Each May, Americans spend cash on their mothers, buying them hip gadgets, chintzy stationery, silky scarves, books full of quips, and of course spring blossoms.

But the reality of how much we value motherhood—i.e., not very—is glaringly absent from the images that bombard us this time of year: a doting, cheerful mom in a gleaming kitchen or sprightly backyard.

Truly accurate Mother’s Day vignettes would show worry lines and a long avenue of impossible choices: paying for daycare or quitting work? Caring for a sick child or losing a job? Seeking help for a family emergency or facing deportation?

As a culture, we obsess over methods for parenting—breastfeeding! slings! crazy potty training!—but we don’t rush to pass the laws that would empower moms to parent as they choose. Our orgiastic annual spending spree feels at times as if we’re saying, “Mom, I can’t get you maternity leave, health care, or societal respect. But, um, here is a planter of petunias.”


A growing cadre of activist groups such as MomsRising, Family Values at Work, Strong Families are using Mother’s Day to raise awareness of laws and practices that hurt families—and changes that could help. “For a very large demographic, instead of chocolates and jewelry, they need policies that give them the recognition they need to thrive,”says Shanelle Matthews of Strong Families.

One phrase that keeps coming up from advocates when they talk about Mother’s Day? “Lip service.”

“Americans will spend more than $20 billion on Mother’s Day and send sappy cards,” says Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? “This country would rather give lip service to respecting motherhood than actually enact the substantive supports mothers need.”

Case in point: The United States sits at the bottom of the globe when it comes to maternity leave, as these images from Think Progress, the New York Times, and the National Partnership for Women and Families, respectively demonstrate:

Bennetts points out that paid leave policies don’t cause the harm their detractors claim. “None of these policies are linked with lower levels of employment or economic competitiveness in other countries,” she says. “Many of them are associated with increased competitiveness.” One reason good leave policies actually help? Women return to the workforce.

Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values at Work, says that because of the limits of American maternity leave, “there are lots of people who give birth and have no job protection.” The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)only covers larger businesses and leaves nearly half of Americans in the lurch.

Even worse, the FMLA mandates unpaid leave, and a growing number of workers can’t afford to take that leave even when they qualify. And many women who do take paid with a newborn are actually using vacation time they’ve saved up.

“Having a baby is joyous, but it’s not vacation,” says Bravo, adding that family leave should include men, so that they can do their part at home—as Sheryl Sandberg notably recommends.

Moms can’t go it alone. “If you asked moms what they really need, most of us want partners who shoulder an equal share of domestic responsibilities and employers who give us a fair shake,” says Bennetts.

The paid sick leave movement is another avenue for getting that fair shake. New York City, after much sturm und drang, recently became the most notable city to adopt a sick leave measure.

“The best thing you can do for mom is to make sure she doesn’t lose her job or jeopardize her family’s security for being exactly the good mother society wants her to be,” says Bravo. “Forty percent of the workplace has no paid sick days at all. Many of those who do can’t use them for caring for a sick child.”

Many of Family Values at Work’s local affiliates will be spending this weekend engaged door-hanger and flyering campaigns, says Bravo, to target elected officials to move towards a more compassionate stance on work-family balance .


Why are we so reluctant to pass these kinds of measures? One reason may be that America’s families are diverse. Our laws, and culture, can invert the Mother’s Day message by punishing those who don’t fit a preconcieved notion of motherhood.

Teen moms, LGBT moms, domestic workers, incarcerated moms, and immigrant moms suffer daily indignities that can range from the denial of healthcare to shackling during childbirth to living under the threat of deportation.

Strong Families has tried to change that conversation with its “Mama’s Day” campaign using striking e-cards to honor all permutations of families.

The e-card artists come from the communities they depict and create images based on real families, calling forth a collective sense of empathy while pushing an agenda with a group of coalition partners that includes paid sick leave, LGBT rights, reproductive health access, and immigration reform that keeps families intact.

“Making media that reflects what families really look like helps to shift the narrative,” says Matthews of Strong Families.“It’s coupled with a policy strategy that works with folks in the Beltway.”


Mama’s Day is brilliant because it calls out to a spirit of commonality—while acknowledging individual families.

Arguably, that solidarity is the missing link: perhaps Americans are too judgmental of other parents to see all parents as a group needing unified advocacy. Perhaps unjust bigotry against some moms stymies legal measures that lift all mothers up. Or perhaps the snag is more that the ubiquitous stereotype of the beatific mom has infected our psyche, making us believe that this magical lady can juggle it all without a social safety net.

But we need to get over these outdated ideas. Motherhood has changed, and so must we. Making daily life easier for all parents—allowing them to be the best parents they can be—is the best way to honor our own upbringings.