Real Woman (and Men) Might Just Get Paid Family Leave. Finally.

It's time we shrug off the "Superwoman Syndrome" that forces working mothers to figure everything out on their own

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 19, 2013.

When you think of today’s “Superwomen” struggling with problems of “work-life balance,” you tend to think of high-achieving professionals; smartphones surreptitiously tapped during school assemblies, white spit-up on the shoulders of black pantsuits. You think of “choices” and “priorities,” “opting-out” and “Leaning In.”

You don’t think of women who fear they’ll be fired if they take a few hours off work to drive a sick child to the doctor, or of new mothers in low-paying jobs who know that if they take a pause – unpaid, of course – to care for their newborns, they won’t find their way back into work again. This second (much larger) group of American mothers might seem to be a world apart from their more fortunate professional sisters, but they have some striking characteristics in common.

Both love their children deeply, of course, and want to be the very best mothers that they can be. Both live lives that feel just impossible. And both, when faced with a sense of being alone with large and unfixable challenges, tend to resort to magical thinking: unrealistic beliefs about the extent of their own abilities to “work things out” for their families.

That, at least, seems to be a key finding of the work of Maureen Perry-Jenkins, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who has spent a decade following the lives of hundreds of working-class and poor mothers in western New England. These are the kinds of women faced daily with the need to do the impossible—to travel through space to be in two places at one time, when overtime is suddenly required, and child care is falling through; to magically cure a child’s strep throat when time off to see a doctor is denied; to spin a minimum wage paycheck into gold. And yet, when Perry-Jenkins asked these women what could be done to help make their lives better and easier, they couldn’t come up with anything their employers or government could do. Instead, their thoughts immediately ran to all the ways that they could make themselves better. “Their first response was to suggest things that they could do to make things better, like sleep less or be more organized,” she said in an interview.

In other words, in the face of problems that seemed to have no solution, the low-income moms instinctively put their faith in their own powers of self-improvement. Very much like their forever self-perfecting upper middle class peers.

The much-decried “Superwoman Syndrome,” which the journalist Ellen Goodman long ago described as women’s unfortunate tendency “to look inside themselves for all the answers and all the energy,” should have died an ignominious death decades ago. Instead, it has lived on to become a much larger form of social pathology: our collective insistence that work-family issues are private concerns that individuals can, and must, work out on their own.

This way of thinking has, very conveniently, let employers off the hook—freeing them from the need to devise policies that allow parents at all income levels to thrive. It has let politicians off the hook—allowing them to transfer the entire burden of care (not just for the young, but for the sick and the elderly) onto the backs of struggling families. It has let most men off the hook from having to share the full emotional and physical weight of a dual working and parenting life. And, in a certain sense, it has let women off the hook as well, allowing them to stay faithful to self-limiting old patterns of thinking, instead of taking the risk of imagining, demanding – and creating – something new.

There’s an opportunity this week for change. Yesterday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), the most comprehensive piece of family-friendly federal legislation in a generation. The bill would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave each year for the birth or adoption of a new child, the serious illness of an immediate family member, or a worker’s own medical condition. Workers would be eligible to collect benefits equal to 66 percent of their typical monthly wages, with a capped monthly maximum of $1,000 per week. Employees and employers would each make contributions of just 0.2 percent of wages — or two cents for every $10 earned —to an insurance fund modeled on, and administered by, the Social Security system. The payments would add up to just $2 per week from an average worker’s paycheck, maxing out at just $227.40 per year for the highest earners.

The benefits are pretty meager stuff compared with the sorts of income and work supports provided for parents in other industrialized nations. But they could make a massive difference in the lives of low and middle income women who now face impossible “lifestyle choices” when they have children. These women can’t just get beyond the “Superwoman Syndrome” through an attitude adjustment. They can’t “work out” taking care of their families on their own. They need us all to step up and face reality.

And then, at long last, we can, perhaps, begin to give Superwoman a rest.