TIME Parenting

What Mothers Really Want for Mother’s Day

Elderly Care
Enrique Pellejer—flickr Editorial/Getty Images

Sandwich generation moms need flexible work schedules and family leave policies more than they need cards, flowers and jewelry.

Last year, Mother’s Day spending on brunches, jewelry, salon appointments, flowers and greeting cards topped $20 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. And no doubt retailers hope to meet that amount this year too. Brands like American Greetings and Kay Jewelers, a Mother’s Day advertising regular, portray the holiday, and therefore motherhood, as an event for young women doted on by attentive husbands and young children. But for many, both the holiday and the reality are as much about being a mother as they are about having, and caring for, their own mothers. And mothers taking care of mothers need more than mimosas and manicures to cope with life in the sandwich generation.

Last year, I started the day having breakfast at home with my family. I then drove more than an hour with my kids to visit my mother, while my husband headed out to visit his. I spent the afternoon with my elderly parents, providing lunch and a cake and doing a few odd jobs for them at their home. I returned home after six to start the Sunday night routine: showers, stray homework assignments and stressing about the impending workweek. I went to bed that night feeling a mixture of emotions: grateful for another year with my mother, guilty for wanting the day to myself, overwhelmed by all that my parents needed and I couldn’t give them in a five-hour visit and, as always, exhausted.

Based on data from the National Alliance for Caregiving, the AARP and Pew Research, I’m pretty much an average caregiver in the sandwich generation: female, married, late 40s, a living parent or parents age 65 or older, at least one dependent child and feeling pressed for time. Luckily for me, because I’m also among the 40% of women who serve as primary breadwinners for their household, I won’t experience the same career and financial setbacks that many caregivers do—at least I hope.

The Census Bureau reports there are 39.6 million eldercare providers in the U.S., and the majority of them are women. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP, 70% of them suffer work-related difficulties as a result of their caregiving roles, with female caregivers in particular at risk of financial hardship. That’s because many women report changing their work arrangements to accommodate their caregiving duties by switching to a less demanding job, taking time off or quitting altogether. I know I’ve considered it. But as a result of women making career changes to accommodate their caregiving responsibilities, they are more likely to lose job-related benefits and suffer lost wages. In fact, a study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving calculated women lose an estimated $324,044 in wages due to caregiving. Often, a working mother’s time out of the office during her childbearing years is compounded by the time she takes off later to care for her parents. With one in three American women already living in poverty or on the brink, it’s imperative we find a way to support these working mothers and daughters.

So while brunches and spa treatments are certainly welcome on Sunday, May 11, a more meaningful way to honor mothers is to recognize their multifaceted roles as parents, adult children and breadwinners, and to advocate for workplace solutions such as flexible schedules and family leave policies, and access to financial and career planning tools. That’s how we keep mothers at work: allow their mothers to age with dignity and raise the next generation of compassionate caregivers. And what mother wouldn’t want that on Mother’s Day?

Liz O’Donnell is the author of the book Mogul, Mom & Maid: the Balancing Act of the Modern Woman and founder of Hello Ladies, named one of the top 100 websites for women by Forbes and a Best of the Net by Working Mother Magazine.

TIME

The ‘Mad Men’ Problem at Home

Dish Washing
Getty Images / Getty Images

Closing the wage gap begins with remedying the housework gap first

When President Obama addressed the gender-based wage gap during his State of the Union address last week, women cheered and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro even gave out high fives. Obama called on Washington and businesses to help women succeed at work and “do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.” However, the President forgot to name a key constituency in his call to help women succeed: husbands.

All the workplace policies in the world aren’t going to get women to parity unless we do away with our Mad Men-era policies at home, too. Despite the fact women are the sole or primary source of income in a record 40% of U.S. households, they still do the majority of housework and childcare. According to the Pew Research Center, during an average week[OK? The study, if I’m looking at the right one, seems to have measured weeks rather than days.], women spend more time cleaning, doing laundry, and preparing food then men do. Men, on the other hand, spend more time watching television than women do. And even in households where the woman is the sole breadwinner, the labor division is far from equal. Men who stay home average 18 hours of housework per week, while their working partners average 14. Stay-at-home mothers, though, average 26 hours of housework. Their working partners average just a third of that time. America has a housework gap, and it’s fueling the gender gap at work.

Research indicates there is a direct and negative correlation between housework and the wage gap. One theory, from research in The Journal of Human Resources, suggests this could be employers’ negative reactions to women who appear dedicated to household activities. It could also be that many employers believe mothers are less committed to their jobs than other employees, as Shelley J. Correll, a sociology professor at Stanford University, posits. As a result, employers are reluctant to hire them and offer them high salaries. The “mommy penalty” is real. The wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is greater than that between women and men, according to the advocacy group MomsRising.

It appears that in 2014, we have high expectations of what a woman can accomplish at work, but we still have 1950s expectations about her role at home. But it’s time to rethink and renegotiate who does what where. Men who have opted out of housework should lean in at home so their wives can lean in at work. And they should advocate for, and take advantage of, family-friendly policies such as paid sick days, paternity leave, and flex benefits in order to create a more equitable arrangement at home.

If we truly believe that, as Obama said, “when women succeed, America succeeds,” then we need to stop ignoring the housework gap. Laundry and dirty dishes may not be standard agenda items for our legislators and business leaders, but they should be. After all, a woman can’t have it all if she’s too busy doing it all.

Liz O’Donnell is the author of Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman.

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