The ‘Cure’ for Mom Guilt? Affordable Childcare, Paid Family Leave and Equal Pay

With humor and grit, the “Mom Guilt Is Not Your Fault” campaign is calling attention to the burnout and exhaustion moms are facing after two years of pandemic parenting.

“We remain hell bent on pushing the country to value the unpaid caregiving and domestic work women are doing,” said Reshma Saujani. “Women’s unpaid labor remains outsized and uncompensated.” (Instagram)

It’s Mother’s Day—which means it’s time for the annual performative ritual of showing appreciation for moms. Even more maddening is that mothers who already feel burned out have to perform yet more emotional labor by showing appreciation for the appreciation heaped on them for just one day. Rather than giving flowers that wilt or a treat that is quickly consumed, what most mothers really want is underlying systemic change that benefits not just them, but their entire family system. 

Reshma Saujani’s initiative, Marshall Plan for Moms, a campaign of her nonprofit Girls Who Code, has set out to do just that—not just for one day but for the whole year, and even more ideally, for years to come by impacting policies and corporate culture so that the ‘motherhood penalty’ is erased and support is given to issues that surround motherhood such as childcare, invisible labor and job recovery due to the pandemic. 

A video campaign running this weekend called “Mom Guilt Is Not Your Fault” highlights benefits to implementing systemic change—which can include, “time to breathe, peeing in peace” and “remembering who you even are.” 

I spoke to Saujani about the chronic illness plaguing women in the U.S.—mom guilt—and how we can find a cure.

Elline Lipkin: Things are different midway through 2022 than they were in late 2020 when you wrote your op-ed exhorting President Biden to implement a Marshall Plan for Moms—schools are open (though summer is coming), and kids (except those under age 5) can be vaccinated. 

Have you seen a shift in women returning to the workplace?  And, if so, does that amend your call for payment to Moms?

Reshma Saujani: While pandemic stimulus checks were just one part of the Marshall Plan for Moms, we remain hell bent on pushing the country to value the unpaid caregiving and domestic work women are doing. Women’s unpaid labor remains outsized and uncompensated. The data shows that two years since the pandemic, women’s economic recovery is still lagging, and a major driver of that is that women are still being asked to supplant their paid labor for unpaid labor.

While we are still waiting for the government to grow a heart and bail out moms by extending the child tax credit, delivering paid leave, and affordable childcare, I am not holding my breath. Congress is broken and we need to find alternative ways to give moms relief. 

Lipkin: Specifically, what are the lingering (and ongoing) crises that the pandemic highlighted for mothers who work outside (or inside) the home? Why did we need a pandemic to bring overdue attention to these inequities? What issues do you worry might drift back into public complacency again (childcare costs, racial inequity, etc.)?  

Saujani: The pandemic exposed above all that our childcare system is broken, and drove home something that should have been obvious, which is that moms can’t work without it. This is a problem that we’re not just more aware of, but that’s also gotten worse. Until we improve affordability, accessibility, quality, begin to pay our care workers fairly, even outside a pandemic context women’s careers are going to continue to suffer. 

We also saw on a broader cultural level that in two parent heterosexual households we are a long way from gender equality at home—we know that it was the moms who were logging kids into Zoom school, taking conference calls from bathrooms, or being forced to leave their jobs. 

I think it took a pandemic to bring attention to these problems because for such a long time women have just taken it. Now that the bottom has fallen out, we have to fight to keep these issues at the forefront of the conversation and to demand change. 

It was the moms who were logging kids into Zoom school, taking conference calls from bathrooms, or being forced to leave their jobs. it took a pandemic to bring attention to these problems because for such a long time women have just taken it.

Lipkin: You’re busy fundraising for your organization—where do you think the most leverage for dollars spent is found? Exerting government pressure? Or within the corporate world?  

