In the late 1940s, my grandmother found herself a single mother of three, living far from family in Washington, DC, where she had moved to be a Government Girl during the war. A graduate of Smith College, and the child of Irish immigrants, she worked as many jobs as she could, and I often heard stories about her nights spent cleaning spittoons in dentists’ offices, or making dollhouse furniture on a lathe. At some point, unable to manage so much on so little, she sent her children to boarding schools run by the Catholic Church. My mother was five; the only story she shares about those years is about her joy when she was finally old enough to go home again, and to let herself in to the apartment after school. Eventually, my grandmother completed a master’s degree in science, and worked as a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She was always my hero.
As a female scientist who once listed in Who’s Who in American Men in Science, my grandmother was in the vanguard that created a world of increased educational and employment opportunities for women. She would have been thrilled to know that I participated in The White House Summit on Working Families, and to see the cultural and social changes that propelled an African American son of a single mother to the presidency.
Were she alive today, her pride would have been tempered by disappointment in what working families—especially single mothers—continue to endure. The piecemeal fashion in which so many of them live, but where so few thrive, would be all-too-familiar to her.
How would I explain that we are still a country where women earn less than men, where low-wage workers do not earn paid leave (and, most important, do not earn sick leave or enjoy paid maternity leave), and where two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers are women? She would despair to know that the United States is still the only OECD country without mandatory paid family leave; that the nation’s health outcomes are still poor when compared to the rest of the world; that workplace demands too often usurp family responsibilities; and that aging women face continued economic setbacks to their retirement security.
Listening to our nation’s most important elected officials (and their influential spouses!), I was struck by how often the political became the personal. Dr. Jill Biden spoke of challenges her family had faced in caring for aged parents, and urged employers to “adapt policies that know that life is not simple.” Vice President Joe Biden spoke from the heart of his experience as a widower with young sons at home after the death of his first wife and their daughter. He noted the struggle he faced in the five years he lived as a single father—despite the benefits of a good salary, a supportive extended family, and the goodwill of an entire state. “I still had to find a way to be there for my boys,” he said. He riffed on the notion of “quality time”, saying, “Quality time? Give me a break. Quality occurs in moments you don’t anticipate, with things that matter….You miss it, and it’s gone.”
He noted the solitude and the loneliness of those years, and his awareness of his good fortune. His words echoed those of Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden, who has described winning the “boss lottery”—the good fortune some people enjoy when a supervisor understands that you have to miss a meeting to make it to a preschool graduation or Hallowe’en parade.
Luck is not much of a basis for public policy, or for building a future by honoring, supporting, and rewarding its workforce and their families. Instead, the Administration seems to be working to galvanize advocates whose voices and leadership can build the momentum to change what working families face. As Michele Obama noted at the end of the day, the Summit was just a day—the movement will take years. She urged participants not to be disheartened by slow progress, or defeats along the way, and to recognize that social change is hard won, and hard to do.
From my own perspective, the movement must really expand its focus to recognize the realities so many of us face as our parents age—and as we age, too. While policies that protect the rights of pregnant women and new parents are essential, so too are policies that enable people to provide or afford care for sick and aging parents, or for adults who face health problems and challenges. In addition to relying on the “boss lottery”, family caregivers today face a “care lottery,” where it is simply the luck of draw in finding good care, ensuring the safety of elders, and paying for that care.
Throughout the day, I enjoyed countless conversations and interactions with other participants, running into people in hallways and restrooms, and trading ideas about how we might make our nation a stronger one. I chatted with Diann Woodard, president of the American Federation of School Administrators and her colleagues, about the critical need for investment in early pre-K, and the lifelong influence teachers have on their students. I met Philip Acord, President and CEO of the Children’s Home/Chambliss Center in Chattanooga, which was featured in Paycheck to Paycheck. He shared insights about his program, and his efforts to help other communities develop quality, round-the-clock daycare for low-income workers. Tina Spears, public policy manager for the Rhode Island Parent Information Network, described her own experiences in caring for a sick child, and her state’s commitment to supporting family caregivers.
As a Washingtonian, I confess to a sort-of fan girl moment when I had a chance to talk to Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Representative Rosa DeLauro. One would be hard-pressed not to admire others whose lives of public service have been such models of change.
I was struck by Maria Shriver’s comments on her goals as a mother, hoping to raise happy adults and good citizens. For that, she said, she has worked to instill in her children not only compassion for others, but a conscience about their place in the world, and the opportunities to improve it.
Throughout the day, parents—including one of the most powerful fathers on the planet—shared stories of their love for their children, the richness of their experience, their dedication to their families. But they also shared memories of just how hard it can be. Michele Obama reflected on that sense all working mothers have: Can the child with a slight fever make it to school that day?
The key in the months to come will be to transform the power of story and narrative to the realities of policy. It will not be simple. In fact, Tuesday’s Washington Post story by Zachary A. Goldfarb ran with the headline: No bold moves from Obama on family leave. The article notes that any mandate for a paid leave program, which would cost about $20 billion annually, will require a payroll tax increase, which the Administration is loathe to push. A bill for such a program, developed by DeLauro and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, has 88 cosponsors in the House, and another five in the Senate. But will it move?
My day ended with the kind of rich irony that has characterized my life since 1990, when my first child was born. I was beyond-excited to be near the front of the room, listening to Michele Obama talk about her life, and her aspirations for American society. My phone vibrated with a text from my 12-year old son at summer day camp: Dad forgot to pick me up. Like millions of parents, my carefully constructed day fell apart on that message. No matter who you are, or where, family is ever-present, and all-important.