Melissa Harris-Perry On The Politics And Pitfalls Of Motherhood In America


Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the MSNBC show “Melissa Harris-Perry” and professor of political science at Tulane University, and her husband recently welcomed a new baby into their family and she is currently taking six weeks of maternity leave. But that doesn’t mean she’s taking it easy. In honor of Women’s History Month in March, she is organizing a “Nerdland Challenge” titled “The Mother of all Politics,” which will explore themes of gender, parenting, and public office with daily emails and assignments. In light of the challenge and her own experiences as a mother, ThinkProgress asked her about the struggles of being a mother in America and the policies needed to boost all working parents.

ThinkProgress: Have you experienced a difference between having your first daughter and your second? What will it mean to your family to have the ability to take six weeks of maternity leave for your new child?

Melissa Harris-Perry: The distinction that is meaningful is not about my personal experience. Both at 28 and at 40, I have been enormously lucky to work in well-paying jobs that offered ample parental leave and significant short-term job security. The meaningful difference is between my situation and that of so many other working mothers who don’t have adequate health care coverage, who do not have paid maternal leave, or who work in positions not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act and therefore have little job security. I am aware of how privileged and relatively rare my circumstances are in terms of combining family and career.

Having these weeks to be home with baby Anna James (AJ), to help Parker through the transition to being a big sister, to build a parenting partnership strategy with my husband, and to let the automatic responder on the email shoo away unwanted tasks is heavenly. I can’t imagine how our family could adjust to the substantial changes brought about our little girl without this interval. Some days I’ve sat perfectly still for hours just staring at her. I know I should nap when she naps, but I’m so thrilled to have the ability to just be with her.

My enjoyment of the leave raises the ongoing question of why my circumstances are so rare and why we have such an inadequate system of parental support in this country. Throughout the pregnancy, I spent a lot of time on the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” discussion boards. Even though I wasn’t carrying AJ, I wanted to stay closely connected to the stages of pregnancy. My favorite discussions emerged in the third trimester when the mommies-to-be began to discuss their plans for maternity leave. The Canadian and British women were aghast at the American realities. They were shocked to learn how swiftly their American counterparts would be seeking childcare and returning to full-time employment just to make ends meet. We can make public policies that ease the burden on women, children, and families. We just need the political will to do it.

TP: What challenges will you face when you have to go back to work? Are these similar to the challenges you see facing most working mothers (and fathers)?

MHP: The greatest challenge I will face when I return to hosting Melissa Harris-Perry at the end of March is my commute. My family and I live in New Orleans. Parker is in 6th grade, James directs a non-profit in the city, and I am on the faculty of Tulane University. But on Fridays I fly to New York, join the Nerdland team, and host the MHP Show live from New York City on Saturdays and Sundays. For the past two years, James and Parker have joined me each weekend. I fly up early Friday mornings and they make the commute on Friday evenings after work and school. Being together as a family is what makes the seven day work week sustainable for me. Other families have Sunday night dinners; we have a Sunday night flight home when we catch up, play games, and enjoy each other’s company.

This pattern is going to change now. I hate the idea of leaving AJ for two and a half days each week, but I also don’t think it’s wise for her to commute by plane weekly while she’s still so young. For now I’ll be heading to NYC alone, leaving Daddy and the girls in NOLA. Anticipating this separation is heart wrenching.

And while my commute may be longer than most working moms, I think that many of the emotional challenges are the same. For all of us who love our families and love our jobs, there are many tough daily choices. There are only three of us on the Nerdland team with kids: my executive producer, my director, and me. TV production is not very friendly to family life. The hours are long, the expectations are high, and the pace is relentless, but at least our compensation is fair. Our work provides so much financially for our families.

The greater challenges are faced by parents who work long hours for minimal wages, no health insurance, no retirement benefits, and little opportunity for advancement. Yet they must work. For those parents there are almost unimaginable choices, especially when affordable, quality childcare is so rare. My husband is a fantastic parenting partner and we live in a town with extended family on both sides. Many working parents are unable to assemble a meaningful and reliable parenting team. We do very little as a matter of public policy to fill those gaps.

TP: What do you think are the biggest challenges to organizing for better workplace policies for working mothers?

MHP: At the moment it is extremely difficult to successfully organize for labor concerns of any kind. The wholesale attack on and steady erosion of existing labor rights, combined with the persistence of a slack labor market and depressed wages, means that workers have spent much of the last decade in a defensive crouch, just trying to preserve what was won in the 1930s and 40s. Then add a vigorous and successful new campaign against reproductive rights and access in the last five years and it makes sense that organizing around parental rights in the workplace is almost wholly nonexistent.

I suspect the greatest opportunities for meaningfully addressing parental, and especially maternal, workplace challenges will rest in the low-wage workers campaigns and the ongoing efforts to extend labor rights to domestic workers. Women with young children are concentrated in low-wage sectors of the economy. There are a few policies that could make massive improvements in the lives of these women: (1) universal health care that is not attached to employment; (2) universal paid maternity leave for 12 weeks and universal paid paternity leave for six weeks; (3) universal Pre-K for four-year-olds; (4) raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour; (5) substantial infrastructure investment that connects poor communities with job-rich environments via safe, inexpensive public transportation; (6) legal requirements for wages and working conditions for domestic workers who provide childcare and home care service; (7) the restoration and extension of SNAP benefits; (8) access to affordable birth control, family planning counseling, comprehensive sexual education, and abortion; (9) marriage equality so that same-sex couples can enjoy existing parenting rights obtained in marriage; and (10) aggressive tax incentives for businesses that institute a variety of parent-friendly policies.

