Every year, starting as early as April first, I am inundated with Mother’s Day commercials and advertisements employing myself and audiences alike to “show our mothers that we care.” These ads equate the level of our appreciation for mothers with the cost and size of our gift. And, we seem to be buying big: According to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey, in 2018, “86 percent of Americans will celebrate Mother’s Day this year and spend an average of $180 per person,” and in total, Americans will spend as much as $23.1 billion. But while we laud mothers in our consumer economy, we do not carry that reverence into the place it matters most to mothers’ lives: policy.
According to New America’s Better Life Lab, “motherhood escalates the wage gap since more women drop out of the workforce or segregate into more flexible jobs in order to support themselves and their children.” Ending the persistent gender pay gap is one way we could give back to mothers in ways that really count. In 2016 women in the US were paid 80 percent of what men were paid. For mothers, that gap is wider: Working mothers make just 71 cents of the dollar working fathers make. In 2009, Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which according to the National Women’s Law Center, “restores longstanding law and helps to ensure that individuals subjected to unlawful pay discrimination are able to effectively assert their rights under the federal anti-discrimination laws.”
That helps, but most of the lingering pay gap comes from the distinctly low wages of the jobs women tend to do disproportionately: service jobs and care jobs. Advocates in the Make It Work campaign advise that wage earners need a much higher minimum wage, $15 instead of $7.25 where it’s set now, as well as a flat wage for tipped workers, to alleviate pay disparities between men and women.
The jobs that mothers work in disproportionately are not only the lowest paying but offer the worst benefits. They often have to take these jobs because of frequent disruptions to their career caused by the demands of caregiving in their own personal lives. Mothers in the direct care field, like elder care and nursing, primarily immigrant women, find themselves working late shifts, and holidays and weekends, for insufficient compensation. One health care worker and mother of two, a friend of mine who chose to omit her name to protect her job status, recently told me she was asked “to work Mother’s Day and the day before Mother’s Day because they are short staffed.” With limited staff and flexibility, most care agencies rely on overworked and underpaid women. As for a paid leave policy or paid time off when they need it to take care of their children or other family members, she noted that in most cases, “The agencies don’t have benefits. When these things happen, you are on your own.”
According to Elizabeth Weingarten and Zuzana Boehmová, most of the care our society depends on, paid or unpaid, is provided by women, “which means that they have less time for things like paid work, education, sleep, and leisure.” And since half of all homes with children younger than 18 in the United States have women as their breadwinners, something’s gotta give. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, if women were fairly compensated in their occupational areas, the U.S. economy would produce $512.6 billion more in income—this would be about 16 times what the U.S. spent on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families in 2015 and would decrease poverty levels for single women from 10.8 percent to 4.4 percent.
According to Aparna Mathur at the American Enterprise Institute and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution, a paid family leave policy could be paid for through a payroll tax rather than a mandate that would burden individual business, especially small businesses. According to New Jersey’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, workers in the state contribute just about $33.50 per year into a paid family leave fund—I’m sure that’s less than the amount many Americans spend on happy hours in a week. Democrats’ long-standing proposal for a federal paid family leave policy, the FAMILY Act, would cost most workers the equivalent of a cup of coffee per week.
Paid family leave could benefit all workers, but mothers who currently bear the costs not just of taking unpaid maternity leave, but also multiple leaves to take care of other family members over the course of their working lives, and suffer lower wages throughout the course of their lives because of these periods of not working, stand to benefit enormously from this reasonably low-cost policy fix.
When the burden is held by individuals, the cost of giving mothers the things they really need—shorter working hours, higher pay, quality child care, paid time off when they need it to look after their own health or the health of a loved one—is simply too steep, making the annual fancy brunch or that diamond necklace an easier purchase. But if we collectivized these costs through smart policies, they’d be more affordable than we might think.
Successful work-life balance requires a gainfully employed parent with the opportunities for workplace flexibility and access to reasonable care, but for many that’s not the case. My friend in the direct care field doesn’t have a “wellness room” to retreat to when her day gets tough, she doesn’t have the capability to work from home, and she will not be able to come into work late and leave early, but gains can be made through parental leave policies and fair compensation.
Evidence shows that as a country we value the “idea” of the mother—a person who fearlessly cares for us from infancy through adulthood and shows us unconditional love and sacrifice along the way. But if we value actual mothers, and not just the idea of them, we should start showing it by putting our money where it really matters—not just on Mother’s Day but all year long.