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Bread and Roses for Mothers on Labor Day

Overall, labor conditions have improved in the U.S. since 1884, when the U.S. first celebrated Labor Day – a holiday that served as a concession by President Grover Cleveland to the strikers who pushed back against poor working conditions. Today, Labor Day marks important gains in workers’ rights and honors the countless ways U.S. workers bolster our economy.

Many U.S. workers (and their labor) continue to be exploited, though, chief amongst these are mothers. This exploitation takes shape via unrealistic mothering demands, under-remunerated pink-collar jobs, the wage penalties mothers carry in the name of flexibility, and the expectation that women sustain the U.S. economy via their unpaid carework without complaint – even during a pandemic.

Deprived of nannies, childcare centers, and in-person education, mothers have served as the default sand wall against the storm. While data folks are still crunching the numbers, we know more than 2 million women have exited paid employment since spring of 2020. Mothers who stayed in their jobs have been 4 to 5 times more likely to reduce their hours than fathers. The ripple effect for mothers won’t be good in decades to come.

Mothers already face a 50% wage gap compared to childfree women, with mothers of color facing even harsher inequities. This number adjusts for typical work disparities such as working fewer hours, off-ramping, etc. In other words, mothers are simply paid less. (Men experience a fatherhood bonus in the realm of 5–10%.) Meanwhile, women’s unpaid work contributes nearly $10 trillion to the global economy annually. You’d be misguided to think that women’s “invisible” labor isn’t a key factor in the success of businesses everywhere.

On top of being critical workers on the homefront, women are the majority of service workers and nursing staff that politicians deem “essential workers.” Leaving overworked, under-supported mothers to do nearly all the heavy lifting is unsustainable for them and their kids. It’s also terrible national planning.

Here’s the truth: despite most mothers working outside the home, few can achieve financial independence. Over the past few years, I’ve been interviewing mothers around the U.S., gleaning stories of what mothers must do to stay afloat, financially and personally. I’ve met women who never see their spouses due to flipped work schedules that shave off a few hours of childcare; women who work two or even three jobs and still can’t afford gas to take their child to a birthday party; women who return to work days after giving birth because, even though their infant is in the NICU, they don’t want to use up their FMLA days before the baby “really” needs them at home; and women for whom childcare is so expensive they have no choice but to “opt out” of their jobs.

The lack of support nearly all mothers experience may not look like the poor safety protocols in factories of old but make no mistake: workers – namely mothers – are getting hurt. If we want mothers to remain employed, we must acknowledge their role as primary caregivers – a role fathers have largely been reluctant to take on.

A few facts:

First, the U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee paid leave after childbirth. Only 15% of women have access to paid leave via their employer.

Second, quality childcare is not only incredibly expensive, but it is often hard to access due to waiting lists and commuting issues.

Third, part-time work is penalized in this country, offering substantially lower wages (compared to similar full-time work) and less access to healthcare, yet mothers can often only manage part-time employment because childcare is expensive, schools don’t offer before- and after-school care, and extended families are seldom within driving distance.

Fourth, 40% of U.S. households are led by a single parent — nearly all of whom are mothers. Less than half of mothers receive their legally mandated child-support, and nearly 30% get nothing at all, which is one of many factors leading to a sobering statistic: 60% of homeless women are mothers with kids under age 18. Many of these women are employed.

Ultimately, mothers are raising tomorrow’s workers and citizens and doing the hard work to keep our economy churning while U.S. businesses and government feast on mothers’ milk (i.e., labor) for free.

If we want women to have babies, women need to know they have a fair chance to work and thrive. Common sense childcare infrastructure is and always will be a critical necessity to survive as a parent. Mothers also need paid leave, laws that ensure feminized and non-traditional (including part-time) labor are equitably reimbursed, racial equity in maternal health, more protected means of acquiring child support from the father of their child(ren), and revamped cultural norms around paternal involvement and intensive mothering.

When we think of labor and mothers, we think of the act of birthing a baby, but the labor of motherhood extends well past those few hours. All of U.S. mothers’ labor must be recognized this Labor Day and every day until this critical workforce gets the support required to have both bread and roses.

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