Avra Siegel, formerly Deputy Director of the White House’s Office of Women and Girls, has a scoop that’s garnered a lot of social media attention: Pregnancy entails unpleasant physical side effects that can make working hard. Really, she wants you to know, there’s this horrible thing called “morning sickness” but in fact it can make women feel nauseous all day! Another shocker from her recent article entitled “The Brutal Truth About Being a Pregnant Worker in 2016: It’s Pretty Awful”? Sometimes pregnant ladies get tired. And not just a little tired, but really, really tired!
Part of the hubris of youth is believing you’re inventing the world anew. Having dismissed the experiences of everyone who went before them, the young tend to believe they are making novel discoveries as they enter each new stage of life.
Yet it’s not exactly news that pregnancy can be physically grueling and make working tough. And the solutions that Siegel offers—especially paid leave—have been long debated. Public policymakers have been arguing about the costs and benefits of mandating that all employers must provide workers with paid sick leave for decades. And while Siegel instinctively sees the mandate’s upsides, empathizing with lower-income pregnant women who can’t afford to take a sick day, for example, she appears not to have considered the substantial downsides of how a mandate might impact those women’s job prospects and take-home pay. As we’ve seen with the minimum wage, such government interventions help some workers, but others end up losing their jobs entirely when businesses cannot afford higher employment costs.
Siegel also insists that businesses should be more sensitive to the needs of pregnant employees. Most employers already recognize this and are trying to offer the very flexibility that Siegel recommends. In fact, Siegel’s numbers paint a skewed picture of the availability of paid leave in America today: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80 percent of full-time civilian workers have paid sick leave. Most employers already know it’s in their interests to treat employees fairly, whether they are suffering with morning sickness or cancer. Replacing someone who quits requires a costly search for candidates, interviews, and a training period. Basic decency as well as this business reality—not any legal requirement—are why most employers try to work with their employees when they have an illness or a new baby.
Yet businesses have other considerations too, which include keeping the business afloat and being fair to other employees. Siegel details her personal health problems during pregnancy, concluding, “That’s been my life for 9 months—and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for being productive at work.” Is she suggesting that it would really be fair, then, to other employees for her to be paid in full for those nine months even though she wasn’t up to doing her job?
Siegel may be newly attuned to the struggles of pregnant workers, but she should also try to put herself in the shoes of those who are childless, especially women who aren’t childless by choice. They’d point out that society does plenty of celebrating of new parents, showering them with attention and admiration, and those parents get a baby to love and be loved by as well. In the meantime, people without kids are expected to uncomplainingly pick up the slack at work and not receive any extra credit compared to those taking months-long leave from work. That doesn’t exactly feel fair to them either.
In a few months, Siegel will likely find herself inspired to pen another article about her surprising discovery that new moms often feel conflicted about the prospect of returning to work. Women are loathe to give up their hard-earned positions but also mourn the potential lost time with a baby who grows and changes so quickly. She’ll be in good company. Most working moms wish that we had two lives, so we could both focus fully on racing up the career ladder and yet not miss any of our kids’ milestones or scraped knees. Siegel may be full of recommendations for how to solve this conundrum, but in reality, no set of public policies is going to eradicate the fundamental challenge of the human condition: Time is finite, which means that we all have to do our best to set priorities and find whatever balance makes the most sense for us as individuals.
Workers and employers need true flexibility so they can find work situations that work for them. People value different aspects of compensation, and those preferences tend to change over time. In fact, Siegel may find that her priorities change a lot with the new baby. These are tricky issues that all of us working moms have been grappling with for some time. Welcome to motherhood—and the great work-family balance debate—Avra.