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Do Mothers Have “Societal Support”? Does It Count if It Comes from Neighbors?

Washington Examiner

May 13, 2024

It is an annual tradition, for some reason, for folks on social media to dump all over Mother’s Day.

Some on the fringe decide it’s sexist or cisnormative or something to believe only women can be mothers or that mothers are special. The abortion lobby hates the idea that womanhood is associated with motherhood.

But last year, I stumbled across an anti-Mother’s Day tweet that has stuck with me.

This was a post by a successful journalist who is a married mother. She flatly stated that mothers — I assume she is speaking of American mothers in particular — have no societal support.

This rattled me, and I wondered how universal that perception was. I wrote about this in my recent book.

I started this passage in Israel, but I expanded it into certain subcultures in the United States.

In Jerusalem, I met a man named Ezra from Tel Aviv. He and his wife have one child and are expecting twins.

“People here like children,” he told me as his 3-year-old son climbed up and down a stool in a crowded coffee shop. “Other people have kids, so it’s normal.”

When other people have kids, having kids helps your social life, or at least doesn’t harm it as much as it might in New York or London. And here’s a fact about Israel that’s probably worth more than any pro-family government benefit in Sweden: About 70 percent of Israeli parents get help from grandma or grandpa in caring for the kids — that’s about twice the European average.

Even if you don’t eat from the trees of religion, nationalism, or tribe, you still live in a pro-child ecosystem — the norms, the expectations, and the infrastructure — those trees have created.

In the U.S., different parents have different experiences on this front. This came clear to me one Mother’s Day, when it’s a tradition for journalists to attack or mock the observance. One journalist-mom summed up the day thus: “Do a ridiculous amount of work with almost no societal support … here’s a card and brunch.”

My first thought was that in my own world, and in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and at BYU–Idaho, the mothers have plenty of societal support for their ridiculous amount of work. In these religious subcultures, in these lively, fecund gardens, mothers are less likely to feel like they’re going it alone. The broader point: Motherhood in America is often portrayed in the media as a solo operation in which women have no support. Surely, this is true for many mothers, but I suspect it gets exaggerated in media.

For instance, Monica Hesse, a columnist at the Washington Post, just before going on her maternity leave, wrote a column about how unsupported American mothers are:

“Pregnancy and childbirth are bloody, messy, flesh-tearing endeavors after which American women are discharged from the hospital with no codified support. No free Finnish baby boxes containing all necessary baby gear,” she wrote. “No free British midwives, dropping by your home to check on the mental and physical well-being of the new parents. No free Swedish lactation consultants, no German hebammen. No mandated paid maternity leave as exists throughout Europe and in other countries like South Korea, Israel, Mexico, Chile.”

Hesse has an interesting modifier there: “codified.”

Is it “codified support” if you move in down the block from your mother-in-law, who regularly watches the children when you’re late coming home from work? Is it “codified support” if your 10- and 12-year-olds run in the neighborhood all summer, and you don’t have to pay for summer camp or entertain them yourselves? Is a good neighborhood school or church school “codified support”?

Many Americans have such community support, which comes neither from the market nor the state. These are largely people who belong to religious communities.

Both of my last two books have discussed how weaker civic bonds over the years have made such community connection rarer — but it certainly still exists.

I wonder if our media class is more socially isolated than the average American — or maybe if our media simply have a lot of folks who, when they think of where they can get help, only consider the market and the state.