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Parenting Shouldn't Be This Hard: Why the U.S. Needs to Get Its Act Together

Photograph by Twenty20

Yes, if you only listen to people's words, then it's easy to get the impression that in the United States, family is of central significance, children are treasured, babies are gifts from god and the most important thing society can do is foster and support strong, loving, close-knit families, both nuclear and extended.

Yet there remains a tragic and, frankly, inexcusable gulf between the values politicians and the family values brigade espouse, and our actual actions. While the U.S. is among the world's leaders in lengthy rhetoric about the importance of family, its actual record tells a much different, much more depressing story.

In 2015, the United States somehow remains one of the only Western countries that does not legally mandate paid maternity leave. And, as you might imagine, if there's no legally mandated maternity leave, then there's no paternity leave either. The Family Medical Leave Act allows for 12 weeks of leave per year but that time is unpaid, and as new parents can attest, seldom is money of more significance—or in shorter supply—than when dealing with the tremendous costs associated with childbirth and parenthood.

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This hypocrisy was thrown into sharp relief recently when former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan demanded that, as one of his main conditions for considering the position, he not have to compromise the amount of time he spends on weekends with his family even if he was given the much more demanding and time-intensive job of Speaker of the House.

The desire to continue to devote serious quality time with your family is an admirable one, except that Ryan has consistently voted against attempts to legally mandate paid maternity leave. Ryan and his ilk think this is the sort of manner that is best left in the hands of companies and corporations. However the problem with that way of thinking is that in a ruthlessly competitive world like ours, companies are generally going to do as little as possible for their workers as they can get away with. Accordingly, a lot of companies seem to view childbirth less as a sacred celebration of life's wonder than as annoying distraction employees should get over as quickly and inconveniently as possible.

Regulations don't do much to make things easier for parents from there. Child care is often extraordinarily expensive, but that's not because child care workers make good livings. On the contrary, child care workers are among the biggest victims of a nation that says all the right things about valuing family, then does exceptionally little to put those words into practice.

Sleepless nights, raw nerves and depleted checking accounts are almost invariably going to be a part of new parenthood but there's a difference between something that's difficult and something that's impossible.

A headline on CBS News' website reads "Typical Child Care Worker Paid Less Than Dog Trainer" speaks to how profoundly we undervalue the people who take care of our children, and perhaps also how we over-value the people who take care of our dogs. According to the article, fifteen percent of child care workers live below the poverty level.

This cost cuts both ways. For families already living paycheck to paycheck, even a modestly paid child care worker can put a big strain on finances. Child care costs were a big part of the reason my growing family had to move from a condo in Chicago to my in-laws' basement in suburban Georgia and our nanny was amazing and paid infinitely less than she was worth.

I have always been told that parenthood is at once the most important, satisfying and difficult thing a person can do. Some of that difficulty is unavoidable. Sleepless nights, raw nerves and depleted checking accounts are almost invariably going to be a part of new parenthood but there's a difference between something that's difficult and something that's impossible.

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The older I get, the more I feel like parenthood doesn't need to be agonizingly difficult. It shouldn't have to be a brutal endurance test that takes everything out of you, even as it enriches your life immeasurably. I am naive and idealistic enough to dream of a world where the United States government puts its values into practice by making life easier and more manageable for new parents with comprehensive paid family leave laws, subsidized child care and new regulations designed to help parents, children and child care workers alike.

The responsibility for raising children belongs, ultimately, to the parent but that's no reason the government and society shouldn't do more to make that responsibility, that sacred, sacred responsibility, more manageable. It's not something we should do, it's something we need to do, for our children, but also for ourselves.

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