In anticipation of Mother’s Day on May 14, we convened a group of women at Oxfam who have expertise around gender, care, and labor policies—as well as feelings about being a woman in the world today. It was a fascinating and illuminating conversation about a holiday with deep, complicated, and emotional roots.
I think it's fair to say that Mother's Day has become a weird cultural touch point for us all. I do like the history of Mother's Day in the US, which has to do with anti-militarism–but it has obviously mutated into something that's about commercialization and sort of the sanctification of what it means to be a mother. So I wonder how you all feel about it now.
I want to comment on the fascinating transition of what Mother’s Day was–that it was to recognize the sacrifices of mothers who are sending their children off to war–and what it is now-a day where we sort of valorize the idea of the woman who does it all. It's like we've contained motherhood in this concept that is so unattainable–and we've erased any sort of idea of the sacrifice of what it takes to be a mother.
But what does Mother's Day mean now? I see a lot of moms saying, for Mother's Day, I just want to get away from my family. I want a day off, I want to go to the spa. Whereas, when fathers have Father's Day, there's the intention for them to do something with their kids.
The distinction between Mother's Day and Father's Day is fascinating; my daughter, now 21, often remarks when she sees a man with little kids, wondering that that’s still not the norm; it's moms who are constantly having the relationship with the little kids–either at home or even in a care facility; it's still a woman's role.
As a kid, for Mother's Day, our gift would be alleviating some of the care responsibilities–and I had never really thought about that till you just said that, Sarah. Our gift would be: we will cook dinner, we will do the cleaning. And for Father's Day, it would be like we're going to do an activity.
I have friends who feel like it's a day that recognizes the societal pressure to reproduce. And the idea that if you do not do so as a woman, you are not fulfilling your purpose of existence. It has become a very gendered highlighting of what women's role “is supposed to be” in society.
I've gotten several emails from online vendors warning me about Mother's Day, and saying you can opt out of our messaging on this–so at least the commercial world is starting to recognize that it can be a very difficult time for a lot of people.
Do any of you want to address Marjorie Taylor Greene's recent comment about who is a mother? She was talking to a stepmother–Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers’ union–and Greene said the only person who is a mother is the one who gave birth.
In my mind, it relates to reproductive rights. These people are saying you are not a mother unless you have carried a child within your body and given birth (in whatever manner).
And it’s fascinating because it's just another comment in a larger narrative that is saying to women that your sole purpose is to create life–particularly if you are a white, upper-middle-class woman, your job is to have children in this country. So that's just really sickening. Because she's just adding so much negativity to that conversation.
There is an argument that the pro-life movement is racist, that they want to compel white women to have more babies.
A lot of what motherhood is like truly is suffering, on various levels. From my own experience, the moment you have a kid, you live two truths all the time. You have so much love for a tiny little thing, but also so much fear and so much sadness, because they're constantly growing up and they're constantly changing in front of you.
My daughter used to say the word “dappydoo” instead of open when she wanted something opened. And it was my favorite thing. But she said it for like two weeks, and now she says open. And I miss that. Do I want that back? Yes. But I'm so happy that she's developing language.
So it's this strange feeling of love/pain all at once. I think motherhood brings that out. It's like you can see that love and pain are two sides of the same coin.
And it’s those kinds of things that are not recognized by Mother's Day. No one is out there saying, “Thanks for being up all night with your toddler while the dad is asleep in the bed.” That’s the kind of thing that is erased by today’s Mother's Day–that deep suffering that is also something you would completely do again. I would get up with her a million times and hold her and help her fall back asleep–but oh God, I’m tired.
I do also share your sense of loss–every time my kids went from being one stage in their development to another, I would miss the previous ones so much. Like I really miss my two-year-old kids. But now they're adults, and it's a different relationship, and they're gone forever
I've heard so much about people saying, especially for the birthing parent, that one of the big components of becoming a parent is losing your identity; you become subsumed into being a parent, and that becomes like primary. And I've even heard people say that they need to mourn the loss of who they were as they shift into this new person.
It was really stark in the early days. I firmly believe this country needs to give the people who go through the act of carrying and then birthing a child at least six months off from everything. Your body takes forever to heal. It never really looks the same again.
And your hormones are absolutely on a roller coaster–especially the first six weeks. I've never cried so much in my life. I've also never laughed so much.
