(photo: STRIVE New York)
Every Mother’s Day, across America we celebrate the women who have raised us. Cards and flowers are a fine way to mark the day. But at a time when many women face a substantial wage gap with men, struggle economically, face increasing instances of violence and, due to new government restrictions, now face the potential loss of their health care, reproductive rights, and other protections, it’s time to look at how we can make motherhood better for all mothers.
The New York Women’s Foundation has focused on the lives of women in New York City across their lifespans for the last 30 years. From this, we know that the challenges are significant, particularly for women with children. Low-income mothers often have very limited access to the basic guidance, reassurance, and resources that all mothers need to be effective nurturers and first teachers. Low-income women of color are overwhelmingly both the primary wage-earners and the primary caregivers for their families.
But the service and retail jobs overwhelmingly held by women are typically characterized by minimal pay scales, erratic hours, and total lack of any flexibility. Childcare initiatives are few, leaving it unaffordable for many, while those who work as caregivers often earn salaries that put them barely over the poverty line and sometimes they must choose between their jobs as caregivers and caring for members of their own families.
We also know that such a lack of support is consequential for children. Our most recent report focused on the youngest of girls, age 0-8. This time of life, so highly formative, sets girls on their path to womanhood and is when adult role models can have the greatest impact. Their progress is inextricably intertwined with that of the women around them and is affected by how women are treated economically and socially.
For low-income girls, however, there is an appalling lack of consistent nurturance from well-supported and well-prepared adults. Promoting little girls’ healthy development depends absolutely upon making sure that their main caregivers can give them what they need. Perhaps it should have been obvious, but we found that the best way to help girls is by helping their mothers.
Despite the historic lack of investment and resources, solutions do exist and are being pushed to the forefront. New York City has just introduced a new pilot program that will expand universal full-day pre-kindergarten to children who are three years old. “3K for All” is an ambitious idea from Mayor Bill de Blasio that could have major potential benefits, and not just for children. This program can reduce early education and childcare costs for the neediest and create new opportunities for caregivers to work. For the many women who work as early education providers, there is potential for better salaries and better access to training.
In the coming months, it behooves us to attend to the new challenges and demands facing communities as the federal funds supporting many social safety net programs and policies -- the very ones that poor women rely on the most -- are threatened with extinction.
Several things we must do:
--Support advocacy efforts promoting better workplace protections for working mothers and increased access to high-quality subsidized childcare.
--Seek out, convene, and generously fund organizations pioneering Head Start-caliber early education/parenting programs for all low-income families, regardless of whether mothers are in the workforce.
--Fund providers interested in launching/deepening services supporting mother-child healing and bonding for families living under acutely stressful circumstances.
--Strongly support nonprofit organizations working to build strong community-school-parent collaborations and supporting parents’ ability to be full educational partners.
--Seek out, convene, and fund nonprofits serving immigrant and other low-income communities, local schools, and childcare centers to create programs that support parents as first teachers and that train and place parents in volunteer positions within schools.
--Support youth development-school partnerships seeking to provide pre-K to second grade after-school services in low-income neighborhoods.
--Seek out and support community efforts improving basic overall neighborhood resources, including libraries, community gardens, farmers’ markets, and playgrounds.
Providing low-income mothers and all mother figures with a solid foundation is the most efficient way to make sure that their daughters will not face the same tough odds and the cycle of poverty that is devastating our communities. This critical support will ensure that there are more happy Mother’s Days for all women, for generations to come.
Ana Oliveira is president & CEO of The New York Women’s Foundation. On Twitter @NYWomensFdn.