In the 107 years since America celebrated Mother’s Day for the first time, motherhood hasn’t changed much. Moms are celebrated once a year, but on every other day, our labor is taken for granted, undervalued or disregarded. We don’t need more gestures of appreciation; we need a national reckoning about the economic value we create with our bodies and our time, without adequate remuneration or support.
The pandemic has laid bare the reality that motherhood is a job. The truth is, it’s many jobs. Even before Covid-19 shuttered schools and forced 2.3 million women from the work force, women were spending an average of 28 hours a week doing unpaid work — as chefs and private chauffeurs, scraped-knee surgeons and iPad-use mediators.
Plenty of men are certainly putting in that work as well. But women of all ages and races, income brackets and employment statuses are spending over a third more time on unpaid labor than their male counterparts are.
Yet women’s labor isn’t valued. Quite literally, unpaid housework isn’t included in the gross domestic product, despite the fact that, according to the International Monetary Fund, domestic work around the world amounts to anywhere from 10 to 60 percent of G.D.P. (The lack of specificity in this statistic shows how far we have to go in contemplating, let alone quantifying, the economic contributions of motherhood.) And if American women earned minimum wage for their unpaid care-taking and housekeeping work, they would have made $1.5 trillion in 2019.
Those hours of unpaid work affect women’s ability to do paid work. In April, Oxfam announced that in 2020 alone, women around the world lost $800 billion in income as they lost or left jobs to care for their families.
The numbers are galling, but I hope they can be galvanizing. Because more than just awareness, acknowledgment and appreciation of women’s labor, mothers need material support. There is a growing movement for means-tested federal stipends for moms. Such direct payments would give women the means to afford child care and re-enter the work force.
Money is one way to value unpaid labor, but cash alone doesn’t tackle the insidious notion that motherhood isn’t a real “career” worth compensating. Of course, it is, which is probably why Americans spend about $25 billion each Mother’s Day to thank moms for what they do — but that figure isn’t nearly enough.
More than just a financial bandage, we need vast change on a structural, cultural and personal level.
Eleven senators have introduced a resolution called the Marshall Plan for Moms to advance that kind of change. The plan would deliver affordable child care, robust paid leave and improved access to mental health support to millions of struggling families. President Biden’s recently proposed American Families Plan has the potential to complement and build on the resolution, offering a broader, structural investment in education and child care — as well as tax credits for middle- and low-income families with children.
Should the plans become a reality, the federal government would join a growing number of workplaces in offering much-needed support to mothers and fathers alike.
That’s where the cultural change comes in: While 40 percent of workplaces now offer paternity leave to male employees, 70 percent of fathers who do take parental leave take 10 days or less. Meanwhile, mothers literally pay the price for putting their careers on hold. One study found that, over a 15-year period, women who take even a year off from paid employment earn 39 percent less than women who work without pause.
The blame doesn’t rest solely at the feet of men. Most mothers worry, rightly, that they will face penalties for taking leave, and a majority of Americans still believe that men should be the family breadwinners. That’s why we need workplaces to incentivize — or better yet, expect — men to take that leave when offered, and to welcome women back into the office, without penalty or punishment, when they choose to return.
But equity in the workplace is only possible if there’s equity at home, too. Mothers report that they work longer, harder “second shifts” at home than fathers do. For heterosexual couples, it’s a pretty simple equation — if we want to shift some of the burden off mothers, we need to shift more of it onto fathers.
Millions of women are also raising children without fathers in the picture because they’re single parents, in same-sex unions or co-parenting with a friend or family member. Altering our outdated conceptions of the roles and responsibilities of a family unit will only reaffirm that every type of family is, well, a family.
We don’t have to imagine what our nation would look like were we to adopt this change. Icelandic parents — men and women — receive six months of paid leave at 80 percent of their average income. In Norway, women do only 59 more minutes of unpaid housework a day than men; in the United States, the number is 105 minutes. In Denmark, couples spend less than half of what Americans do on child care. All of these countries report better health outcomes for children and mothers, a smaller gender gap and higher levels of happiness than the United States does.
And that’s the point: Supporting moms better would benefit all Americans — not just mothers, but also fathers and children, employees and employers, communities in every city and county, and especially communities of color.
Mother’s Day is an American tradition. So is the trivialization of motherhood. If we want to celebrate the former, we have to put an end to the latter. More than flowers and saccharine cards, moms deserve an acknowledgment of the fact that motherhood in America is broken — and a plan to fix it.
Reshma Saujani is the founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms campaign and Girls Who Code. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Pay Up: Reimagining Motherhood in America.”
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