The one day a year when we honor our mothers has come and gone again. If you’re a mom, you probably got some burnt toast and better-than-usual attention from your family. Kudos. But after the flowers fade and land in the garbage, and the dishes are re-washed (by guess who?), what happens next? When it comes to national policy, not much.

As individuals, we’re pretty fond of our mothers. But as a nation we don’t value motherhood enough. We lag far behind Europe in granting leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Our system of unpaid leave applies only to those who work for the largest corporations, and most new mothers (or fathers) can’t afford to take it anyway. The United States clocks in at No. 28, one notch below Croatia, on Save the Children’s annual ranking of how mothers are treated.

CEOs and their lap-dog lawmakers say paid leave, the norm in most of the rest of the developed world, would cost too much. After all, we have to save money–for wars, corporate bailouts, and tax breaks benefitting the same employers that scrimp on family benefits.

President Barack Obama (who doesn’t have to worry about such things personally) included $50 million in his budget for grants to states to help with start up costs for paid family leave programs. Who is he kidding? That’s $1 million per state, which is just about enough to commission one study, not fund a real program. And even if it were $50 billion, why should paid leave depend on the state where you live? We need a federal program, period.

Our child care policies are Neanderthal too. No president has had the guts to propose a comprehensive, federally subsidized child care program since Richard Nixon vetoed such a plan, calling it the “Sovietization of American children.” Most moms are now in the paid workforce out of economic necessity–but still make only 79 cents to a man’s dollar–so they can’t afford private child care that can run from $7,000 to $17,000 per year per child.

In terms of national policy, the U.S. government and families alike tend to view child care as a family problem, not a public responsibility. This is the opposite view from countries in other parts of the world that provide public child care. Public responsibility for kids too young for school is still controversial in the United States.

Many conservatives apparently believe women should be forced to bear children, regardless of the circumstances of conception, and stay home to take care of them. Unless, of course, they are poor single mothers. Then they should definitely go to work, preferably at low wages with no benefits, leaving kids to fend for themselves with no oversight. And liberals? They give lip service to child care as being in the public interest, but do little to make it a reality.

In this election year, we should all be thinking about fixing a system that doesn’t work for moms, and holding politicians accountable for what is not happening. According to The New York Times, which used 2007 figures, our nation could have a year’s worth of universal preschool (half-day for all three-year-olds, full-day for all four-year-olds) for the cost of two months of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The majority of mothers, like fathers, now work outside the home–they need the money to support their families. We need national policies and workplace practices that reflect that reality. June Cleaver doesn’t live here anymore.

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Martha Burk

Martha Burk is a political psychologist, women’s issues expert, and director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO).

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