Too often when we have the “working moms” conversation it becomes about mid-level workers in large companies who need flex time and on-site childcare. Those are meaningful workplace policies that greatly facilitate the working lives of thousands of women, but they are also aimed at a rather narrow segment of working moms. The policy agenda I suggested here is not always discussed in terms of moms and their labor force participation, but the effects of implementation would be staggering for reducing poverty and improving quality of life for many working parents.

TP: Women have used motherhood in politics for some time, from temperance to today’s women who run for office. How can it be a source of power? How has it been a hindrance to power?

MHP: This is really a question about patriarchy, sexism, and the surprising capacity of marginal groups at times to subvert discourses of power. In other words, we live in a nation that has long valued women primarily for their reproductive capacities and has unfairly perceived motherhood as the most meaningful task in women’s lives. Much of the work of feminism has been to challenge these assumptions and unravel the dominant discourse that equates a woman’s value to her status as mother and judges her value exclusively on the quality of her parenting. But even while feminist organizing has sought to disrupt these motherhood assumptions, women activists have sometimes made use of them to promote policies that create more egalitarian opportunities for women as citizens and as laborers.

Many women’s suffrage activists argued that women needed the franchise because as mothers they would introduce gentler, kinder, and more ethical standards of public life. Many women who run for office do so initially because of the challenges they experience as mothers. Think here of the mom, unhappy with her son’s education, who runs for the school board. Or recall Governor Sarah Palin’s address to the RNC in 2008. She said that parents of special needs children would always have a friend in the White House if she were elected. Palin didn’t have a policy track record on issues of special needs children, but as the mother of a son with Down’s syndrome, she had a certain personal credibility in making that statement. And, of course, there are women who point to the devastating experience of losing a child as the beginning of their activism. Think here of MADD or Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Because our society elevates the role of Mother, women are able to strategically employ their identity as mothers to gain a level of credibility in the public sphere that they might not otherwise have.

Of course, this strategy is terribly circumscribed. Although motherhood is often understood as sacred and uniquely valuable, it is also generally construed as private, meek, and soft. Motherhood can both offer and undermine women’s credibility as tough public figures. And of course, it remains true that women still bear the lion’s share of child rearing duties, even when they are married and working for pay outside the home. This reality means that mothers of young children are less likely to consider running for office and are more likely to face real constraints on time and capacity when trying to create a public life in conjunction with their family life. It is not an impossible task by any means, but it is enough of a barrier that the tasks of motherhood undoubtedly meaningfully diminish the pool of available women for public office and public life.

TP: Are there notable examples of men using fatherhood in their politics?

MHP: President Obama has been a particularly vocal father during his years in the White House. He tells us when his daughters prick his moral conscience, like during the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf. He reported how helpless and angry he felt when he faced the angst of his daughter wanting to know if the hole was yet repaired. He placed his girls at the center of his narrative about his evolution on marriage equality, suggesting that their support for marriage equality influenced his own position. To my chagrin, he has sometimes led in governing with his parental role at the forefront, as when he initially rejected the availability of Plan B over the counter because he wouldn’t want his own daughters to have access to it.

In addition to his ever-present and politically meaningful identity as the father of Malia and Sasha, President Obama has also discussed the importance of his self-understanding as a kind of imagined, or surrogate, father to African-American sons. He discussed the slain Florida teen, Trayvon Martin, as a boy who looks like his own son would have looked. And in February he announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. It is framed in the language of brother, but the emphasis is quite paternal.

I see President Obama as uniquely forthright in how central fatherhood and his identity as a father are to his role as president. Although all our presidents have been fathers, I’m not sure we have had another president in the modern era for whom this identity is so obviously central.

TP: How do race, class, sexual orientation, and other identities change the way we see different mothers and what we expect of them?

MHP: Our societal norms still push the notion that able-bodied, beautiful, white women in their 20s, who are married to wealthy white men, who choose not to work outside the home while their children are young, who bear their own biological children without assisted reproductive technology, and who lose all their pregnancy pounds within weeks of giving birth are the ideal imagination of motherhood. We reproduce this fantasy of perfected motherhood in many ways throughout our culture and this version of “mother” is powerfully etched in the mindset of too many policy makers.

Deviations from this ideal are empirically the norm. In other words, there are far more moms who do not fit this profile than those who do. Women are having children later in life. They’re becoming moms without marriage. Women of color have higher birth rates than white women. Same-sex couples have more opportunities to become parents. More American families than ever before are employing reproductive technology to bear children.

But the social, cultural, and policy preferences for the idealized middle-class, white, heterosexual mom generates real consequences. Many conservative policy makers lay claim to the truism that young children thrive when their mothers are full-time parents, then support policies that force poor, unmarried mothers to work outside the home rather than devote their full attention to child reading. It’s a contradiction that suggests poor women should be punished for becoming mothers rather than having the opportunities that more economically secure mothers enjoy. Disparaging language about “anchor babies” or state laws that bar adoption by same-sex couples are emblematic of the painful contradictions between our discursive celebration of motherhood and our anti-mom policy environment.