I came across the word matrescence after giving birth. And I was like, yes. People talk about how you go through a really big change called adolescence: you're a child, then you make this huge transition. Your hormones are on a roller coaster. You're doing all these things and you become an adult and you learn about who you are that way.
People are calling it matrescence because it's so similar. Your chemistry changes, and your brain rewires. And we don’t talk about it–another part of this narrative where we don't talk about the suffering and the transformation of motherhood. We just highlight the good stuff in order to keep the society we want to keep.
I noted recently that I don't know what my style is anymore. All I wear is stretchy things. And it's partly because it's easy and quick, and I don't mind if things get spilled on me. But it's also because it's stretchy and comfortable and my body’s different. I don’t really know what to do with it.
You know, they want to tell you to bounce back, but I don’t think that happens in so many ways. I think people take a long time to figure out who they are.
The best emotional characterization of having a child I’ve heard is that it's your heart walking around outside your body–and you never get over that. Your mind is always on your well-being of your kids, and sometimes it's joyful, and sometimes it's really painful, because you feel everything that they feel, whatever they're going through.
To talk a little bit about our work at Oxfam, it’s shocking to me that our country does not guarantee paid leave after you give birth. It splits your body in two. It completely changes your body. It takes months to recover. If you're breastfeeding, you're just this sort of wet, dreamy, sleepless presence–it's this enormous physical commitment. And that we don’t respect that or accommodate it in any way just undermines this whole idea of Mother's Day and saying, We honor mothers and what they do–because there's just no way.
And to speak to the inequality aspect around women in low wage jobs–they just are not guaranteed any kind of leave. We have just denied the humanity and dignity of this huge swath of our population. And they are disproportionately women of color, and from immigrant and refugee communities, and we don't see them as people and as parents. It's just stunning.
I've been reading Caring for America, which is the history of federal funding for caregivers, and the creation of the home caregiving system. The ways in which home caregivers were excluded from federal policy is very aligned with the work that we're doing–but it also brings to mind the history of Mother's Day as honoring the sacrifice of women sending their sons to war.
The book does a very good job of recognizing the ways in which Black women, Black mothers were excluded from any consideration of any federal policy, because a lot of the federal policies that created our social safety net system (such as Social Security and unemployment) were in order to keep white mothers at home caregiving, and allow white men to be the primary breadwinner. But at no point was the motherhood of Black women respected or acknowledged, despite how they were often heads of households and the primary breadwinners
It's interesting thinking about the history of whose motherhood has been respected in this country. And especially if we're thinking about the history of enslavement where motherhood was never respected for Black women, despite the fact that enslaved status followed the status of the mothers. You know, it was like motherhood was used against Black women for such a long time.
And even if you think about the 20th century and the labor, not just of giving birth, but also the labor of family, of earning an income—they were never respected the same. And then of course we see that long legacy today in terms of which workers have access to things like paid leave.
And in which communities is the maternal mortality rate the highest? and the infant mortality rate the highest? And these are so intrinsically connected. It really goes back to the ways that we don't actually respect motherhood in this country. It’s just performative.
We not only don't respect the physical nature of what it is to give birth, we don't respect the care responsibilities that women hold. We don't respect or celebrate the fact that a lot of mothers are primary breadwinners. We don’t respect and celebrate motherhood in a way that is tangible and realistic. Aside from a day when you maybe will cook for someone or give them a card.
I do wonder if you have any more thoughts about the fact that for generations, as our economy has industrialized and urbanized, it's all been built on the unit of a household where the kids are raised, and the elderly are cared for, and the labor is completely uncompensated. And that is the bedrock that the whole machine runs on–they make more workers, and the workers go to work, but it’s unrecognized and unpaid. Do you think there's any way forward to actually recognize, value, and compensate that kind of care work?
I think one of the things that we are suffering from here is the fact that so many policies in the United States were built on the assumption of a very specific type of household where there is a male breadwinner and there is a woman who can provide care–maybe she works and maybe she doesn't. But in general, things like unemployment were built around a male breadwinner, Social Security was built around a male breadwinner. Minimum wages, everything you can imagine, was built with the framework of a nuclear household where there is a male breadwinner.
Because of that framework, nothing will function the way it should function today, when we are trying to really consider the roles of many people in the working society. Until we intentionally consider a different structure, we will be replicating these systems: where women's responsibilities–whether it's caregiving inside or outside of the home–are valued a little bit less. I think there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we consider what families are, and the roles that people hold as people.
