How well do the public structures and social norms within Albania and the US manage to incentivize and support motherhood beyond rhetoric? Sidita Kushi compares the two countries, and finds the US often comes up surprisingly short.
International Women’s Day was recently upon us. In official words, the day is meant to “celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.” Themed activities sprang up across the globe to honor and support women’s empowerment, but as Women’s History Month continues, we must also begin to reflect upon women’s social valuation beyond the beautiful rhetoric.
The historical origins of such international women’s movements lie in the democratic West – propelled by the actions of the Socialist Party of America in 1909 and quickly spreading to Denmark, Germany, Austria and other European nations. But Women’s Day was greatly elevated as a formal holiday throughout the former Soviet bloc and other communist countries, particularly after the women’s “Bread and Peace” strike incited the Russian Revolution of 1917. In these former communist nations, Women’s Day also served as a “Mother’s Day” – a holiday that is much more familiar in the contemporary Western sphere. Following this legacy, countries like the United States (US) still show their official respect for women via the honoring of the mother, while in the Eastern sphere, the more inclusive Women’s Day remains the norm.
The identification of motherhood as a women’s highest potential and social value, however, is a universal norm. “Motherhood: All love begins and ends there,” proclaimed British poet Robert Browning. Chinese male author Lin Yutang wrote that, “Of all the rights of women, the greatest is to be a mother.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge completes this poetic glorification of motherhood, “A mother is a mother still, The holiest thing alive.”
The abstract elevation of motherhood is in itself a propeller of harmful social practices, as it pressures women toward a specific “feminine” life path, shaming them for alternative choices. Although this remains a critical social issue, it is not within the scope of my article – as I instead choose to focus on whether modern societies at least practice what they preach. A country that values its mothers can be expected to make the process of childbirth, childrearing, and long-term parental investment as smooth and equitable as possible. After all, motherhood is a public good that benefits society as a whole, yet its direct trade-offs primary befall the mothers.
Below, I compare my two homelands, the US and Albania, in their practical treatment of mothers. How well do the public structures and social norms within Albania and the US manage to incentivize and support motherhood beyond rhetoric?
In Albania, society formally celebrates women and mothers on Women’s Day, showering them with chocolates, traditional yellow mimosa flowers, and planned luncheons and dinners. Alternatively, in the US, Mother’s Day reigns supreme, with women receiving symbolic gifts from their children and partners. Many may immediately expect a mature democracy – with robust governmental institutions, a thriving economy, and a perceived culture of gender equality – to win any battle against a corrupt, economically frail country, such as Albania. In fact, many people firmly believe that American women have far superior rights and social status to any other country across the globe. Thus, this comparison may offer a few surprises along the way.
Motherhood in Albania: Institutional support regardless of low resources
I began to notice a difference in perspectives many years ago, as I spent my years divided between my American and Albanian homes. Suddenly, friends and family across the Atlantic were planning for parenthood and having children. In the US, these transitions were dominated by anxious discussions on how the young families would be able to afford their lifestyles on a single income for a while, or alternatively, how a new mother would jungle full-time work while caring for a breastfeeding two-month old. Worst of all, soon-to-be mothers worried about telling their employers about their varying decisions on planned childcare – fearing eventual job loss if they spent too much time at home.
In Albania, there was no such talk. While overly frank talks about money, lack of job opportunities, and low wages echoed within all households and public spaces, they rarely connected to pregnancy, motherhood, and childcare. Soon-to-be mothers in Albania did not seem to worry in the same way as their American counterparts. “Oh, I’m staying a year at home with the baby and then going back to work,” responded my visibly pregnant cousin nonchalantly when asked about her career plans. As another family member from the US chimed in about financial security, she continued, “I still receive my wages, of course!”
Of course, motherhood is not a perfect social condition in Albania – mimicking similar problems in the status of general women’s rights. Social norms still compel women to reach their fullest feminine potential as wives and mothers – placing this role above other pursuits. Unpaid labor burdens arising from childcare and household chores remain virtually segregated between the genders. This phenomenon echoes much deeper expectations between feminine and masculine roles in society. The reality is that both publically employed and unemployed Albanian women spend most of their days involved in housework and child-caring roles, with minimal aid from partners.
Thus, as in other countries, women face harsh trade-offs between motherhood and public success. “Having it all” as a women also means accepting new burdens. Such dilemmas are further magnified in Albania’s post-communist environment of fragile socio-economic support structures. The revered role of the mother in Albania comes with several social penalties, ones that could begin to disappear with a change in enforced gender norms.
But Albania’s otherwise dark communist legacy left behind some perks for mothers. Since the communist regime encouraged dual-earner households and universal employment, it also provided women with robust structures of support for potential motherhood. While dampened by low funding and faltering institutional stability, many of these structures survived Albania’s transition to capitalism and democracy.
Although in a weakened fiscal and monetary state, Albania still has one of the lengthiest and most comprehensive maternity leave policies, even in comparison to developed OECD countries (Sweden being an extreme outlier). Female employees are entitled to 365 days of paid maternity leave, with a minimum of 35 days provided before the expected date of delivery. Prior to childbirth and for 150 days after, women receive monthly benefits paid at 80 percent of their wages, with benefits decreasing to 50 percent of wages for the remainder of the leave. Moreover, Albania provides additional support for multiple births – expanding government benefits to 390 days of paid leave.
Ideally, this policy would include a clause for paternity leave, since offering parental support only to women serves as a governmental tool for the perpetuation of traditional gender dynamics, encouraging female caretaker-male breadwinner households. Research shows that although preferable to lacking or shorter maternity leave, these policies exacerbate women’s domestic unpaid labor burdens. This is because the roles established during the period of maternity leave prove difficult to alter into the future, meaning that domestic caretaking remains the indefinite, sole responsibility of the mother. Similarly to the majority of countries, Albania lacks both structural and normative foundations for paternity leave, noting the general masculine avoidance of “women’s work”. The country’s maternity leave, however, remains quite effective and robust.
