On Monday, McCain, a new mother, returned to her co-hosting slot on “The View” for the first time since giving birth last fall. She’d planned to come back before the election, she explained, but unexpected medical complications “kicked my butt” and doubled her time out of the office.
The extension prompted a lightbulb moment: “As I thought about it, the more angry I got that there weren’t women in the rest of America that had the same kind of luxury that I had,” she said. “It takes personal experience sometimes to get on board.”
But now that she was fully onboarded, she had a request for her co-hosts: The women of “The View” should make paid maternity leave their 2021 mission. They should “put [politicians’] feet to the fire” — especially members of McCain’s own Republican Party who pay lip service to “family values” — to make paid maternity leave a legislated guarantee.
McCain is, of course, completely correct. Among the world’s 41 wealthiest countries, the United States is the only one that doesn’t mandate paid leave — leagues behind top-ranking Estonia, Hungary and the other countries that offer more than a year. Paid parental leave is good for families, good for children and good for working parents, and America’s failure on this matter is so self-evident that we don’t need to spend more than this one paragraph emphasizing it. Meghan McCain is one thousand percent right.
What I’m most interested in is how she got there. Or rather, why it took her so long to get there. Or rather, how we can speed up this process so that it doesn’t require every leave-denier to personally birth a child before they also get on board.
Would McCain now support leave if she’d had an easy, complication-free labor? She seemed to be arguing for Congress to specifically support the amount of time she herself had taken: three months. What if she’d recovered after only 10 weeks? Would that then be her policy recommendation? Or conversely, what if her postpartum experience had been even more trying or if she’d lacked the support system of the husband and mother-in-law she said she relied on? Would she be asking the women of “The View” to stump for four months of paid leave? Five?
When co-host Sara Haines suggested that paid leave shouldn’t just be for mothers — “Dads also need that time, with the modern family structure changing” — McCain politely shot her down. “I do think we should start with the mother,” she said.
Personal experiences can be powerful and life-altering. But the trouble with policies guided by the personal struggles of famous TV personalities is that they are not based on what average citizens need or what experts determine is optimal. They are based on the solipsism of influential people who are scandalized only by injustices that they experience personally.
You saw this with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who only began to support same-sex marriage when his son came out as gay. Or with Jared Kushner, who decided to make criminal justice reform a signature issue because of his father’s experiences being convicted and imprisoned for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. Chris Christie — who, incidentally, had prosecuted Charles Kushner as New Jersey’s attorney general — recently filmed a video begging his constituents to wear masks, but only after he’d contracted the coronavirus after attending a White House ceremony, maskless.
You see it when daughters support universal health care only after their fathers are diagnosed with cancer, or when fathers support access to abortion only when their daughters need one.
“It’s funny,” McCain’s co-host Whoopi Goldberg replied to McCain, in a tone that did not sound amused, it sounded as if she were reminding herself not to pummel a colleague on national television. “We’ve been fighting for this for years. Begging. Screaming.”
Nevertheless, Goldberg nodded along to McCain’s request, as did the other co-hosts. Of course they were on board with holding politicians’ feet to the fire on this issue. They had been doing so for a long time.
Gentleness is the only constructive response. Of course we need to applaud people when they change their minds, of course we need to welcome them wholeheartedly to the team, of course we need to bite our tongues when they discover 40-year-old talking points, of course we need to recognize that someone like McCain might be a more resonant voice for conservative viewers than liberals like Goldberg or Joy Behar. Righteously scolding latecomers is gratifying but counterproductive to the cause — a self-centered move in its own right.
Empathy is a muscle. It would do all of us good to strengthen it, and that means not just reflecting on our experiences but exercising our imaginations. Imagine a terrible thing happening to you, and how you would like to be treated in the aftermath; now recognize that the terrible thing already happens to thousands of Americans every day. The goal is not to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes; the goal is to recognize that someone else’s shoes may never fit you and yet they still deserved to be warm and dry.
It should not take a difficult childbirth/a gay son/a wife with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma/a transgender parent to realize that medical bankruptcy or discrimination are terrible, dehumanizing things. People deserve empathy not because we see our own suffering in theirs but because they are people who are suffering.
And if a personal experience does bring a specific experience of suffering into focus, have the humility to outsource your ideas about what needs to be done to experts and activists who have thought and cared about the terrible thing for longer than you have.
Meghan McCain’s realization about the necessity of universal parental leave is wonderful, and I’m grateful for it. I’m eager to see her try to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. And I expect that in doing so, she might have another realization: That it’s frustrating to try to persuade people to care about an injustice when they haven’t suffered through it themselves.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.