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Mothers Need More than Luck to Thrive

Nearly every culture has talismen and rituals around luck. As we near St. Patrick’s Day, it’s impossible not consider the four-leaf clover and the oft-repeated “luck of the Irish.” But the concept of luck is also slippery, easily cloaking the systemic injustices and lack of necessary social supports mothers face. Moreover, it hides the continual labor women do to navigate these inequities.

Mothers who are most likely to thrive (according to the traditional parameters typically used in sociological and public health research) are white, heterosexual, married, formally educated, and economically secure. Meanwhile, extensive data shows that mothers of color experience disproportionate levels of poverty and maternal mortality rates than white women. This is not a matter of luck; it’s a matter of racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic systems of oppression that deeply impact mothers, particularly mothers of color.

Still, many of the nearly 100 mothers I interviewed across the United States referenced luck, and not always in the ways you might expect. Three of the women’s stories ensue. Carina is a Filipina, single mother who often works three or four jobs to make ends meet, but still struggles financially. When we spoke, Carina explained how she has had to say no to birthday party invites because she could not afford gas money, and she often has had to rely on friends to construct a patchwork of care since paying a babysitter would be impossible on her income.

When we chatted, Carina said: “I’ve been very lucky to be categorized as low-income.” She added: “There are so many options out there that you can receive. You just have to know the right person or how to say it right.” Sometimes the process is so time intensive that Carina has opted not to apply for the aid for which she qualifies. In other words, luck is not the primary factor. Carina may be perceived at state services offices as a “model minority;” she is adept at navigating the fickle nature of state support systems; and she presents as a dedicated, confident, well-adjusted mother. Change any of these markers and the limited support she receives is likely to change. Carina also omits her own much-needed perseverance and know-how necessary to run the gauntlet established to access aid the to which she is entitled.

Meredith, a white, former IT professional, stepped out of waged work due to the time she spent advocating for her son who needs additional support at school. She explained that she and her family were “very, very lucky” to have found a great aide for her child who was a “perfect fit.” They are paying out-of-pocket for this support because their son would not be permitted to attend general education classes at his school otherwise. Meredith did not acknowledge the interpersonal skills or access to wealth and time required to execute this challenging task, even as she felt she had to leave waged work so she could ensure her son could access services their school district is required to provide.   

Becky is a white, married woman with one child and left a position she loved as a school teacher because of their unwillingness to accommodate her breastfeeding needs. In her new position, her dad brings her son to her work. She explained this was possible because the “owner was a mom.” She continued: “I’ve been really lucky to have people around that have that same vision of being able to work and be a mother and wanting to support that.” Class certainly plays a role in Becky’s father being available to help with childcare, and Becky glosses over the profound struggle she experienced when she left her teaching position. She undermines that she secured her new position after years of successful work in the field, executed a thorough career search for this fit, and earned an education from a well-regarded university. Interestingly, she adds: “There’s that feeling of guilt” for having these benefits because “I want that for everyone.”

Each mother’s story highlights gaping holes in our social safety net and the profound labor women exert to navigate them. There’s some self-consolation that comes from thinking “I’m doing better than some, who have it really bad;” however, using “luck” as a balm also permits these women (and many others like them, including myself) to frame their life situations as being a matter of chance (not skill), unimpacted by class, race, gender, sexual orientation and more.

Mothers, and their children, are deeply impacted by their lack of access to the resources they need to survive, with women of color, single mothers, and mothers experiencing poverty being most severely affected. Although seemingly innocuous, eliding of luck with an absence of agency ultimately cloaks systemic injustices that shape how motherhood is experienced by historically marginalized groups of women and reduces the impetus for bolstering social supports for mothers (including family-friendly work policies, paid leave, and subsidized childcare). The impact of framing various aspects of motherhood as luck discredits the moral obligation intrinsic to both social communities and individual families.

Naming privileges outright as well as claiming ownership of one’s role in securing certain advantages may go a long way in terms of addressing the guilt while simultaneously reshaping these conversations in a way that gives more space for the reform that is needed. One woman I talked to said best: “It shouldn’t have to be luck. It should be equal for all, and I think that’s the hope for this country. It’s just making it happen.”  

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