Saujani: The opportunity I see, and that we are investing in, is organizing the private sector around expanding childcare benefits, providing gender neutral paid leave (and ensuring men take it) and rooting out the motherhood penalty. We are in a unique moment where incentives are actually aligned. Women, especially mothers are leading the Great Resignation, and employers who want to win the talent wars, who want to attract, retain and advance women in their organizations need to act. We’re not appealing to the goodness of their hearts here, this is a bottom line issue.

At the same time, we’re going to continue to join our allies who are fighting in Washington, because these things shouldn’t be an ‘either/or’—it’s a ‘both/and.’ 

Lipkin: As I’m sure you’ve seen with Girls Who Code, there is always reactionary pushback to programming that serves girls and women. How do you respond to criticism that this program doesn’t take into account single fathers or gay male couples? Or women who have sacrificed to do eldercare but are not mothers?  

Saujani: We have to look at who is being disproportionately impacted by some of these things—and in this case, it’s moms. Recent jobs numbers show that men have regained all their labor force losses since the pandemic hit, while women are still down.

Women are disproportionately impacted by childcare issues—they are 75 percent of primary caregivers. And it’s moms who are the ones facing a pay gap. We have a motherhood penalty, men have a fatherhood premium. Therefore the problem we have to solve is not just about gender or even care status, because when men do caregiving work they are praised, respected and compensated. The problem we are solving is discrimination against mothers.

Lipkin: Is the Marshall Plan for Moms geared solely to mothers whose labor was affected by the pandemic or meant to serve women who have chosen to be stay at home parents?  

Saujani: The organization is dedicated to fighting for policies moms need to thrive – that means all moms. Our vision is to create a world where women have choices, where they can move in and out of the workforce over the course of their lives without penalty, and without judgement. 

We have a motherhood penalty, men have a fatherhood premium— men do caregiving work they are praised, respected and compensated. The problem we are solving is discrimination against mothers.

Lipkin: Your new book Pay Up pushes back against the (old saw) women can (or should even try to) ‘do it all’ by indicting corporate feminism’s exhortations we just lean in or try harder in favor of structural critique and reform. What measures is the Marshall Plan for Moms taking to exert pressure in the corporate world to enact change and hold companies accountable?

Saujani: Our approach to transforming workplaces is both top down, convening CEOs and business leaders, and bottom up, organizing moms to advocate in their organizations. 

Lipkin: Your Mother’s Day campaign is wonderfully wry and realistic! Yet “mom guilt” can be interpreted so many ways. I’ll conjecture most mothers, if working for the economic survival of their families, don’t harbor guilt about working, though they likely do about all the things that are heaped on them to do for their families, yet there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish. 

Do you think “mom guilt” is a social construct that serves capitalism?  How can it be reframed?  

Saujani: “Mom guilt” is the natural result of two totally unattainable societal ideals clashing: the perfect mom and ideal worker. To get rid of mom guilt, we not only need to change expectations around what both of those things mean, but also provide the structural supports to make motherhood easier—like childcare. Not just so we can go to work, but so that we can go anywhere or do anything for ourselves. 

Lipkin: How do you see involving partners, likely men, in this movement? The key, to me, seems to be getting their genuine buy-in versus having women do the emotional labor of teaching them why this is important, managing their contributions, reminding them of their obligations to their families and this cause.

Saujani: I think role models are going to be a huge part of it. Men aren’t going to start doing their share all of a sudden because they feel sorry for us and we asked nicely. They need to see that being a successful – even desirable! – man in our culture means doing school dropoffs. There’s also data. Men who take paternity leave are happier, they have fewer health complications, and better relationships with their children. They also have wives who earn more money. There are win-wins here. 

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Elline Lipkin is a poet, academic and nonfiction writer. Her first book of poems, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award. Her second book, Girls’ Studies, explores contemporary girlhood in the United States. Currently a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, Elline also teaches poetry for Los Angeles Writing Classes. As a nonfiction writer, she has written about everything from being a feminist bride to female mentorship and influence within the literary world, as well as Barbie’s new body and “fauxpowerment.”