Monday, December 20, 2010

Family life in the US

The United States has it all wrong when it comes to family.

The defaults are as follows:
- Work till you drop:  50-60 hour work-weeks are routine; also common is having only couple weeks vacation per year.
- Long commutes to and from work:  either long lines of traffic or many miles to reach place of work.
- Relative isolation from family:  the concept of extended family does not really exist here.  Many people move around to where the jobs are, not where their family lives.
- Complete disregard to the importance of motherhood:  there exists NO guaranteed paid maternity leave to care for newborn baby, let alone paternity leave.  I was shocked to see the list comparing US parental benefits with other countries in the world:
There are only 3 other countries in our same boat:  Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.  Great company.  It's just sad and wrong, and it makes me want to move to Sweden where new parents enjoy 16 months PAID time to be home with little junior!
- Lack of social support for child care, which is a basic necessity for working parents.
- Premium on material wealth.  Bigger home, shinier car, newer clothes, brand name logos promise to bring happiness and popularity, but deliver on neither.  They just drain bank accounts.

Where does this leave most Americans?  Struggling to make ends meet while fueling this gotta-have-the-next-big thing lifestyle.  Exhaustion.  Lack of emotional support.  Disconnection between parent and child due to the restricted amount of time they get to spend together during those crucial early years and beyond.

This is more than an inconvenience, it is a broken system woven into the fabric of our society.  Mismanaged priorities turns unhappy people into dysfunctional families.  And not in the funny Griswold family sort of way.  Divorces, broken homes, lost children, frustrated parents.

What to do?  I don't claim to have all the answers, but I do have some ideas.

1. LIFE>work balance.  This is crucial.  There are those who are truly inspired by their work in a way that no other endeavor can fulfill.  They want to spend every moment possible pursuing their career goals, and this brings true joy to their lives.  Then there's the vast majority rest of us who want a fulfilling career but don't want to kill ourselves over it.  We want a colorful life, with leisure, adventure, hobbies, friends, and plenty of rest in between.

2. Realizing what's truly important.  Hint, it's not a fancier car or a pricey piece of furniture or even a string of meals at the most expensive restaurants.  It's the relationships with family, friends, and strangers (friends you haven't met yet).  It's learning new things, exploring different cultures, sharing in the arts, cultivating a talent, communing with nature, finding true love, and perhaps raising a child.

3. Building better communities.  Literally.  Planning ahead to make them walkable with close proximity to basic needs and jobs.  Bringing public transportation to the modern age with transit systems that are safe, reliable, and affordable.  Bridging cities with high speed trains.  Investing in high quality public resources such as schools, libraries, arts, community centers, and parks.

4. Paid parental leave.  We are so overdue for this one.  Mothers shouldn't be forced back into work just weeks after giving birth because they fear for losing their jobs.  Fathers need time to be home to share in parenting duties and bond with their new child.  Breastfeeding is hard enough without the added stress of working, commuting, and pumping round the clock.

5. Socialized child care.  Families who need to work shouldn't have to struggle to find quality childcare at an affordable cost.  Why not subsidize with government funding, similar to what is done for public education?  Additionally this would help better regulate daycare systems to ensure the kids best interests are always placed first.

6. I want to say something about the importance of extended family, but I don't know what the solution would be.  Maybe it's having better access to local jobs to prevent the need to move away in the first place?  Maybe it's that people in this country just don't realize the value of having others around to love, guide and support them?  Maybe it's promoting community programs that aim to fill the gap by sharing of ideas, resources, and social events?  Maybe it's a little from all of the above.

I feel so very lucky that my husband and I can afford for me to spend tons of quality time at home with our daughter.  I spent the first 12 weeks of her life home with her, and since then worked only on a limited basis.  We are bonded even further by exclusive breastfeeding , the benefits of which cannot be compared in any way to taking milk from a bottle.  This wouldn't have been possible without the initial time at home, the generous accommodations made by my place of work, and the time that her father/my husband has taken to be home as well.  She is healthy, happy, and thriving in the best ways possible, and so are her parents.  This is how every home should be.

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