So yes, maybe some women “chose” to go home. But they didn’t choose the restrictions and constrictions that made their work lives impossible. They didn’t choose the cultural expectation that mothers, not fathers, are responsible for their children’s doctor visits, birthday parties, piano lessons, and summer schedules. And they didn’t choose the bias or earnings loss that they face if they work part-time or when they go back full time.

By offering a steady diet of common myths and ignoring the relevant facts, newspapers have helped maintain the cultural temperature for what Williams calls “the most family-hostile public policy in the Western world.” On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the U.S. is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave—along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. And any parent could tell you that it makes no sense to keep running schools on nineteenth century agricultural schedules, taking kids in at 7 a.m. and letting them out at 3 p.m. to milk the cows, when their parents now work until 5 or 6 p.m. Why can’t twenty-first century school schedules match the twenty-first century workday?

The moms-go-home story’s personal focus makes as much sense, according to Caryl Rivers, as saying, “Okay, let’s build a superhighway; everybody bring one paving stone. That’s how we approach family policy. We don’t look at systems, just at individuals. And that’s ridiculous.”

* After this New York Times article was published, this statistic came under fire, since it includes “women” 15 and up.

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E.J. Graff is senior researcher at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism