By Andrea Paluso and Michelle Glass
Every year in early May, we thank the moms in our lives for the myriad things that moms do. Which is lovely. But we have a suggestion this year to do something a little different: let’s give moms more than flowers. Instead, let’s give her what she actually needs: family-friendly public policies that ensure moms have a fair shot at getting ahead and staying ahead, not just scraping by.
Right now moms in Oregon — and across our nation — are working hard to earn a living and raise our children in spite of outdated, detrimental public policies that make it hard for us to support and care for our children and ourselves over the long term.
All moms (and dads) are struggling to operate in an outdated system that wasn't built with today’s family in mind. There is a lot of talk about mothers' facing choices about whether to go to work or to stay home. But the reality is that most of us have very few real "choices" about how we structure work and family and "balance" feels like an out-of-the-question luxury.
Fact is, many moms in the workforce would like to have more time with their kids but can't afford to. Many "stay-at-home" moms would like to work outside the home, but too often their wages wouldn’t cover the high cost of child care, jobs hiring stay-at-home moms are scarce, or they can't find jobs that offer the kind of flexibility that makes raising kids and keeping a job possible.
Taking time out of the labor force to care for children has very real, very negative economic implications for moms, and for our families. When mothers step out of the labor force to raise kids they suffer wage and promotion gaps that are never recovered. They are not earning future Social Security benefits or contributing to work-sponsored retirement. These disinvestments in our future have long-term economic implications for us and, ultimately, our country. When you consider these factors, it’s not surprising that motherhood is the leading predictor of poverty in old age. That’s right, motherhood.
When mothers do work outside the home, as 3 out of 4 now do, our wages matter. Why? Because 40 percent of working mothers are the primary breadwinners for our families, and just under a quarter of mothers are “co-breadwinners.” This is why persistent wage gaps between men and women — gaps that are even starker for mothers — aren’t just unfair, they undermine the economic security of Oregon’s families.
When it comes to motherhood and work, it seems we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. If we do work we earn less than men, or even women without children; we see our kids too seldom; we’re beyond stressed; and society thinks we’re irresponsibly paying someone else to raise our kids. If we don’t work we forego retirement savings; lose marketable skills; and we’re stereotyped, especially if we’re low-income, as “unwilling to work.” This Reagan- and Clinton-era stereotype about "welfare queens" persists today, and is destructive to mothers and to a broader social welfare system that was designed to prevent the kind of maternal and child poverty that now pervades our state and our country.
It shouldn’t be this way, and luckily, it doesn’t have to be.
There is an urgent need to finally adopt policies that address the real needs of mothers and the families who depend on us for financial support and time. That means expanding the national Family and Medical Leave Act so it covers more workers and actually pays for time off (so people take it and stay connected to the workforce over the long term), ensuring that all workers can earn paid sick time to care for their own and their loved ones’ basic health needs, addressing the incredibly high costs of child care, encouraging employers to offer flexible and predictable work arrangements, and raising the minimum wage. And it means finally ending the gender-based wage discrimination that punishes mothers most of all.
So this Mother’s Day, honor your mother differently by speaking up for the kind of social change that will improve things for the moms of today and tomorrow.
Andrea Paluso is executive director of Family Forward Oregon. Michelle Glass is Southern Oregon lead regional organizer for Oregon Action.