from various corners of Congress in favor of change. Representative Lynn Woolsey’s Balancing Act bill, which calls for a wide array of measures to reduce the stresses on working families, has been languishing for years. Senators Christopher Dodd and Ted Kennedy have gestured toward legislation on paid family leave and guaranteed sick leave. There was even a much-overlooked bill introduced in the Senate by Hillary Clinton this summer (and in the House by Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut) to provide low-income parents with subsidies to stay at home and care for their infants themselves.
It’s time to light a fire under these kinds of initiatives. Ms. Pelosi’s current promises — to raise the minimum wage, cut the interest rates on student loans and make some college tuition tax deductible — are a laudable start, but American families, whose needs have been increasingly neglected since the early 1980s, need so much more: quality after-school programs; national standards for child care; voucher programs and tax subsidies to help pay for that care; universal, voluntary public preschool; paid family leave; and incentives for businesses to make part-time and flex-time work financially viable.
In short, we need to make the kind of glorious life that’s enjoyed by upper-middle-class mothers and grandmothers like Ms. Pelosi and her colleagues possible for everyone else.
This isn’t a radical leftist agenda. In fact, there’s no better antidote to the selfish individualism and empty materialism that Americans of all political stripes say is corrupting our country than policies that allow families to spend more, and better, time together.
In recent years, pro-family Democrats were out in the legislative wilderness. Now, there’s simply no excuse for inaction. It’s time to shoot for the moon. Risk a presidential veto. And let the proponents of “family values” show their true colors.
Speaker Pelosi, speak for us. Guide the next two years' legislation A La Famiglia.