Being a mom hasn’t held me back professionally. The lack of real support for working moms has.

At the beginning of this year, I took a partial leave from my job as a tenured professor so I could find a situation that would work for my developmentally disabled child. My wife took two months off unpaid and shifted permanently to part-time. Eight months and a cross-country move later, we’re still trying to figure it out.

This Sept. 8 is Mom’s Equal Pay Day — the day when full-time working moms “catch up” in earnings to where dads ended the previous year. As with all other measures of the pay gap, Black, Latinx and Native American moms are disproportionately harmed. Why is the pay gap for moms worse than for “all women,” who caught up to men on March 15?

There isn’t one easy answer, but some of it is the widespread assumption that mothers will step back from their careers. Even if we don’t, we are assumed to be distracted and unreliable. The failures of social policy make that a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Moms often do more unpaid labor during the “second shift” at home, while also carrying most of the family’s mental load. Moms are also usually the “default parent” who is expected to pick up a sick kid from school and stay with them until they’re able to return, leaving moms to cobble together remote work hours and sick leave around children’s needs. Still, even deeply engaged dads and other relatives aren’t enough.

What could help American moms? Fundamentally, we need better social policy. In many European countries, and some states such as Washington, paid parental leave is common. Europe also has many publicly funded child care centers. The gender pay gap is also smaller. European women make just 14% less than men, compared with 17% less for American women — and 42% less for American moms. 

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The best thing we can do to support mothers and other caregivers is to pay care workers more. All families need reliable, qualified care. I want the people who teach and care for other people’s loved ones to be valued enough that they see it as a worthwhile and viable career. From a mom’s perspective, I want my child to be able to have long-term, trusting relationships with the adults in his life. From a feminist’s perspective, I want these people to be able to earn a just wage for the essential labor they provide.   

In the year before my son left his school, we were awarded a Medicaid waiver with about $6,000 in funding. We wanted to use it to pay an aide to help with community outings and with supervision when school was out. The agency that provided aides in our area of Ohio paid only $9 an hour and was telling parents to expect to wait a year before an aide could be recruited and trained. Meanwhile, a friend’s son lost his beloved aide when she left for a job in a carpet store, where she could nearly double her income and get health insurance for her own kids.  

When a child can’t talk — whether because they are still very young or because of a disability — finding trustworthy child care is a huge stressor. Moms of disabled kids like my son need policies that truly support aides, therapists and teachers. The minimal funding offered to pay for aides and other people to help makes it nearly impossible to recruit and retain good aides. Underfunding of schools leads to low pay and high turnover for teachers, therapists and aides who work in school settings. Fully funding care work would help all caregivers, including those caring for elders or others beyond their own children.

I am a full-time working mom. I don’t “want it all.” I do want social policies that make it possible for moms to work full-time in our chosen professions. Like dads do.