The Marshall Plan for Moms is a start. But we can’t let quick fixes distract us from long-term solutions.
In so many ways, 2020 was a dumpster fire of epic proportions. As the world slowed to a halt and we were forced to do things differently, we came face to face with the dusty corners and darkened crevices of our longstanding social institutions. Behind the crumbling façade of busy-ness and equal opportunity, the cracks of our country’s foundation were exposed.
The past year was an exclamation point on something moms have known for decades: this family cruise will immediately sink if we aren’t back here to steer the ship. Remember when your mom, back in the day, grumbled about being underappreciated and unrecognized for her efforts? Remember when you felt or said the same thing, just last week?
This isn’t new. Moms have carried the brunt of the load for ages — managing the household, raising the children, and, these days, contributing much of the income, too. In 2017, The Center for American Progress reported that over 67% of married mothers worked outside the home. And of course, that number is higher for single mothers, at 73%.(1)
But while this generation of moms is the first where the majority work outside the home (because who can afford to stay home anymore, with student loans and mortgages to pay off?), our policies, prejudices, and expectations haven’t changed much at all (2).
Recently, the Marshall Plan for Moms has garnered significant attention. The plan proposes three things:
- Establishing a task force to advocate on behalf of moms
- A short-term monthly stimulus payment made to moms in need
- Long-term policy change
The proposed $2400 monthly stimulus check for moms is most publicized. Perhaps rightfully so: not only does it compensate for unpaid labor, but also recognizes the fact that women (especially women of color) have been disproportionately impacted by job loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. (3)
We can’t let stimulus checks distract us from the real solutions
While this plan is a noble effort led by women I highly admire, I feel a lurking dread when I think about how this could play out.
Here’s the rub: a plan to cut checks will gain lots of support, quickly. That will be what the media focuses on, and momentum will compound with more celebrity and executive endorsement. Lawmakers will have to pay attention, and might even agree to the checks, thinking they’ve done the right thing by moms.
But, thinking their job is done, lawmakers may not give a second thought to the real changes we need to make a lasting difference for mothers. And inevitably, those who are not educated on the topic will scoff at the fact that we’re just doling out more money with what they perceive to be no real reason.
Maybe the stimulus checks will become a reality, which would certainly help moms in the short term. But without long-term changes in policy and protocol, we’ll be right back where we started when the government checks stop. Furthermore, without focusing efforts, funding, and media attention on long-term solutions, we’ll have an uphill battle to climb when it comes to changing the social narrative.
We’ve been failing working mothers for a long time
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how we might support working moms, let’s paint a picture.
Here’s how life often played out for myself and my peers, pre-pandemic.
Note that this example is of a middle-class, white family with two parents living in the home. This is only one, privileged version of the story, as systemic racism, socio-economic class, marital status and other variables have a tremendous impact on the details listed below.
Julie and Mike graduate college, get jobs, and get married.
Julie gets paid less than Mike because white women make $.79 to every dollar, on average, that white men make. Black, Latina, and Indigenous women make even less, at under $.65 per dollar. (4)
Julie and Mike have their first kid.
Julie gets very little maternity leave (6 weeks paid), uses up her vacation days, and takes some unpaid FMLA leave until she returns to work at 10 weeks postpartum. It still doesn’t feel like enough, because she’s still healing, just stopped bleeding, is managing anxiety and trying to figure out breastfeeding, and still hasn’t gotten more than an hour of sleep at a time. But they can’t survive on one income much longer, and finances dictate her decision to return to work.
Julie and Mike are waitlisted for their childcare center of choice. The waitlist is 12 months long.
They end up paying an extraordinary amount in childcare per month (about $1230 per month on average, or $15,000 per year, for one child (5).) This makes it hard to save, catch up from unpaid time off, or pay off student loans.
Julie, having used up her vacation days on maternity leave, often feels like she has to work overtime to prove herself. Work-life balance is a constant struggle, and she feels as if she is failing both as an employee and as a mom.
The baby is exposed to lots of germs at daycare, and so she gets sick pretty often. When the baby runs a fever and can’t attend daycare, Julie can’t easily take time off (again — no vacation days). Julie feels like she is frowned upon at work for asking to work from home.
Mike can take time off occasionally, but the unspoken expectation is that his wife will care for the sick kids. And, as the primary breadwinner, it makes sense not to put his job in jeopardy.
