Everybody Has A Mother


I am all for celebrating mothers and motherhood on one Sunday in May every year. Philip, on the other hand, calls it a “Hallmark Card Holiday”, and, ironically, it seems that it’s founder, Anna Jarvis, later turned against it because of its commercialization. At the risk of appearing an ingrate, then, it strikes me that we could use some celebration the other 364 (or 365 leap) days.

When my son David was born, I was a graduate student here in the US. My pregnancy was greeted with disapproval my the faculty at Einstein, and even by my advisor. The chair of the department had been known to say that a Department only needed one woman faculty member-to arrange staff picnics and deal with the “colored” help. Yes, he said that! Yet, the Department had two women members. Neither of them had children, however.

So I was determined to prove myself. David was born on a Saturday, and I was back at work the next Thursday. Five day maternity leave! And I nursed him as well, when the breast pump looked like a bicycle horn, and used only hand power, not electricity! My course work and research went well, and I had started to prepare for the Oral Exams at the end of the summer, when I was unceremoniously dumped. Told, “A woman with a child cannot stand the rigors of research.” End of scientific career.

It took me ten years as a lab technician and high school teacher to resume that career once again. In Israel, where Phil was doing his Master’s and I was teaching and eight months pregnant, I was invited to come for an interview to resume studies as a doctoral student. I waddled in, answered the questions and was accepted, post-delivery and post three month’s paid maternity leave! Israel recognized that 50% of the brainpower of a small country cannot be put on the shelf against its will. But a new mother was also given the time to recover and get to rebalance her life.

In Canada, my University gave one year’s paid leave for maternity. I saw instances where this was abused, but they were rare.

So I remain appalled that the United States is the only First World country without a decent maternity leave policy. There are individual companies that have excellent policies. Human Rights Watch, not surprisingly, is one, and Yael will benefit from it.

And I won’t even start on the issue of child care!

All the Mother’s Day cards, flowers and dinners can’t really make up for the fact that mothers and motherhood receive so little support in this country all the rest of the year.

I’m OK, You’re OK. Or are you?

One New Year’s Eve when we were living in Canada, Phil and I were out with friends. When my phone rang, I assumed it was our daughter Yael with New Year wishes. Instead, it was our daughter seeking advice. Her boyfriend and she were cooking a festive dinner, and when a dish exploded from heat, he had slashed his big toe on a shard. It was bleeding profusely, you could see the bone, what should they do? We insisted that a visit to the ER was called for. He was resisting, because, an aspiring musician, he had no medical insurance. Our Canadian friends sat there dumbfounded. To them it was inconceivable that someone needing medical care could be calculating whether to seek it, based on the lack of insurance. Because all Canadians have medical insurance, paid for through taxes.

In the end he went. The toe required numerous stitches. And he got a bill for $2000. Good luck with that.

I won’t even mention the bill Jon got a few years later for $30,000 for a five day stay when he awoke paralyzed and the cause could not be found. Because he was still a striving musician on a low income, he qualified eventually for Medicaid, and was relieved of that one.

Most notable for us that first night was the reaction of our Canadian friends. They literally could not comprehend the discussion over whether to go to the ER for a serious injury. In their lives they had never had to worry about whether medical care would be available or how much it would cost or who would pay for it. Like the air or the sun, it was always there for the taking, with no discussion needed. It was a right, not a privilege.

We had our own brush with medical disaster with Yael. After her first year of college, she decided she wanted to change schools and go part time, working part time as well. Of course by then, being 19, she was no longer covered by our health insurance and couldn’t afford her own on her minimum wage salary. I think I held my breath for that entire year.

She returned to college full time the next year and was again covered by insurance. That year she had an emergency appendectomy, and the following one an allergic reaction to an antibiotic that landed her in the hospital for five days. I refuse to think what would have happened to all of us if either of these had hit her during her Year Without Medical Insurance.

If you have insurance in this country, you are at least partially safe, so long as the insurance company agrees to pay the bills. Of course if you have a pre-existing condition, you could be turned down. If your employer wasn’t picking up part of the tab, the monthly cost for the premium could be crippling. And if you are a woman, you are charged more.

Obamacare will not be a panacea. There will be plenty of bumps, and it is not a single payer system such as Canada, Australia and England have. But it will smooth out some of those inequities. And if we had it 13 years ago, Yael would have been covered, and I would have been breathing in deep relief that whole year long.