Albania also has a system of government-subsidized childcare and daycare services, alongside more private options. Although in need of expansion, reform, and greater funding, this system offers working mothers a baseline of support in balancing childcare with full-time employment. Most important, however, is Albania’s family structure. New motherhood means the automatic, expected mobilization of extended family toward childcare, financial assistance, and mentoring. It is an unspoken social norm that other mothers, mother-in-laws, sisters, grandmothers, and even grandfathers will rally to help with a new baby for years to come – including long hours of babysitting, housework, cooking, and so much more.
It is widely understood in Albania that a new mother requires the help of her community and her state to counteract the burdens directly imposed on her by childbirth, childcare, and traditional gender roles. In this culture, children come first, but motherhood is also elevated beyond the level of the individual – beyond work cultures and capitalist productivity. Such stories, however, are hard to come by in the contemporary US.
Motherhood in the United States: Freefall in the name of capitalism
While undoubtedly the undisputed economic giant in this comparison, the US lacks many of the structures of support that exist in Albania. Motherhood is cherished in name, in politics, in media, and in symbol – but in practice, it is in urgent need of respect.
In the US, revered professors and academics must sometimes return to work days after childbirth, due to fears of job loss, income loss, and competition. Here, highly successful career-women can be seen bringing their young infants to work with them, sitting them down in the back of classrooms or in their offices. Indeed, in the US, one quarter of mothers return to work less than two weeks after childbirth. This picture only gets bleaker for minorities, lower income women, and single mothers.
The “motherhood penalty” is real and quite heavy. Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, concludes that childless women earn 96 cents for every dollar a man earns, yet mothers earn 76 cents – and this gap doesn’t erode when controlling for a range of typical workforce characteristics. Other studies confirm this normative dislike and pay demotion for mothers and alternatively, a high preference and reward for fathers in the US workforce.
Yet there is some good news. Due to increasing egalitarian norms in the household, the US removes the full weight of the unpaid labor burden from women (although gender-segregated household work still dominates). It also offers a liberal welfare regime system, in which minimally regulated, highly flexible labor markets allow for more abundant job opportunities and seemingly gender-neutral outcomes. On the other hand, these same markets offer almost no structural support for motherhood, its trade-offs, and its vulnerabilities. Inevitably, their gender-blindness and passivity implicitly perpetuate the motherhood penalty.
The “exceptionalist” individualistic US culture means that an individual is expected to resolve all negative externalities arising from life choices on his or her own. In other words, if childbirth and childcare impose greater costs onto the mother than the father, that inequality should be remedied privately or left to market forces. But the issue of motherhood is not that simple. Population growth and investment in future generations are large, necessary public goods for all nations. Motherhood, thus, has collective benefits extending way beyond the mother herself – making it a perpetual political and economic hot topic. Yet at work and at home, American mothers incur the direct costs of this widespread public benefit, as governments remain hands-off and rest on market laurels, while many men avoid their domestic roles and reap personal benefits (the fatherhood bonus).
The US stands as the only high-income country and one of only three countries in the world that doesn’t provide national paid maternity leave. Instead, the federal policy arising from the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), allows for 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, merely affording women job security upon their return to the labor force. If 12 weeks pass, an employer may fire a female employee for staying on leave. States and individual employers have their own unique laws on maternity support, but even at this level, paid leave is rare and often insignificant. So, many mothers must make due by applying for minimal, temporary disability coverage – typically meant for individuals with debilitating illnesses.
Public, government subsidized childcare is also scarce, while private options are unreachable for many average families. In fact, daycare is more expensive than rent in 22 states and more expensive than college in most states. This puts high quality childcare out of the reach of the average working American family. In my current state of residence, Massachusetts, an average family will pay $15,000 per year for their infant to attend full-time daycare. Across the country in California, the cost of childcare equals to about 40 percent of the median income for a single mother. To make matters worse, as another symptom of its individualistic mandate, the US doesn’t share the same tight-knit, extended family networks that Albanians can use for additional support in motherhood and childrearing.
A dual-earner household is becoming a necessity in the American economic landscape, but the feedback social mechanisms to support this change are still elusive. The American reality is that 71 percent of mothers work outside of the home. In 40 percent of households with children, these mothers are the sole breadwinners. If the US loves and respects its mothers, then how do we explain the long-standing disregard for mothers in policy? The worst part? These complaints don’t begin to cover the looming horrors within the healthcare system for mothers, especially for vulnerable lower-income and minority women.
When Albania wins
As a self-proclaimed beacon of democracy, women’s rights, and cherished motherhood, the US must seriously reconsider its public support for motherhood when a transitioning, “traditional” country like Albania wins this battle. In the backdrop of International Women’s Day and Month, the US must do more for its women and those who choose to become mothers – particularly if society insists on preaching about the beauty and importance of motherhood. For starters, the US can begin to catch up by offering parents some degree of national paid leave.
Albania, too, alongside all other nations can benefit from more inclusive reforms, such as paternity leave, the creation of regimes sensitive to gender norms, and a weakening of household labor segregations – to mention a few. Such structural changes, already proven successful across Scandinavian countries, would mold societies into dual-caretaker households, reinforcing egalitarian burden-sharing between parents and public support structures to eradicate the motherhood penalty.
Ultimately, if countries and cultures value mothers, they ought to prove it – beyond words.
Cover photo: Monument in Tirana, Albania. Credit: Quinn Dombrowski/flickr/some rights reserved