As a result, Julie is overlooked for promotions, and her pay does not increase. Employers assume she is not committed, unable to travel for work, and thinks she has lost her “fire.” If/when Julie expresses an interest in having another child, she experiences pregnancy discrimination (6) and is almost written off completely.
Ultimately, Julie and Mike weigh her salary against the cost of daycare and the emotional cost of the stress. They decide she will take a leave of absence from her career until their children enter school. This hiatus will most certainly mean she will continue to make less than her male counterparts, even when she returns to work, and the cycle will continue.
At some point in here, Julie decides to try making money from home (enter the ubiquitous multi-level marketing company) and starts her own side hustle. According to a 2019 report written by researchers at Smith College and Babson College, more women than men state starting a business “out of necessity” (7), and according to a report by American Express, the number of women “sidepreneurs” is growing at a rate almost double that of the overall growth rate of female-owned businesses. (8) The side-hustle is often a working mom’s hail mary pass, founded in the hopes she can contribute income while being her own boss.
Yet, while women-owned businesses are sprouting up faster than ever (8), they are still gravely underfunded (9). Bank of America found, in their 2019 survey on women in business, that 58% of women believe they still do not have the same access to capital as their male counterparts (10).
Now, there’s another way the above scenario sometimes plays out. Julie might decide to continue working — even though it doesn’t make sense financially — because she is afraid to lose ground in her career. A 5-7 year gap on the resume often means returning to an entry-level position, taking a substantial cut in pay, or switching career paths entirely.
With a gap on their resume, stay-at-home parents are half as likely to get a callback for a job (11), a phenomenon we working moms affectionately refer to as “The Mom Penalty”. For women who are passionate about their career, the risk of losing it is too big. Julie might decide she can’t afford to walk away from her work during the primary career growth years, and instead, runs herself ragged trying to keep up.
COVID-19 Made Things So. Much. Worse.
And then… BOOM. Enter the global pandemic, which shuttered schools and daycare centers, forcing parents (usually moms (12) to act as teachers, on top of everything else.
Suddenly everyone was home. ALL. THE. TIME. There were always dishes to be done, clutter to pick up, and surfaces to disinfect. The grocery bill increased. Multitasking became the norm. The house suddenly felt smaller as everyone tried to find their own quiet area to get work done or hold a Zoom meeting in peace.
And the emotions… everyone in the family experienced grief, fear, and frustration in their own ways. But helping our children navigate these big feelings (which might’ve played out as temper tantrums, nightmares, potty regressions, or even suicidal thoughts) took its own toll. Families dealing with abuse, special needs, illness, or job loss experienced all of this more profoundly.
Moms have always been the glue holding our families together. But that glue is not strong enough to bear the weight of a global pandemic. Nor should it be.
We need more than stimulus payments
If working mothers are drowning, stimulus checks aren’t the lifesaver we need. They’re simply a tow rope — what we need is solid ground to stand on.
To truly help moms, and working moms in particular, here’s what we need:
This is the most obvious place to start. We need to make childcare more affordable and more accessible.
- Employers can receive a federal tax credit for providing or assisting their employees with childcare. Currently, businesses are under-utilizing the tax credits for employer-subsidized healthcare (13). Concerted efforts to publicize, promote, produce employee-sponsored childcare seem like a win-win-win to me.
- Speaking of taxes, families deserve a tax credit that matches the average cost of childcare. Two years ago my family spent $28,000 for two kids in daycare. We received a tax credit of $6000. That’s just absurd.
- We should offer incentives for licensing in-home childcare providers and smaller centers. There is a huge network of ad-hoc, in-home daycares that are operating without a license simply because operating a small daycare and maintain licensing standards is often cost-prohibitive (14). Daycare centers benefit from economy of scale, but this results in fewer options for high-quality care (not to mention underpaid childcare workers). It’s time to change that.
- Let’s make work and school happen at the same time. Public school hours and work hours don’t match. Why is this? Could we not make the work day more flexible, and make full-time hours 8am – 3pm every day, to match school hours? Asking for, well…. all my friends.
- Childcare franchises and government should work together to explore the opportunity of using social impact bonds to provide more affordable, licensed childcare centers in areas of high need. I’ve got a big pool of investors ready and willing (here’s our rally cry, fellow working moms) to fund solutions that will make our lives easier.
2) Workplace policy
Inequity in pay, FMLA regulations, lack of parental leave, and traditional expectations all need an overhaul.
