The modern holiday of Mother's Day was first celebrated in 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother, who had been a peace activist caring for wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. She created Mother's Day Work Clubs to address public health issues and appealed to mothers to band together to promote the “the great and general interests of peace.” While its roots are in activism and advocacy, Mother’s Day has over the past century become a commercialized holiday in which children provide flowers or brunch for their moms, a day to celebrate mothers with chocolate and perhaps a “day off.”
What do I really want for Mother’s Day? Paid family leave, universal health care and universal childcare. Astonishingly, of the 193 nations in the UN, only the United States, Suriname, and Papau New Guinea do not provide paid parental leave. And only 19% of workers in the US have access to paid leave through their employers, primarily white-collar workers. The US also has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world, and the risks are 3-4 times higher for black women. Thus, despite the fact that three-quarters of American mothers work outside the home, the United States ranks among the lowest of industrialized nations in systemic policies that support us. We have a school schedule based on an agrarian economic model that died long ago. The vast majority of us do not receive time off after having a child, much less paid time off. We are saddled with outrageous medical bills, and childcare now costs more than in-state college tuition in many parts of the United States.
What does this say about how our society values working mothers? I think it’s pretty obvious – we are not valued. Now call me crazy, but I believe that raising the next generation of human beings is a pretty important job, and a net bonus for humanity. Certainly at least as important as inventing the iPhone. And I’m pretty sure that anyone who has pushed a bowling ball out of her vagina will agree it isn’t for the faint of heart. Mothers are the strongest people I know, and American mothers are the least-supported women in the industrialized world.
The pandemic shattered the mythology that working mothers can “have it all” in this country. Almost three million women have left the workforce, and thirty years of workforce gains have been wiped out in a year. Women of color, who occupy a greater percentage of the low wage workforce, have been even harder hit. Most Americans today need two income families, and the days of having a June Cleaver at home baking cookies are over, if they ever really existed. Relying on the unpaid labor of women to get us through this crisis has become a crisis in and of itself. American mothers are the only mothers in the industrialized world without policies that support our families, and expecting us to continue to raise the next generations without these in place is ludicrous and frankly, patently unfair.
So what do I want for Mother’s Day this year? I want a return to the original activism of Anna Jarvis’ vision for this holiday. Flowers are nice, but I want systemic policy change. Comprehensive paid family leave, universal childcare and health care for all. Tall orders, I know. But I also know that mothers are among the hardest working people I know, and it’s up to us to fight for change, for ourselves, for our daughters, and for our society as a whole.