Why Are We Arguing about ‘Having It All’ When Most Parents Have So Little?

The debate over whether elite women can "have it all" is mere distraction from the real question at hand: we know how to help American families succeed, so why aren't we doing it?

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In a classic media frenzy, a lengthy article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic, by a high-powered former State Department official, breathed new life into the decades-old debate over whether modern women can “have it all” in terms of career and children. Immediately, the issue was being debated all over the Web, even spurring a front-page story in the New York Times.

But while elite women may struggle with balancing professional achievement and raising a family, most American families are struggling simply to get by. Median hourly pay is less than it was just a decade ago, and for middle- and lower-income people wages have stagnated for three decades. Unemployment remains over 8%, not including people who have given up looking for work. The recent financial crisis wiped out two decades of accumulated wealth for the average American family, mostly due to the fall in real estate prices, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the top 10% of American families retain two-thirds of all wealth; the rest of us share the one-third leftover.

In this context, the current debate over work-life balance seems frivolous. It takes an immense sense of entitlement to suggest that anyone — male or female — should expect to occupy a position in the stratosphere of government or industry and still have lots of time to spare for family.

(MORE: How Economic Inequality Is (Literally) Making Us Sick)

For those of us whose jobs don’t require sudden travel to prevent a war or economic meltdown, however, the work-life issue is urgent. It needs to be addressed, if we want to improve both the physical and psychological health of this country. Research shows that highly stressed parents tend not to be the best parents: domestic abuse and child maltreatment rise when the economy falls. Stressed parents also tend to have stressed children, and studies link such intense early life tension to greater risks of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and all mental illnesses including addiction.

The greatest sources of parental stress are either being unemployed or being unable to make ends meet — emotionally or financially — because of a lack of appropriate work options.

But it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is in this country. Other nations have managed to integrate women into the workforce at higher rates than the U.S., maintaining high levels of productivity, increasing the numbers of women with high level positions and not sacrificing their children.

The secret? Offering paid family leave to either parent for about a year following birth, and making high quality day care widely available and affordable.

Iceland, for example, requires nine months family leave, paid at 80% of a parent’s salary; typically, the mother and father of the newborn get three months each, with another three months to split between them as they choose. Low-cost day care is available, with a ratio of no more than four children per adult; for children over 2, preschool is affordable.

Iceland has both the highest participation of women in the workforce in Europe, and the continent’s highest fertility rate. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the country chose to bail out its people rather than its banks after the financial crash, rejecting the austerity approach to which the rest of Europe subscribed, and is now showing better growth and lower unemployment than other countries.) Other Nordic nations have also shown similar success in women’s workforce participation, without handicapping their economies.

(MORE: Pregnant at Work? Why Your Job Could Be at Risk)

In the U.S., 55% of mothers with infants have a paid job outside the home or need one to make ends meet. Two-thirds of mothers of toddlers are employed or need to work to support their families, and 80% of those with kids over 12 work or need to do so.

We shouldn’t be debating “having it all.” Rather, we should be talking about how to get from public acceptance of the current dire situation, in which individual families have to piece together jury-rigged solutions for themselves to survive, to the realization that a modern country requires national policy to ensure that families are afforded time to grow. These policies must include provisions for significant amounts of paid leave and inexpensive, high-quality child care for all who need it.

Deconstructing women’s individual choices — or focusing on whether the most privileged women can achieve an ideal work-life balance — is just a distraction that obscures the fact that hard political choices are necessary to foster a healthy society.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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