The Mother’s Day Myth: How We Thank Moms for Their ‘Free’ Labor

Mother's Day gifts from a child or spouse are sweet, but on a broader level, a genuine celebration of mom’s labor would be if our society ensured her economic security.

Mother's Day gifts from a child or spouse are sweet, but on a broader level, a genuine celebration of mom’s labor would be if our society ensured her economic security. Mothers Day via Shutterstock

This Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States, a day when flowers and gifts are delivered to moms all over the country. Such tokens are a sweet way for children and families to honor moms’ hard work. But one could argue that the real winners of the day are card, flower, and candy businesses—Mother’s Day sales have been growing every year since 2007. What about the moms themselves?

Gifts fueled by a corporatized holiday belie the myth of Mother’s Day: the idea that by giving a present once a year, we are actually valuing the unending work of parenting labor. Gifts from a child or spouse are sweet, but on a broader level, a genuine celebration of mom’s labor would be if our society ensured her economic security—something mothers have very little of in today’s economy. Indeed, parenting labor, which sadly persists as “women’s work,” is granted no economic value, nor is much of the work mothers are engaging in outside of the home.

Numerous trends and gaps in policy demonstrate that mothers are carrying most domestic labor, but despite their contributions mothers remain economically vulnerable. One 2013 study found that “even in families where women worked equivalent or longer hours [outside the home] and earned higher salaries they still took on more household responsibilities.” The study also found that women on average spent 39 percent of their time on household maintenance, cleaning, meal preparation, and child care, compared to 23 percent for men. And “[w]omen prepared 91 percent of weekday and 81 percent of weekend dinners, even though fathers were present at 80 percent of weekday and 88 percent of weekend dinners.”

Despite the lack of support for care work, women are taking it on in addition to their work outside of the home; the “dual work day,” a concept coined by Second Wave feminists, persists today.

Women are not just saddled with child care when children are young or need their undivided attention. A recent study also revealed that mothers care for adult children who move back home. Writer Heather Krause wrote this week at about the care work required for 20-somethings who can’t find work or pay rent on their own, so they are moving back in with their parents. Krause’s piece cites a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data showing that almost 22 million “young adults”—those 18 to 31 years of age—were living at home with their parents in 2012.

And the American Time Use Survey, which Krause applies in her analysis, shows that moms are spending much more time doing laundry, making lunches, and cleaning up after their adult children than dads.

In other words, the economic downturn has resulted in young adults not being independent on their own—a trend that is yielding more domestic work for moms. Krause writes:

When my kids first left home, one of the things I enjoyed most was that I didn’t have to make any more school lunches. But today, in my home just as in millions of others, my 21- and 24-year-old kids are back, and I’m making lunches again.

These trends are not matched with policies that value all the work women are doing at home.

Paid family leave is a key example. It enables workers to stay home with young infants, ill family members, or elderly parents without losing their job or all of their income. It is particularly critical for workers in lower-wage sectors. Yet only three states—Rhode Island, New Jersey, and California—offer paid family leave programs that workers can apply for when they need to take on care responsibilities. Only about 11 percent of private sector workers have access to paid leave through their jobs.

Perhaps the most devastating evidence of the economic status of mothers today is found in the persistently low wages in private-sector jobs that many mothers hold in addition to their parenting job.The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) published a report last year connecting the issue of low wages and poor treatment at restaurant jobs with the child-care needs of women restaurant workers. The report notes:

Almost 2 million restaurant workers are mothers—15 percent of employees in the industry. More than half of them, 1.2 million, are single mothers with children in the household. More than 1 million are single moms with children under age 18. A mother as the primary source of income, or breadwinner mom, is not unique to the restaurant industry. Across the economy, four in ten households with children under age 18 have a female breadwinner, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report.

Yet, these workers earn so little that, ROC found, it is hard for them to afford care for their children.

The fastest growing jobs in the United States are low-wage jobs—including, ironically, caregiving jobs such as home health aides and nanny positions. Domestic work has historically been unprotected by labor laws and rife with mistreatment and abuse. As if to rub salt in this wound, the U.S. Senate just failed to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour after a vote to defeat Republicans’ filibuster failed on April 30. Some two-thirds of all low-wage jobs are held by women.

An underlying assumption of the Mother’s Day celebration (and moms’ labor every day) is the idea that mothers should be doing all of this household and parenting work for free, that it is rooted in “love,” and that it’s a “natural” role for mothers to play that doesn’t contribute to the economy. This notion obscures reality: Mothers often work multiple jobs, one or more outside the home and one inside of it, and none of those positions are given due respect.

In a piece published Sunday in Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal blog, writer Kathleen Geier gets to the heart of the myth of Mother’s Day (emphasis added):

Marital relationships, parent-child relationships, decisions to marry and divorce, etc., are also profoundly economic acts. That can sometimes be hard to see, given the pervasiveness of sentimental claptrap about the family throughout American society.

Indeed, Geier points out, feminist economists like Nancy Folbre and Claudia Goldin have discussed the family unit as an economic unit, one that functions because of women’s free labor.

The myth of Mother’s Day reveals exactly this “sentimental claptrap.” A bouquet of flowers is no match for economic security through paid family leave, higher wages, stronger benefits, and an economy that genuinely values women.