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Kimberly Simmons teaches women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
Mother’s Day 2020 was a time of acute crisis: High fevers spiked, daycare and schools closed, elders couldn’t safely leave their homes. Some working mothers transitioned to remote work and a significant number experienced job loss. Mothers, though, are overrepresented in essential frontline jobs, requiring in-person hours regardless of the risks. Many gave up sleep, exercise and any bit of leisure time to keep from getting fired while quasi-homeschooling without a map.
The United States has never been a particularly safe country for mothers — this reality sparked the founding of Mother’s Day and underscores generations of activism. Early reforms included the Fair Labor Act in 1938, establishing a minimum wage and maximum working hours for some. World War II brought public investment to support the rise of Rosie the Riveters.
The women’s liberation movement achieved the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the inclusion of women in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — although the carving out of domestic and agricultural workers means many, especially women of color, still have no meaningful workplace protections. Title IX promised equal access to education in 1972, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed in 1978. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed some workers unpaid leave, a promised step toward establishing paid leave for all.
More family-friendly policies seemed inevitable as women increasingly entered the paid labor force, by choice and by necessity. The Personal Responsibility Act in 1996, compelling poor mothers to work for pay, regardless of the age of their children, signalled an expectation of universal wage labor for all adults. Unfortunately, additional supports for caregiving never occurred.
The United States documents more maternal deaths — and especially of Black women — than any other Industrialized country. We remain the rare country without paid family and medical leave. The motherhood penalty rages on at work — 24 percent of Maine’s employed single mothers live in poverty, 22 percent of Maine families live in child care deserts. Working mothers comprise less than 5 percent of our current Congress, and this is the highest number in history.
Our culture sets us up for this struggle, often suggesting that we should simply fuel our labor with love. Caregiving is presumed to be relatively easy for women to provide, not worthy of compensation, because we describe women — in media, policy and in our interactions with each other — as natural and bottomless “human givers” (a theory brilliantly developed by philosopher Kate Manne). This framing encourages us to internalize the expectation that good mothers can juggle endless demands, and to externalize the costs of care onto individual women.
COVID-19 exacerbated gender inequalities at work and at home. Caregivers share stories of difficult decisions and extreme personal sacrifice. Mother’s Day 2021 could be the day we collectively agree to stop asking mothers to endure unrelenting stress. As sociologist Jess Calarco noted, “other countries have safety nets, the U.S. has mothers,” but this could change.
Innovative ideas populate the legislative pipeline. The Thrive Agenda proposes widespread investments for working families, arguing that care is basic infrastructure for a thriving country. Caring Across Generations offers the #CareCantWait campaign, bridging advocacy for paid and unpaid care work. MomsRising and Family Values at Work share tools for civic engagement at the federal level. Members of Maine’s Paid Family Leave coalition advocate for policies to support care at the state level. A new public investment in caregiving is essential for gender equity and for the wellbeing of our whole community, and these organizations show us how it can be done.
Today’s mothers need some acute care ourselves — we shouldn’t cancel breakfast in bed. Along with private appreciations, we also need public ones. This Mother’s Day, write a card to mom and to your legislators, demanding action on family friendly policies now.