Two months ago, a single mother’s ordeal was grabbing headlines. Shanesha Taylor, homeless and desperate for a job, landed an interview at a Scottsdale insurance office. But the 35-year-old mother of two faced a difficult dilemma when she went to her interview on March 21. She couldn’t find child care, but she also couldn’t afford to cancel.
Short on options, Taylor let her two boys, ages 6 months and 2 years, wait alone in her car for 45 minutes while she tried to secure a source of income for her family. Taylor was subsequently arrested for child abuse for leaving her sons unattended in a hot car. Her children were examined at an area hospital and released as uninjured, but Taylor nevertheless faced two felony counts.
The best gift to mothers would be the ability to choose motherhood without suffering tremendous financial blows.
Taylor endangered her children, but she did it because she faced a tough dilemma — a choice between what was best for them in the short term and what was best for them in the long term. She faced this dilemma in the richest nation in the world — a nation that is nonetheless the worst among rich nations in terms of family-friendly policies. Taylor’s unemployment didn’t help matters, but even for the employed, social programs are lacking. As Stephanie Coontz summarized in her interview with us last year, “We are the only rich, industrial country in the world that doesn’t have subsidized parental leave, limits on the work week, some form of national health insurance, and/or strong investments in child care and preschool.”
Consequently, parenting is an almost insurmountable expense for many. In the last 20 years, the cost of maternity care and delivery has swelled in the United States — in fact, tripling in the case of delivery. Pregnancy, delivery, and newborn care now come to $30,000 on average. Add another $20,000 if the delivery is by C-section. It’s far more than what people in other developed nations pay. Americans pay more than twice what people in Switzerland pay for childbirth, and more than three time what people in Britain pay.
While we are now in the midst of what many are calling a student debt crisis — with student loan debt now exceeding credit card debt (and increasing at a rate of $2,853.88 per second) — it should also give us pause to learn that child care costs now exceed the cost of college in a majority of states. This is according to a report released late last year by Child Care Aware America, an organization founded to promote the quality and affordability of child care.
It should therefore be no surprise that, as unique as it was, Shanesha Taylor’s story highlighted difficulties that are familiar to many parents, and the outpouring of support she received made it clear how easily people related to her troubles. Taylor’s story spread rapidly on the Internet, and she soon became the beneficiary of a crowd-funding campaign that was raising thousands of dollars per day to help her out out of her situation. Additionally, within days of her arrest, an online petition to have her charges dropped garnered 12,000 signatures. Many of her online donors left messages that expressed sympathy with the hard times she had fallen on and the lack of support as she struggled through them. “I can’t imagine the desperation you must have felt leaving your kids in the car,” wrote one donor, “but I understand that desperate times call for desperate actions.”
Desperate times are a common theme as more than three-fourths of Americans lack the savings they would need to pay their bills if they were unemployed for six months. Unemployment benefits pay only a fraction of a normal paycheck, often too little to pay for utilities, a cell phone, and other expenses that are necessary for living — or job-seeking.
Even as parenting has become beyond the reach of many, we are in the midst of a nationwide backlash against reproductive rights — against some of the very necessities of people who are not financially prepared for dependents. Since the 2010 congressional elections, reproductive health has been on the chopping block, under attack by a wide range of initiatives targeting everything from employer insurance coverage for contraceptives to funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood. Following 2010, the Guttmacher Institute reported record numbers of state-level anti-abortion measures: 92 in 2011, 42 in 2012, and 70 in 2013. Arizona enacted some of the most notorious of those measures, restricting what types of providers can perform abortions and adding requirements for ultrasounds, waiting periods, and state-directed counseling.
Stories like Taylor’s underscore the hypocrisy of abortion restrictions — assuming they’re driven by a concern for lives — when the options for parents can be so few that the outcome is child endangerment. Graver outcomes are possible as well. A 2012 study by the University of California San Francisco found that women who sought abortions but were turned away from services were three times more likely to fall into poverty than those who successfully obtained services. And those living in poverty have a mortality rate about twice that of the rest of the population.
Last month, when news of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy went public, abortion opponents wrote in several op-eds that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between the Clinton family’s support of reproductive rights and Chelsea’s decision to have a child. Writing in the Christian Post, Robin Schumacher expressed confusion over the fact that the Clintons could celebrate a pregnancy after so often championing reproductive rights. Schumacher asked how they could look forward to this birth but not others, as if supporting reproductive rights means being anti-pregnancy or anti-child.
If there are two things that can’t be reconciled, they are Schumacher’s simplistic views on abortion and the actual facts about the many women (one in three in the United States) who have had abortions. Sixty-one percent of them have already had a child, and the reasons commonly cited for seeking abortions have nothing to do with being anti-child or anti-family. One study in BMC Women’s Health gave financial reasons as the leading response at 40 percent, followed by timing at 36 percent, partner-related reasons at 31 percent, and the need to focus on other children at 29 percent.
Chelsea Clinton and her husband Marc Mezvinsky can look forward to parenthood because they are one of the least likely couples to fall on hard times. But situations like theirs are far from universal. That’s exactly why we need medically accurate sex education in our schools and affordable birth control for people of reproductive age — and when those fail, access to safe, legal abortion. Just as important, for those who choose parenthood, we need family-friendly social programs and work policies.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and on that day, like every day, we should celebrate motherhood. But we should celebrate it for the right reasons. Motherhood should be by choice and within the mother’s means. The best gift to mothers — and their children — would be a society that aligns with that ideal.