Mother’s Day is an occasion of contradictions. It celebrates women, but only our roles as birthers, caregivers and child-rearers. And while our society collectively celebrates motherhood once each year, it blatantly disregards the real lives and needs of mothers during the rest of them.
Mother’s Day tells mothers that they are valuable and appreciated, but our culture often sends the opposite message. When it comes to improving women’s lives and the lives of their families, the U.S. falls abysmally short. One of the most obvious and blatant examples is the gender pay gap—which hurts moms worst and first.
In addition to the gaps in pay equity that face all women, research shows that employers often pay women with children even less and disproportionately reduce the pay of working moms when they have to cut back their hours—and that as employers ramp up pressure on employees to work longer and longer hours, the salaries and ambitions of working mothers take the hardest hit.
We laud mothers, but we are failing them.
Mother’s Day binds us to the narrative that women’s value is measured by bearing, raising and nurturing children. The predictable, treacly Mother’s Day platitudes of appreciation ignore our achievements—as professionals, as leaders, as complex human beings—in favor of a simplistic and patriarchal view of the value of women. We are worthwhile to society as child-bearers and child-raisers, but not as equals who should get paid what men get paid.
Many of the very legislators espousing clichés about maternal love are also worsening mothers’ lives by failing to support economic equality for women. Politicians who spout bromides about the myth of motherhood are undermining the ability of actual mothers to care properly for the children they already have by allowing the pay gap to remain in place.
Failing to address the wage gap limits women’s options and perpetuates men’s places at the head of the table. It also impacts women’s access to food, health care, childcare, education and pension and retirement savings. These long-term losses over our lifetimes can never be fully repaired.
There’s a moral dimension to this issue, too. Depriving women of equal pay doesn’t just limit our economic resources—it lessens our dignity and agency as human beings. It reveals that one of the supposed bedrock principles of our society, and of many faith traditions—the belief that all people are created equal—is still more theoretical concept than actual reality.
We will be an economically, socially and morally stronger country when women’s worth is acknowledged and reflected through equal pay instead of with the pseudo-appreciation of a 24-hour holiday. This Mother’s Day, we owe mothers more than chocolate and flowers, a spa day or even breakfast in bed. We owe mothers, and all women, economic equality and the right to have control over their lives.