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Towards a real nanny state


There are two big differences between last Mother’s Day and this one, one political, the other personal. The political difference is that not only does this Mother’s Day take place during an election year, it hits just a few weeks after motherhood, the value of mother’s and women’s work more broadly were at the center of the news cycle.

Apparently hoping to revive this theme, Ann Romney wrote an op-ed in USA Today called, “Three Seasons of Motherhood” a bit of Cult of Domesticity nostalgia that extolls the “Crown of Glory” that all mothers wear.

The personal difference for me, of course, is the birth of my daughter. Today I’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day with my own mom and the mother of my child.

So much about the birth of one’s first child is vivid and indelible, almost as if it happened in another country you briefly visited and might some day go back to. But there was one specific moment that’s stuck with me, that I think about a lot in the context of our national political conversation about mothers and children and social opportunity and hard work.

It’s the terrifying surreal moment when you leave the hospital, crossing the threshold into the fresh air, bearing this tiny creature toward a waiting car, and you think: this is it.



There’s no one there to say goodbye, or, do you need a ride or help. I was doing this with someone I love and have known for 15 years. We had a car and jobs and money in the bank account and I was heading home to an apartment where my mother-in-law would be waiting for us to offer her help and guidance and expertise. And it was still absolutely terrifying. The message at that moment from the hospital, from the society was: you are on your own and I felt overwhelmingly grateful for all the privilege and resources I had access to that were there to support us as we tried to keep this impossible little creature alive and thriving.

I think it’s a common feeling. Ann Romney, in her op-ed about the glory of motherhood wrote that she’d never even held a baby until she had her own and “So you can imagine, the day my first boy was born I felt woefully unprepared.” Like me, Ann Romney had someone there to help, her mother who stayed with her for two weeks, and when she left, Romney says “I cried like I was the baby.”

Ann Romney was one of the lucky mothers.

I keep imagining what that moment of crossing out through the sliding doors of Mt Sinai would be like if you were, say, 24 years old, and single with no family nearby to help and a job that paid just enough to make ends meet but didn’t give any paid family leave. What do we say to those mothers, and what do we, as a society say to those children? Mostly, nothing. “Good luck.” “Work hard.” "This is what equal opportunity looks like."

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Britain a health visitor, a certified nurse, checks in with you about ten days after your baby is born.  They and the National Health Service provide contact information for midwives, child health clinics, and support groups. If you’re a single parent, an agency will even help facilitate child care arrangements.  In France, mothers have the option to go on paid job leave, months before the baby is due. Nurses regularly visit the homes of newborns, and it costs the parents nothing.

In Estonia, women get four-and-a-half months paid maternal leave guaranteed. Paid maternal leave is the norm across every industrialized nation, while here at home we have the Family Medical Leave Act, passed with a great bit of fanfare and over significant opposition that grants eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, protected job leave. Just 12 work weeks of leave in a 12-month period for both the birth and care of a newborn.

A recent survey found that 40 percent of working mothers took six weeks or fewer of maternity leave. Twelve percent took two weeks or less.

Given that, it’s not surprising that in its annual State of the World’s Mothers report released this week. The NGO Save the Children, found that the US ranked 25th, behind Hungary, Lithuania and Belarus. That’s partly because we rank 41st in mortality rates for children under five and have a worse rate of pregnancy- related death than any other industrialized nation.

We also have scarce access to daycare and pre-K. We come dead last among industrialized countries—behind Malta! -- in our policy to facilitate breastfeeding.

For all these reasons the US markedly underperforms on the rankings given its very high GDP, while places like Brazil and the Czech Republic over-perform.

You’ll notice that the nations at the top of the Save the Children list are social democracies like Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. Even as European social democracy is dismantled by neo-liberalism and the pressure of austerity there remains a broad durable political consensus that mothers should not be on their own, that a right to maternal leave is a basic part of citizenship and that the state owes each of its new citizens nurture and support.

This ethos was famously derided by England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the “nanny state.” It was an insult she used as a rallying cry as she led the Tories in their dismantling of much of the social democratic features of England in the 1980s.

Conservatives in the US still throw around the term of opprobrium today and it’s meant to invoke a government that acts like a meddlesome governess: telling us what we can and can’t do, infantilizing us, denying us our freedom and agency and full subjectivity.

But the nanny state is a fitting name for a state that gives mothers the support that a nanny can: relief, another set of hands, a set of watchful, trusted eyes. It means a society in which even those without Ann Romney’s privilege, without the good fortune of a big bank account or a large, intact support network, don’t have to mother alone. 

As one of the many millions of parents negotiating the difficult, fraught world of balancing work and parenthood, that kind of nanny state sounds mighty appealing.