STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, that political firestorm over Ann Romney focused on stay-at-home moms. But two-thirds of women with young children work outside the home. Nearly half are the primary breadwinners for their families. And many say the political debate does not reflect their challenges in the workplace.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Two-earner families are the norm now. And yet...
ELLEN BRAVO: We unfortunately have a number of workplaces that operate as if workers are still men with wives at home full-time.
LUDDEN: Ellen Bravo heads Family Values at Work, a coalition that promotes paid leave programs.
BRAVO: So many moms are dying to be able to stay home at the most important moments, namely when they give birth and when their kid is sick, and aren't allowed to do so.
MARIANNE BULLOCK: It was the first time that my daughter had really been sick, and she was not nursing and she was lethargic.
LUDDEN: Marianne Bullock's 18-month-old had a stomach virus a few years ago. Bullock was a personal care assistant in Massachusetts and called in sick. The next day, she took her daughter to the hospital, where she was hydrated. The third morning, Bullock got ready for work.
BULLOCK: And as I was walking out the door, she vomited again, and I was, like, I just have to take her to the hospital. And so I called in, and when I called in, the care manager that I spoke to said: You just might as well not come back.
LUDDEN: Bullock was fired. She says the manager actually told her they'd rather hire someone without a child. Many companies do offer generous leave policies, and this year, Connecticut became the first state to mandate sick leave. But the U.S. is one of the only developed nations that does not require paid leave.
AMY KROHN: I didn't, for about five years, have any paid time off. So I had no sick time, no vacation time.
LUDDEN: Amy Krohn works part time, like many mothers, for a municipal government in Ohio. Staying home with a sick child has meant economic hardship. Even when she was sick, money came into play. Krohn once got strep throat when her husband was out of town. She took her two kids to daycare since she didn't feel able to care for them. But...
KROHN: The fact that I had to take them to daycare and pay for it really made me feel like I needed to go to work. So I actually went to work with strep throat, and just tried to avoid people and not get the whole office sick.
LUDDEN: Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner heads of the mother's advocacy group MomsRising. She says having a baby is a leading cause of temporary poverty. Many women with no maternity leave end up quitting their job to care for a baby.
KRISTIN ROWE-FINKBEINER: And when they lose those needed jobs, it's very hard to get back into the labor force, because all of a sudden, we have a cascading impact of motherhood, where right now, childcare costs more than university costs in many states in our nation.
LUDDEN: Combine that with women's unequal pay - and it's worse for mothers - and Rowe-Finkbeiner says some see no choice but to stay home because they can't afford childcare. She feels these issues help explain the current political gender gap. It's largely Democrats who champion paid leave and equal pay legislation. Republicans tend to join business groups in speaking out against it.
LISA HORN: We think employers are in a better position to offer that voluntarily, rather than having a one-size-fits-all federal leave mandate.
LUDDEN: Lisa Horn is with the Society for Human Resource Management. She says that more businesses are trying to be more family-friendly on their own. But a mandate?
HORN: It hampers an employer's flexibility in tailoring those leave programs, and at the same time adds that compliance burden, and that's costly. And many simply just can't afford it.
LUDDEN: Especially, she says, in this bad economy, when companies are trying to create jobs. Whatever the solution, the challenges of balancing work and family may yet play big on the campaign trail. Women are more than half the electorate, and both parties will continue to heavily court their votes. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.