Let’s Return Mother’s Day to Its Revolutionary Roots with The Invisible Labor Calculator

By Katherine Goldstein and Amy Westervelt

Illustration by James Guthman

In 2019, Mother’s Day has settled into being a comfortably commercialized holiday. It generates around $23 billion in retail spending, and is full of traditions like breakfast in bed and “day off” spa pampering for moms. But few people know the holiday’s revolutionary roots: It began as a social movement for moms.

In 1858, activist Ann Maria Jarvis began organizing Mothers Work Groups and work days across the state of West Virginia, where she lived, during which mothers would come together to work toward improving the health and lives of mothers and children. Jarvis was inspired in part by her own losses — of the dozen or so children she bore (the record is a bit unclear), only four survived. The rest fell victim to a wide range of largely preventable diseases that were common in Appalachia at the time. Wanting to do something about it, Jarvis was a highly effective early community organizer … she pulled other mothers together to push for better public health and food safety throughout the region and to nurse soldiers and take care of families during the Civil War. Jarvis dreamed of a way to honor mothers for their important contributions to society. Her daughter Anna Jarvis carried the torch and campaigned for the governor of West Virginia (in 1910) and then other state representatives to designate an official Mother’s Day.

Originally conceived as a non-commercial celebration of labor and activism, the floral industry quickly got behind the idea (much to the horror of Anna Jarvis) and within three years it was a national holiday.

Now, more than 100 years later, mothers’ contributions to society are still marginalized and ignored. The fact that the very day that was created to bring mother’s labor out of the shadows has been turned into saccharine Hallmark holiday is a great illustration of precisely how far we’ve come (not far, not far at all).

So this Mother’s Day, instead of being satisfied with tokens of appreciation, we think it’s the perfect moment to tap into the spirit of the Jarvis women. And in 2019, that means reflecting on how our still unequal relationships at home create unfair burdens and compound the huge obstacles to professional advancement we as mothers face at work.

The revolution at work will begin with a revolution at home. And that revolution begins with an acknowledgement of the invisible labor many mothers perform to keep not just their families but the U.S. economy moving. Seventy-one percent of mothers in America today work outside the home, double where it was when Mother’s Day gained traction a century ago. Yet mothers do more childcare and housework today than they did in the 1960s, even when both parents work outside the home. In fact, working mothers today do more hands-on parenting than stay at home moms did in the 1970s. And yes, working dads do, too! Working fathers in the U.S. today put in about twice as many childcare and housework hours as they did in the 1960s (18 hours, up from 9), and their hours spent working haven’t decreased in those decades. But working mothers have also increased the amount of childcare and housework hours during those same decades, while adding many more hours spent working outside the home. So, how can that be? Research suggests that in heterosexual couples, men often perform parenting and household tasks alongside their wives, not instead of them. In addition to the fact that this doesn’t take much off of mother’s plates, it serves to reinforce the notion that moms are the primary parents while dads are just an extra set of hands. That seeps into the workforce in all sorts of ways too, with more women than men leaving work to pick up sick kids, or adjusting their work schedules to accommodate children.

And then there’s the constant, grinding mental burden that goes hand in hand with being a mother in America in 2019. The mental load of keeping a constantly evolving to-do list that includes a whole family’s schedules and needs in mind from packing lunches to school permission slips to making doctor’s appointments and dealing with health insurance paperwork to gift-giving that seems to occupy significant brain space of mothers across many different cross-sections of society. Sarah Ruddick first articulated this load in the academic realm in the 1980s in her research on “maternal thought,” although of course it pre-dates her work by centuries.

Mothers feel acute pressure from everyone — including teachers, doctors, daycare providers, and other parents to stay on top of this mental load, and can feel serious judgment if they don’t. Mothers of color often have to take on the additional tasks of ensuring that their children are not burdened by “model minority” expectations and dealing with additional layers of judgement and expectations around their mothering practices, driven by centuries worth of racism.

Meanwhile, workplaces continue to punish both men and women for caregiving. Family responsibilities discrimination (FRD) lawsuits have increased 269% over the last decade, and pregnancy discrimination claims are up 315% during the same period.

That number is particularly shocking when you consider how many instances of pregnancy discrimination are never reported. As one woman told us, “by the time I was fired, I was five months pregnant — I suspected that it was discrimination and I even went to a lawyer, who thought I had a pretty solid case, but what was I going to do? I had four months to figure out how I was going to make money, I certainly didn’t have the time or cash to hire a lawyer and take them to court.”

In addition to illegal discrimination, Mothers must along contend with rampant anti-mom bias in the workplace with moms often being judged as less valuable workers even when studies suggest otherwise. Even factoring in flexibility and time off, the motherhood penalty shrinks women’s pay 6% per child they have. Parental leave policies, to the extent that they exist, mostly serve to underscore this dynamic, giving women more paid leave than men, which makes them inherently more expensive and seen as more of a liability in the workplace. Women who can afford to hire extra help at home often hire other mothers with less privilege who are themselves struggling to make ends meet; child-free women in the workplace often cover for their mom colleagues—it’s an endless pass-the-buck cycle where individual women bear the burden of a badly broken system.

In light of all that mothers face in 2019, we reject the idea that a card and the “gift” of being freed from household responsibilities for the day is an adequate celebration of the original spirit of Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day.

Instead, we suggest another exercise: putting some hard numbers on the invisible labor mothers do to keep families and society at large running. According to the UN, three out of every four hours of unpaid labor is performed by women, and in the U.S. women do roughly twice as much housework and childcare as men. In a capitalist economy, highlighting that this work has real, monetary value is a crucial intellectual step in getting our often invisible contributions acknowledged, first to ourselves, and then to those all around us who benefit from this work.

Some may still think the labor mothers do is amorphous and unquantifiable. We disagree. So that’s why we created this handy dandy Invisible Labor Calculator. Using simple, readily available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics we’ve calculated the value of our own invisible labor that keeps our own families running. Katherine clocks in at $23,955 and Amy’s number is $44,249.

Use the calculator to see what your number is and share it with the hashtag #MDayPayDay.

So if you’re interested in returning to the revolutionary spirit of Mother’s Day with a modern twist that would make Anna Jarvis proud, when someone hands you a hallmark card this year, you can hand them back a bill with your invisible labor number on it.

To hear Amy and Katherine discuss this and more about changing how motherhood is viewed and valued, listen to episode 8 of The Double Shift, A Mother’s Day Revolution & Invitation:

Amy Westervelt is an award-winning journalist, founder and head of the Critical Frequency podcast network, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and author of Forget “Having It All”: How America Messed Up Motherhood — And How to Fix It

Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and the creator and host of The Double Shift Podcast, a show about a new generation of working mothers.