Reshma Saujani is an activist, author and the founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms, a movement to secure paid family leave, affordable childcare, pay equity and other support for mothers in the workplace. As Mother's Day nears, the Marshall Plan for Moms is releasing a new campaign calling for an end to "chronic mom guilt" — an all-too-familiar phenomenon exacerbated by the lack of relief, financial or otherwise, afforded to mothers. Ahead, Saujani shares why mothers need more than empty gestures; they need meaningful action.
My first Mother’s Day as a mom, I was grateful for the gift of motherhood itself. After a long and arduous battle with infertility, I didn’t need a fancy bouquet or a day at the spa; I finally had a healthy, happy 3-month-old. A day with him was a gift on its own.
Fast forward to the spring of 2020: my first Mother’s Day as a mom of two. I had spent the last two months trying, and failing, to balance caring for my small children and caring for my small business; caring for myself was out of the question. I was spending my days cooking and cleaning and Zoom-schooling, and my nights emailing and scheduling and praying my newborn son would sleep long enough to let me cross just one more item off the to-do list.
All to say, by the time May came around, my prevailing emotion wasn’t exactly gratitude for the gift of motherhood — it was overwhelming, all-encompassing exhaustion. That Mother’s Day, what I wanted most — what I needed most — wasn’t a scented candle, or a day with my kids. What I needed was time to myself; time spent being anything but a mother.
Counterintuitive as it may sound, that request was hardly unique. Last year, a survey of moms revealed that two-thirds of us wanted sleep, a day off or a night or weekend alone at a hotel for Mother’s Day; only 2& wanted jewelry (macaroni or otherwise).
What does it say about the state of American motherhood that the ultimate gift for moms is a day where they don’t have to feel like a mom? Nothing us mothers don’t already know: that every other day of the year, we’re under-supported and overburdened, undervalued and overlooked.
Despite the flood of corporate emails around Mother’s Day (“This Mother’s Day, buy your mom the gift of a five-dollar foot-long!"), only 40 percent of those companies — covering less than a quarter of the United States workforce — offer paid parental leave. That number is positively gargantuan compared to the mere 6% of companies offering comprehensive childcare benefits. All the while, moms face a steep and stubborn “motherhood penalty,” costing them jobs, opportunities and promotions — as well as up to 20% of their income per child.
But it’s not just the business world that fails to support us. Even before the pandemic shuttered schools and forced over three million women from the workforce — two-thirds of whom still haven’t returned — women were spending an average of 28 hours a week doing unpaid caregiving work. So before we give the 28% of dads a pat on the back for wanting to spend Father’s Day with their kids, let’s remember that they’re dedicating significantly less time to caregiving every other day of the year.
And then there’s the mom guilt: the fear that, if we’re a mom who also has a paid job, we’re getting the balance wrong; that if we’re a full-time mom, we’re showing our children that women are unambitious, unintelligent or just plain un-feminist; that if we’re burnt out, it’s a sign of personal failure. It’s the natural consequence of a society that not only insists women can have it all, but expects women to do it all, without any help at all.
Which brings me back to this Mother’s Day, one where I’m not asking for a card or cardigan — or even a day off.
What I want most — what us moms need most — are workplaces that empower moms to grow their careers and grow their families. I want policies including comprehensive paid leave, affordable, quality childcare and guaranteed reproductive care. And I want a broader reimagining of workplace culture: one where moms are encouraged to take the time they need to care for their families, and where men are expected to do the same.
We also need a radical shift in how our labor is valued at home. Last year, I wrote about how women should be paid for the $1.5 trillion worth of caretaking work we do every year — and I still believe that’s the case. But I also believe we can’t just stop at compensating mothers for their work; we also have to shift some of that work onto fathers, too.
Finally, we need to put an end to mom guilt, once and for all, and cultivate a society where moms aren’t defined by how much or how little they work, or whether they work at all, but rather, whether they’re raising compassionate, generous, thoughtful children — the kind to proudly shower their parents with popsicle-stick picture frames and burnt toast in bed.
Only then will we be able to truly appreciate the extraordinary gift of motherhood itself — on Mother’s Day, and every day.
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