With a lack of traditional heroes, our society has developed a strange fascination with celebrities. When they experience life changes, such as childbirth and parenting, we want to know if they see things the same way we do. We read about their charmed lives; they get to do the fun things and pay someone else to take care of the unpleasant ones.
However, every now and then, a celebrity seems approachable, and we can imagine inviting them into our messy homes for dinner, believing that that they would be charmed by the toddler paintings hanging on our dining room walls. Now more than ever, Anne Hathaway strikes me as one of these people. Despite having a busy career (IMDb lists 42 TV and film credits in 18 years) resulting in 97 award nominations and 65 wins (including an Oscar for Les Miserables), she still appears to be the charming girl-next-door who genuinely cares about her fellow human being.
Many of us saw ourselves in her portrayal of the awkward Mia in The Princess Diaries and cheered her on as she grew into a charming young woman. While I realize Princess Mia’s impassioned plea to rule without a husband was a work of fiction, last week I saw echoes of that strong, articulate woman presenting a speech at the United Nations on International Women’s Day. Like Princess Mia, Hathaway has challenged the status quo in calling for a change in policies to reflect the societal values of today. She made it known that she is serious about paid parental leave, calling for countries, companies and other institutions to come together for the greater good.
A mom for almost a year, Hathaway reflected on the experience of becoming a parent and how it changed her, acknowledging that in a moment, abstract concepts became real. She noted that her “priorities changed on a cellular level.” Like many new moms, she wondered how she would be able to balance career and her new role as parent. Defying stereotype, she told us that shortly after giving birth, she thought about other new moms and wondered how they manage. She seemed incredulous that women should be allowed only 12 weeks unpaid leave and men none at all.
She got personal, saying, “One week after my son’s birth, I could barely walk. … I was getting to know a human who was completely dependent on my husband and I for everything. … I was dependent on my husband for most things and … we were relearning everything we thought we knew about our family and our relationship. … Somehow we, and every American parent, were expected to be back to normal within three months. Without income?”
Many of us can relate to this description. Becoming a parent is unlike any other experience for both mom and dad—suddenly your life revolves around a tiny being. The first few days are a blur, a dreamlike state where you lose track of anything outside your own field of vision.
While doctors typically recommend a six-week recovery period after childbirth, women who have had a C-section, like I did, are told to do practically nothing for the first three. Many parents bank vacation and sick time to at least partially cover costs and rely on extended family and friends to help out. Of course the challenges increase when additional children join a family, where in addition to the new arrival, there is another child who needs care and attention.
Hathaway was quick to point out that in a practical sense, having a child means one more mouth to feed. Since America is a country where many live paycheck to paycheck, she said, the question arises: “How does 12 weeks unpaid leave economically work?” Of course for many, it doesn’t.
Hathaway went on to cite distressing statics: One in four mothers goes back to work two weeks after birth. Those who can afford to take the full 12 weeks often don’t as there is a “motherhood penalty.” Many employers consider them less dedicated and therefore less worthy of promotions and pay raises.
Two weeks? How does one do that? At two weeks, your body is just starting to recover and odds are, you haven’t slept much. Maybe you have just mastered breastfeeding. From a health standpoint (for both mom and baby), is this wise?
Though she addressed the fact that her own mom sacrificed career for family, it was clear that this was not another speech about equal pay and job opportunities, but much more. Hathaway clearly made the point that parental leave is not a women’s issue, but a human issue. “The deeper into the issue of paid parent leave I go,” she said, “the clearer I see the connection between persisting barriers to women’s full equality and empowerment and the need to redefine and in some cases de-stigmatize men’s roles as caregivers.”
She says the stereotypes not only affect women but also “limit men’s participation and connection within the family and society” affecting both them and their children. The room hushed when she pointedly asked: “How many of us here today saw our dads enough growing up? How many of you dads here see your kids enough now?”
The society we live in today is different from those of the past. We are more diverse, in many ways. Our roles are not predefined; we are free to choose our own paths, on our own timelines. We come to parenthood not only through the traditional means, but also through adoption and surrogacy. We tend to believe that if we want something, we can make it happen. Yet, in some ways we are still caught up in antiquated expectations of gender roles. These are roles that many of us, men and women alike, challenge each day.
“Maternity leave or any workplace policy based on gender can at this moment in history only ever be a gilded cage,” said Hathaway. “Though it was created to make life easier for women, we now know it creates a perception of women as being inconvenient to the workplace. We now know it chains men to an emotionally limited path and it cannot by definition serve the reality of the world where there is more than one type of family. For example, how does maternity leave benefit a family with two daddies?”
Though some states (NY, NJ, RI, WA and CA) are currently implementing programs, the U.S. is the only high-income country in the world without paid maternity or parental leave. Hathaway cited reports that indicate that companies offering paid leave have improved employee retention and reduced absenteeism. Further, these policies have been shown to boost productivity and morale. A study in Sweden showed that for every month fathers took paternity leave, the mother’s income grew by 6.7 %. While this is of course good for the mom, it is also good for the family.
“We must ask ourselves how will we be more tomorrow than we are today? The whole world grows when people like you and me take a stand because we know that beyond the idea of how women and men are different, there is a deeper truth that love is love and parents are parents.”
Watch her entire speech here: