In J. Lo’s latest movie, The Back-up Plan, our intrepid, artificially inseminated heroine enjoys an onscreen orgasm sparked by a heady combo of some wet kissing and pregnancy hormones. As women with 27 combined months of pregnancy between us, we’re both a little skeptical (as is Mary Pols, the hilarious film reviewer).
But J. Lo’s spontaneous squealfest seems only slightly less plausible…and vastly less offensive…than her portrayal of the professional single mom by choice. J. Lo’s character quickly meets a man — phew! — but her single mom gal-pals are a parade of militant or earth-mother stereotypes. “Who wants to end up like that?” the movie seems to say.
Turns out, a growing number of moms in the U.S. do. The number of single moms by choice is expanding faster than a pair of maternity jeans. The number of babies born to single mothers by choice, like the one J. Lo plays, has grown a phenomenal 145 percent since 1980, according to journalist Emily Bazelon, writing in the New York Times Magazine. Today, a whopping 40 percent of U.S. babies are born to unmarried mothers. Plus, some 13,000 single women every year adopt children domestically, and that’s not counting international adoptions.
As we discuss in our new book, Support for families — making sure that every family can afford high quality childcare, that every worker gets paid sick leave, that schools are safe and effective — is crucial if women and men are going to tap into our full economic potential. But we don’t have that kind of security in the U.S. Although family patterns have changed radically, most companies and legislatures act like every family is traditional — and that they all have a stay-at-home wife taking care of the kids, caring for ailing elders and doing the housework. This, in a country where 70 percent of children grow up live in a two-income household.
Other countries face the same challenges. But instead of ignoring these new challenges, they’re pioneering policies that support families even as they change. Compared to other industrialized nations, America falls flat on its face in terms of supporting families as they really exist. The United States ranks last in maternity leave, ranks 27th of 37 countries in public expenditures on childcare, and provides astonishingly little assistance for families caring for aging parents. Our nation has failed to recognize glaring truths: that hardly any kids today have a parent at home full-time, that affordable day care is as necessary and important as affordable health care, and that men and women in the workforce both have far more responsibilities outside work than ever before.
By failing to change our workplaces and policies in ways that help families, our country is threatening the well-being of kids in America. At the low end of the economic spectrum, hourly workers can lose their job if they take sick time with their kids. At the higher end, a corporate 24-7 work ethic forces parents — typically women — into more reasonable, but less prestigious, jobs. Saddest of all, without affordable, reliable childcare, single moms and their kids are far more likely to end up in poverty than any other group in America.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In other industrialized nations, it’s not. In Sweden, about 55 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers, but these kids don’t end up poor. They’re just as likely as kids of married parents to live a decent life. That’s because Sweden supports ample, affordable, high quality childcare and provides strong social support for families of all kinds. So mothers and children who don’t fit the traditional mold can thrive just as well as those who do.
At home, we’re starting to see some bold communities and work-places adapt to the changing American families–making it easier for parents to be loving, caring parents and work to their full capacity. California is now the only state in the nation to offer paid parental leave when babies are born. Several states are offering universal preschool. More and more companies are offering at least a little paternity leave to dads…and gradually, brave and loving fathers are daring to take it, despite fears about derailing their careers.
We need more families, lawmakers and communities to stand up and fight for more family-friendly workplaces and policies. If more companies and communities catch on to the real economic payoff of supporting families–happier, more productive, more focused workers who can tap into their full potential–we’ll be more competitive in the global economy.
When more companies and communities finally come to their senses, we’ll all have something to get excited about.