Mother's Day Is Different This Year

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Eileen Appelbaum
The Huffington Post, May 7, 2013

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It isn't your mother's Mother's Day any more. There's a new and lively conversation underway about what it takes to maximize mothers' contributions, both to the economy and to their families. Policies that make it possible to be a good mother and a responsible employee are firmly on the nation's agenda.

The momentum is palpable. It's evident on Wall Street, where Warren Buffett penned a piece for Fortune on the important contributions women make to the economy. It's clear in Silicon Valley, where Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced a generous paid parental leave policy for mothers and fathers. And it can be heard in the hallowed halls of Congress, where majority leader of the House, Eric Cantor, called on his Republican colleagues to provide conservative alternatives around a "Making Life Work" agenda and where former Democratic House majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, joined a hundred Congressional colleagues in sponsoring a bill to ensure workers can earn up to seven paid sick days a year.

Around the country, policy makers are responding to public demand and not waiting for federal action to make public policies more responsive to working families' needs. San Francisco was the first city and Connecticut the first state to pass paid sick days legislation. Today, from Portland, Oregon, to New York City and points in between, cities and states are considering and adopting ordinances that allow working parents to stay home for a day or two without jeopardizing their income or their job when they or their kids get the flu. In February, on the 20th anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, the Department of Labor released a study that showed that the law has been a huge success. California and New Jersey — where workers pool small contributions into a family leave insurance fund to have access to income during an FMLA leave —  have put paid family and medical leave insurance on the national agenda.

This national conversation is as welcome as it is overdue. More than 40 years have passed since the great upsurge in mother's paid employment began. Between 1970 and 1990, the share of married women with children 6 to 17 years of age in the labor force increased from 49 percent to almost 74 percent; for married women with children under 6, the share nearly doubled from 30 percent to 59 percent. Today, about 17 million married mothers with children under 18 years of age are in the labor force.

For years, mothers working outside the home received little consideration when they needed to stay home with a sick child or attend a parent-teacher conference. It was up to mom to figure out how to juggle the needs of children with the demands of employers. The general attitude could be summed up as: You knew you had a kid when you took this job. That's changing now as families across the economic spectrum face the stark reality that it takes two incomes to maintain a family's standard of living, as men are taking on a more significant role in child and elder care, as employers think about how they would cover work if mothers were not available, and as the nation contemplates how much smaller and less productive the economy would be without the contribution of these employed mothers.

Rising wages for high-skilled women and falling wages for low-paid men helped fuel the increase in the share of married mothers in paid employment. Without their contribution to family income most families — those with husbands in the bottom 80 percent of the wage distribution — would have seen falling or stagnant real family incomes. The economy, and families, need the economic contributions that mothers make. The rising need for care workers as the population ages is being filled overwhelmingly by women. And women are a majority of college graduates and earn a majority of advanced degrees. As a nation, we spend as much or more to educate our young women as we spend on our young men. We cannot afford to waste this investment. As for American businesses, they have had more than 40 years' experience employing mothers. Not surprisingly, surveys show that the introduction of work-family policies has largely been a nonevent for them. 

As women are called on to "lean in" and take more leadership in the workplace, it is becoming clear that men will need to "lean in" at home and take on more family responsibilities. Work-family policies can make that possible, too. As the California experience shows, paid family leave insurance has led to steady increases in the number of fathers taking time off from work to experience the joy of bonding with a new baby.

It's old news that most mothers work for pay outside the home — that's been true for decades. What's new is the nationwide momentum building around policies that make it possible for both parents to work while raising happy, healthy, successful children. The question for all of us this Mother's Day is how we can help make these policies a reality for all working families. Let your elected officials know that America's continued economic success depends on bringing public policies in line with the realities of today's families.


Eileen Appelbaum is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the co-author of 'Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences With Paid Family Leave in California.'