Mother's Day reconsidered

Sunday May 13, 2012


Today is Mother’s Day. While I do everything I can to be with my own mother every year on the second Sunday in May, I have more than a little ambivalence about this national celebration. As a culture, it seems like we have identified one day to pay tribute to a group that as a society we treat like garbage for the other 364 days of the year.

What is my evidence for the assertion that our society generally treats mothers poorly?

Let’s start with pay inequity. A significant percentage of the wage gap between men and women actually lies in the pay differential between women who are mothers and those who are not.

Women, many of them mothers, are disproportionately represented among Americans working at minimum wage jobs. Some of these women are married, but many of them are single. Female-headed households are among the Americans with the highest poverty rates.

We all know that people who work in jobs that society values highly get paid well. But what do we pay mothers for all of the work that they do in their homes, including raising children? The answer is "nothing" if they are married, and "damn little" if they are single and have to rely on welfare.

In the home, women still bear the burden of the "second shift," Even those who work full time in the paid labor force, still come home to do an overwhelming percentage of the housework and family care.

What type of support do we provide to mothers who are employed outside the home? If they are lucky enough to work someplace with at least 50 employees, mothers (or fathers, for that matter, but most new parents taking parental leave are women) get 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This is a drop in the bucket compared to parental leave policies in most of the industrialized world.

And once they have re turned to their jobs, who cares for their children? On the whole, compared to European standards, day care in the United States is mediocre in quality, available only to those who work a "standard" work day, and exorbitantly priced compared to most people’s ability to pay.

One of the most persecuted groups of mothers is the group that is battered by their intimate partners. If they do not leave their abusers, these mothers risk losing custody of their children to the state for "failing to protect" them from the violence they endure with no acknowledgment of the many obstacles in their path when they want to leave.

When they do leave (and, ultimately, most of them do), they frequently lose custody of their children to the men who are abusing them, and often abusing the children as well. Because the courts typically fail to understand the manipulative motivation and behavior of batterers, they are often fooled by these men’s efforts to gain custody of their children. Batterers are actually more likely to be awarded full or partial custody of their children than are non-violent fathers!


Given that we treat mothers so poorly as a matter of public policy in this country, I find it ironic that one day a year we collectively spend $16 billion worshipping mom. This is a far cry from the original intent of Mother’s Day. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe (the woman who brought us "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), in distress over the bloodbath that was the Civil War, envisioned an international celebration of peace and motherhood. While Howe’s initial effort to establish this holiday failed, she did lay the groundwork for what in 1914 became the national celebration of "Mother’s Day" on the second Sunday of May.

Within its first decade, Mother’s Day was co-opted by the commercial world. Today it is second only to Christmas as a gift-giving extravaganza.

According to the Census Bureau, more than 80 million Americans are mothers and more than 4 out of 5 women in their early 40s have children. According to estimates of The National Retail Foundation, dining out on Mother’s Day accounts for almost $3 billion of that $16 billion in commercial activity. Jewelry sales account for over $2 billion. Almost $2 billion worth of flowers are sold. More than $1 billion worth of clothes and $1 billion in gift certificates are sold.

Instead of paying lip service to the importance of mothers for one day by buying them presents and taking them out to brunch, how about we lose the commercialism and refocus our efforts to truly honor mothers? Instead of shopping, how about showing your mother (and all mothers) that you value her by writing to your legislators and congressmen and tell them you want them to pass a raise in the minimum wage, increase child care subsidies, mandate paid parental leave, and reform the family court system so that judges who make life and death decisions for women and children are required to actually receive training in the dynamics of battering and other forms of abuse?

When you’re done with that, do some of the housework. That will be a nice start. Next year we can add in single-payer health care. Better yet, let’s add that now. We really can’t wait any longer.

Dr. Susan Birns is professor of Sociology/Anthropology/Social Work at MCLA and Board president of the Elizabeth Freeman Center.


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