But there are so many ways to do that—for example, paid leave. Even when men have access to family leave, they don't always take the full amount because there's this sort of internalized notion that they don't need to, or that they need to be the breadwinner. So many of our systems were created to support the financial well-being of male breadwinners, right? The assumption is that the financial well-being of the male breadwinner will then trickle down to the family, and he will take care of the needs of the family through his income.
There are obviously many proposed pieces legislation that would fix a lot of these issues. For example, universal child care, and a more robust long term care system. Not to mention that we've had some of these programs in place in the past. We had universal child care during World War Two; and at one point, Congress that would have enacted universal child care, but it got vetoed by President Nixon.
I do think that because of organizers who have pushed the Biden administration to focus on care work, it’s probably the first time in history it's gotten to this point where we are acknowledging as a nation the importance of this work–how critical it is to underpinning our economy and also our general well-being.
So universal child care, long term care-these policies would outsource caregiving and allow families to do that, which I, which is great and something we support. But I often think about, what if we had policies that allow people to do their own caregiving, right? For example, what if we lived in a society where one parent could make enough money to sustain a family of four? Then, one of the parents could stay home if they wanted to take care of their kids. But we’re nowhere near that. We have families where both parents are working, and it's still not enough money.
I just I think about kind of how a more people-centered economy, how labor policies, wage policies could facilitate caregiving and could sort of recognize and value it. Now we just want people to be able to survive.
But it could be something bigger – it could be that people have the option to stay home and care for an aging relative or whatever.
I do think there's this world beyond what we're even talking about now that I think we should hold on to.
The irony is that there's a framework for that via Social Security, specifically for people with disabilities and or the elderly. It should be better (for example, home health aides need to be paid more); but there is a framework.
But that framework just doesn't apply to people with young children under the age of five.
Which is what's very interesting–that the federal government has a system where they will subsidize and or give direct payments to people for care work, but not if you have children under the age of five.
I would really love for us to really reframe a conversation around the respect for women who are the primary breadwinners–whether partnered or not, whether they have children or not. How we can better create systems to support that, such that if there are caregiving responsibilities in your home– whether for children or for a home or for a partner or for an elder–there are systems that are in place to help facilitate that and to respect the labor that it takes.
By creating these new systems we are undoing the patriarchal social decisions that were made in the past in a really productive way, and honoring the work of women that is so often erased or disrespected or undervalued.
I think one of the ironies around the ways in which policies have been designed is that they actually speak to the identity of being a mother, but not the practice.
And I think about the most underserved women in the US, who are not able to “mother” because they work three jobs. Even the act of mothering has become a privilege because you have the time and resources to do it. So many women have given birth and have children, but they don't actually get to be mothers in the fullest sense because of all of these other burdens that they have on them.
So there's a lot to question about Mother's Day and what we're actually celebrating.
I've been thinking a lot about the privilege I have as a mother right now. Just going through my recent experiences with sleep deprivation–I'm able to have conversations with my colleagues and say, can we reschedule this? I just need to rest, and I get to recuperate from the tough nights.
I have the privilege of being able to reset myself so that when my family comes home at the end of the day, I can be the best mother I can be. Thinking about just as Rebecca said, the mother who is up all night with her kid because they're sick and then they have to go and do what? Shift one here and then shift two over here. They're not going to be in a good mental state.
When we have different tiers of employment, and you have better healthcare with this job and no healthcare with this job, you’re going to see the compound benefits for a person who has the better job.
It's just so basic.
I think a lot about this story of a farm worker who left her kid at home and took the video monitor to the field with her so she could see what her kid was up to during the day. And a lot of the poultry workers we talked to went back to work like a day after they'd given birth. It's just relentless, and if you're the primary breadwinner, you cannot afford to not show up.
And that's particularly ironic with the abortion stuff, right? They've made it harder for you not to give birth, but it's still really hard to actually be a mother in the sense of taking care of your kids, spending time with them, right? Being sort of mentally able to do that. So it's like the definition of motherhood only focuses on the birth part and not the stuff after.
After this interview, someone posed the question to the group, What would be your vision of an ideal Mother’s Day? Everyone agreed it would be great if our society cared less about Mother's Day itself, and more about a broader context where all moms are supported through robust, helpful public policies.
Thanks to the women who participated in this discussion! For a bit more about Oxfam’s work in support of caregivers, please refer to this story.