- Let’s start with the most basic. Equal pay for equal work, okay? NO MATTER YOUR GENDER, SKIN COLOR, AGE, OR CLASS. We need accountability measures to ensure this is standard, across the board. Additionally, women need equal access to small business funding and venture capital.
- The Family Medical Leave Act needs amending. It’s nice, in theory. But there are so many regulations and workarounds that it’s not always effective or applicable. First, you must be a full-time employee (working over 26 hours a week at minimum) for 1 year prior to requesting leave. Second, your company must have a minimum of 50 employees who work within 75 miles of company headquarters (15). Post-pandemic, that last requirement is going to be a doozy, as more and more companies have a distributed workforce. For two of my three pregnancies, FMLA did not help me. The first time, I became pregnant less than a year after taking a new job. The second time, I worked for a start-up with several remote employees, who didn’t meet eligibility requirements. And do you know what happened? That company didn’t want to pay my maternity leave nor hold my job, so they laid me off while I was pregnant. That’s a WHOLE entire story for a different day. But suffice it to say: women need job protection in pregnancy.
- Three words: PAID FAMILY LEAVE. We need this now. It’s an abomination that we are the only country out of the 41 listed by Pew Research Center that does not offer mandated paid family leave (16). Don’t even get me started on how the lack of paid family leave leads to lower success rates with breastfeeding and higher incidences of postpartum depression. One study found that, for women with less than 12 weeks of maternity leave, every additional week of leave lowered their chances of postpartum depression (17). That study doesn’t even account for women who don’t qualify for leave in the first place. We are setting moms up to fail, from day one. I would forego my $2400 check if it meant federal monies would be allocated to help my daughters when they become moms.
- Why is job sharing not more common? I’ve always thought that two working parents with comparable skills, who both wanted to spend more time with their kids, could easily split an executive level salary and workload, working 30 hours each to maintain their benefits. I’d consider it, in order to keep the momentum in my career while still being able to pick up my kids from school. And it seems like a win for the employer, who gets more working hours out of the deal, for only the cost of adding one more person to their benefits package.
- We need more mothers in management positions. We need more women of color in management positions. We know by now that representation matters. But in this case, it’s not just about seeing what you could achieve — these are the leaders setting the tone for the company. They are the culture-creators, the policy-makers, the expectation-setters. We need leaders who understand the lifestyle of their employees.
- Sick days and vacation days can’t be the same thing. We need to allow employees time to care for sick family members without draining their PTO. By nature, combining the two means dropping into a negative PTO balance (STRESSFUL), and tells an employee “you must choose between your sick child and your job.”
- Let’s learn from the pandemic: it IS possible to have a flexible, WFH policy and still get good work done. We need to make it possible and acceptable to do work in off-hours, as necessary, without making it an expectation. Flexibility is key for working parents. And to that end, I just want everyone to ask themselves this question at least once a day: does this truly warrant a meeting? No? Then make it an email instead.
3) Societal Change
Women are only half of the equation. If we are going to move the needle, we need everyone to be on board.
- Give working fathers more flexibility, too. Dads can’t pick up the slack unless they are equally able to take a kid to the doctor or attend a school function at 3:00 pm.
- Recognize and normalize non-linear career accomplishments. Gone are the days when we worked in one company our entire career. It’s not uncommon for people to change careers entirely, let alone change companies. Let’s start re-examining our subjective measures of success and look at the bigger picture. And when you’re ready to offer that job, offer it to the best candidate for the job, REGARDLESS OF GENDER, SKIN COLOR, AGE, OR CLASS, and regardless if there’s a gap on the resume.
- Make it common practice to call both parents when there’s an urgent need. This applies to schools, grandparents, healthcare offices, you name it. Until the family specifies who should receive the call, never assume it’s one parent over the other.
- Teach your sons to nurture and clean. Teach your daughters to speak up for what they need. So much of what we accept as “normal” goes back to childhood. We can stop those patterns now.
- Continue to challenge systems of oppression. For every injustice I face as a white woman, my Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous sisters experience it far more. Progress without justice or inclusion is not progress at all.
The bottom line is this: would a monthly stimulus check help? Of course. But what working moms need is far greater. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the burden moms bear more than ever before. Let’s not waste this opportunity to create lasting change.
Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer, wellness advocate, and mountain mama. She is the founder of The Mama Sagas, writes for several publications and hosts a regular parenting TV segment on Colorado's Everyday Show. When she's not huddled over edits, you're likely to find Saralyn climbing peaks or skiing down them, and reminding herself that the two little girls that call her mom are not the boss of her.