Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Some people are questioning presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s claim that she was basically fired from a teaching job in the early 1970s because she was pregnant. It’s hard to imagine that many of them understand what it’s like to be a working mother – then or now.
Media outlets have dug up a 2007 interview in which Sen. Warren recalled that teaching job, saying she remembered thinking “I don’t think this is going to work out for me. I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple years,” to suggest she left her job of her own volition. That’s insane.
Whether she was fired or left because she saw the writing on the wall that her job would be incompatible with motherhood – and who can blame her for not remembering the precise details of something that happened nearly five decades ago – the point is that our society makes it extraordinarily tough to be a working mom, especially a new mom. It’s bad now, but it was even worse when Warren had her children. She deserves credit for overcoming obstacles that her male opponents simply didn’t face. And our next president, whoever that is, needs to be someone who understands these barriers.
I know because I’m a new mom. I have three graduate degrees and have been awarded tenure in my university teaching job. This means that I have much more flexibility than most working moms. Outside of classes, I can name my own office hours and manage to take my baby to the pediatrician during the workday. But, since becoming a mom last year, I’ve still found it incredibly tough to continue to work.
A big part of the challenge is that the cost of full-time, quality childcare rivals my own take-home pay – and, as a university professor, my salary vastly exceeds the income of the average American and the salary of schoolteachers in positions like the one Warren held. Many women paying taxes on their own income and then paying a child care provider on the books might actually lose money by going to work – and that’s before taking account of other costs associated with jobs, like commuting and professional clothes. According to Child Care Aware of America, the average cost of child care is over $20,000 per year in most parts of the country. Yet the median income is only $56,000 per year – before taxes.
I can only imagine how difficult Warren’s position would have been in the early 1970s. Until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act became law in 1978, it was perfectly legal for employers to fire or otherwise discriminate against pregnant women. Until the 1970s, for example, most airlines prohibited flight attendants from being pregnant. Back then, employers would have probably been even less understanding of a mom who needed to, say, pause to pump out breast milk in the middle of the day or call out of work when her child care provider was sick or her child’s day care center closed for an in-service day.
Even today, many employers seem utterly clueless about these challenges. While my own university has an on-site child care center, many Silicon Valley companies, for example – while offering their workers perks like free beer and fitness centers – don’t provide child care. “Sure, you can bring your dog to work, but you are (mostly) on your own with your baby,” Bloomberg Technology anchor Emily Chang wrote in her book “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley.”
And, unlike many women, I received nine weeks of paid leave after giving birth. Just 14% of Americans have access to paid family leave, while 68% have access to paid sick leave (which by law they have a right to use for childbirth), according to the Urban Institute. This includes everyone who works for the federal government, the country’s largest employer. I know of women in the federal government (where I used to work) who for years went to work even when they were sick so they could hoard their sick leave in anticipation of using it when they had children. Sometimes this left them short of sick leave to use when their babies were later sick.
Being a working mom is replete with other challenges that don’t seem to even dawn on many of my colleagues – including my male counterparts. While my husband will attend the national conference for his professional association this year, I couldn’t attend mine because I’m breastfeeding. I could have brought my daughter with me to the conference, but I wouldn’t have had anyone to care for her for the hour in which I would have presented my work. And I don’t know of any employers who pick up the airfare and hotel tabs when breastfeeding moms need to bring their babies and child care providers with them on business trips.
Women may be uncomfortable discussing these challenges or fear being perceived as difficult by current or prospective employers, which can prevent them from even speaking up about them. Indeed, Warren’s campaign has explained the perceived discrepancy in how she has spoken about her first teaching job by saying she has decided to “open up” more now that she is a public figure. That makes perfect sense to me.
It’s maddening to see Warren facing such skepticism about her own experiences as a working mom, but I can only applaud and be thankful that because of her, more and more working parents are speaking out on social media to share their own stories of pregnancy discrimination. Because no matter where you work or what your resources are, the impact of pregnancy discrimination on American women and their families is real, it is harrowing, and it is wrong.
We need a president who understands these challenges and will fight to help working moms, with policies to ensure that all parents get leave when their kids are born and access to quality, affordable child care. It’s ridiculously difficult to manage a career and a family in America. The women who manage to do it should be celebrated – not attacked.