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The Grating Quality of Grateful Mothering (essay)

Last month, I was at Barnes and Noble killing a bit of time between a meeting and getting my kids from school, when I saw the Mother’s Day book table set up. Always interested in books, especially books about mothers, I bee-lined right over. Nearly half were gratitude journals, complete with pink hearts and other markers that indicated a strong targeting of women. Some were expressly labeled as being for moms.

As we gear up to Father’s Day, I haven’t seen any gratitude journals being hawked for men. I’ve seen BBQ sets, phone chargers, whiskey, and “world’s best dad” t-shirts aplenty – but not one item suggests that men should be more grateful to have the privilege of being a dad or should practice gratitude at all.

Some of the seeds of this particular discontent were planted during interviews I conducted with mothers for a book I’m writing. So often I heard from moms: “We’re so lucky to have found a great childcare provider,” or “I’m really lucky that my boss was understanding.”

Certainly, luck does have a role; even the best preparation can result in failure. And, I am by no means suggesting that these women are acting outside of what they been taught to do.

What nags at me though are the ways in which women specifically are expected to be grateful, even hone the skill of “being grateful” despite the fact that we earn more higher ed degrees, are the ones who carry the brunt of the work at home, continue to do the majority of the emotional work and planning for our families, are closing in on being the majority of breadwinners for families, and do all of this while earning half of what men do. [1] Meanwhile, when men have kids, their salary tends to tick up, rather than down.

Add to that: The US is the only developed country without paid leave; only 50% of women 18-34 have access to FMLA, which only guarantees unpaid leave; and families in every state are (on average) paying more for childcare than they are for housing. Feeling grateful yet?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be grateful for our family, our freedom, our access to food and our home. However, at what point is the push for gratitude too close of bedfellows with an effort to habitualize complacency?

In my nearly 100 interviews with moms around the country, I encountered women who have earned great degrees, married prudently, and worked hard at their jobs, all while being great moms. Many other moms were making a dollar out of two quarters by working multiple jobs, getting help where they could, and hoping that a good night kiss would make up for missing a school recital. Many of these moms ignored their own gumption citing luck instead acumen. Many also mentioned feeling guilty for the privileges they had access to.

What’s interesting, though, is that if the average mom in almost any EU country read about the experiences of their US peers, they would be appalled.

For instance, Becky[2] is a young woman with one child living in the Los Angeles area. She mentioned “luck” three times in our interview, twice in regard to her work situation. The first time she said, “I think I’m really lucky to have people around that have the same vision of being able to work and be a mother and wanting to support that.”

What did her day look like that made her so grateful? In her words: “My dad would bring [my son to my work], and then I would wear him and then nurse him back to sleep, and then my dad would take him home again. … Just because that owner was a mom and she was so flexible with it.” Of course, after blending work and motherhood while at work, she then got home and still had to wear both hats, while keeping her marriage going and tending to her own “self-care,” which I’m guessing rarely counted as more than brushing her teeth.

In this statement, Becky also glosses over her own struggle over leaving her position as a teacher, during which she had to hide under her desk while she pumped milk. (Despite laws protecting women from this, every woman who worked and nursed mentioned how challenging it was to do both.)

In her new role for a national provider of summer programming, Becky describes herself as “lucky” to be one of the “boss people” which thereby provides her more “flexibility.”  She adds: “There’s that feeling of guilt” for having these benefits because “I want that for everyone.”

Gratitude and guilt are two sides of the same coin, but it’s hard not to consider that in most other developed nations women are permitted much more time off — often weaning their babies before returning to work AND getting at least partial pay during that time. No guilt involved. Keep in mind that the average period of maternity and paternity leave in the EU is 98 weeks. Typically, this is a mixture of full and partial paid leave.

California does offer mothers like Becky partial pay coverage for 12 weeks after the birth of a baby under the Paid Family Leave law. Nearly every mom I spoke to in California mentioned this benefit, and several noted that it was indispensable. Nearly all mentioned luck or gratitude in the context of this conversation.

Indeed, California is one of the few states that offer moms this benefit. New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington are the only other states to do so.

Only 50% of women 18-34 qualify for FMLA coverage, and, importantly, FMLA only guarantees that a job will be retained. It does not guarantee paid leave. This is especially crucial for young families who are take unpaid leave at the exact time that they are experiencing a large increase in expenditures. It was not unusual to interview women who went back to work just two weeks after giving birth (even via c-section, which thus bars women from driving for 6 weeks or more). In some cases, U.S. women were back at work just days after delivering their babies. One in four women go back in two weeks.

It doesn’t get better for U.S. moms of slightly older kids. Andrea, from Denver, would love to be a stay-at-home mom, but simply cannot afford to do so. “It’s a sacrifice” to go to work, she says, because “I feel like I would have been the perfect care.” Then she added a silver lining: “I’ve been lucky with care [though].”

There have always been women who have worked when they’d rather be home (often immigrant women and women of color) as well as women who wanted to work but felt coerced into staying home (often middle-class white women).

While Andrea’s effort to see the glass half full could be construed as “stoic” or “noble,” her plight highlights the ways in which her work as a mother is simply not deemed important by our country or her community. I did not inquire about Andrea’s salary, but many women have pointed out the irony of the government pushing them into low-waged work only to have to outsource care to other low-wage workers when both sets of women would likely rather be at home with their own children if they could only make sure basic needs were covered. Countries such as Germany (as well as others) have instituted wages for familial caregivers, thus putting their money where their political rhetoric is when it comes to claiming mothering is vital work.

We all know that stable, close relationships are critical to a child’s ability to thrive, and yet little is done to ensure that children receive the care they need – whether via supporting mothers economically or by ensuring that daycare environments meet basic standards.

A stay-at-home mom in the San Francisco area mentioned the degree of chance involved in daycares. Nicole stated that after visiting a couple local daycare centers, she was left thinking: “This is not okay. I’m so lucky I don’t have to drop my kid off here.”

As Nicole continued talking it became clear that her ability to opt out of substandard care wasn’t just personal; she was adamant that these places should not be allowed at all. Nicole had lived in France for two years as a mother and was quick to point out that places like this wouldn’t exist over there, at least not as part of the crèche system that so many families there rely on.

Andrea who earlier noted her good luck with childcare, later added, “It shouldn’t have to be luck though. It should be equal quality for all, and I think that’s the hope for this country. It’s just making it happen.”

At the end of the day though, some children are stuck with substandard care because their parent(s) can’t afford any better, and some women still work there despite the poor working conditions. For every parent who can buy their way out of these facilities, many others cannot.

I get the importance of practicing gratitude. There’s always someone who has it worse and it’s all too easy to throw a lavish pity parade for oneself. But, counting one’s blessings won’t bring the change that is required so women don’t carry the brunt of poverty, low-waged work, and single parenthood while simultaneously being told to be grateful.

Getting two weeks of unpaid leave after giving birth, finding a daycare slot at a place that doesn’t strike fear in your heart, or getting access to legally mandated spaces to pump milk are not things US women should be grateful for.

Instead of practicing gratitude, write a letter to your congressperson, hire a mom for the next job opening at your company, make sure the lactation room is comfortable and private, or join IAMAS (International Association of Maternal Action and Scholarship is at where we help teach women how to advocate for themselves using research from our community of scholars, lawyers, and writers.

Men, with Father’s Day just around the corner, don’t forget to be thankful if your partner re-gifts their gratitude journals to you.


[2] Names and locations may have been changed to protect privacy of interviewees. Some minor changes have been made to statement to assist in ease of reading.

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