Forget Flowers This Mother's Day: 11 Ways to REALLY Help Mothers

Every Mother's Day season you hear people say, "Shouldn't every day be mother's day?" And those people are correct. There's nothing wrong with buying mom flowers and brunch, of course, and even the most Hallmark of holidays can be made personal and imbued with meaning. But to truly honor mothers -- not just the ones in your life, but all mothers -- we have to look beyond the greeting cards and start examining legislation and social services.

The reality is that mothers are not as supported as they should be in this country, and the recent, ongoing war against reproductive rights, unions, and legislation like the Violence Against Women Act have only made things worse.

Below are several ways (among many) that we, as a nation, could do a much better job of supporting mothers.

1. Require paid parental leave.

Unlike 178 countries, including virtually all of the developed nations, the United States does not have a federal law on the books requiring employers to provide paid parental leave. (The Family and Medical Leave Act covers only about half the U.S. workforce and mandates only unpaid leave.) The result? In 2010 only 42 percent of mothers were able to stay home with their babies for 12 weeks after delivery. Mothers and their partners should be able to afford to take time off after the birth of a child, for the health and wellbeing of everyone in the family. Even Fox News' Megan Kelly thinks "the United States is in the dark ages when it comes to maternity leave."

2. Support workplace flexibility and other leave policies.

Work-life balance is a challenge for mothers at all points of the economic spectrum, but that's especially true for women whose jobs do not provide paid vacation leave, paid sick leave and flexible work schedules. None of these issues is federally mandated, and all of them would help mothers, especially those who are caretakers. (Women are much more likely than their male counterparts to be caretakers of children or adult family members.) Mothers who work should also have access to a private place to breastfeed, which is law in only some states.

3. Address the gender wage gap.

Guess what? Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act and three years after the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, women still make 77 cents to a man's dollar. And that's for women overall; women of color and women in certain geographic areas fare much worse as far as the wage gap is concerned. Black women in Washington, DC, for instance, make just 50 cents to their male counterpart's dollar. That means that the average mother doesn't have the same earning potential as the average father, and that is a problem for mothers single and partnered alike.

The gender wage gap is a complicated issue that probably won't be solved with any one magic-bullet piece of legislation. But some ways to address the issue include raising the minimum wage, passing family leave policies (see above!) and addressing the broken career pipeline.

4. Stop trying to roll back access to birth control.

Family planning is critical to all women, including those who already have children. Anti-choice legislators, pundits,and some now-infamous Catholic bishops have tried hard to paint women who use birth control as morally bankrupt deviants and "sluts," but the reality is that the vast majority of women, including Catholics, have used birth control. For mothers, being able to control how many children they have is critical to protecting their health, helping them stay in the workplace if they choose to, and giving them a better quality of life overall.

5. Support safe, legal access to abortion.

A healthy family planning landscape must also include access to safe, legal abortion services. Many mothers seek abortions for a multitude of reasons -- because they cannot afford more children, because they do not desire to have more children, or because their health may be endangered by further pregnancies, for instance. In fact, most women seeking abortions -- 61 percent -- already have one or more children. And yet, an all-out assault on abortion rights is underway at the state level, where "personhood" laws, 20-week bans and other pieces of anti-choice legislation are being considered, and in some cases passed, around the country.

6. Support unionization.

All workers should be allowed to organize on the job, but since women make less than their male counterparts, the need is especially great for them. Research indicates that the gender wage gap (hello #3!) is narrower for unionized employees than their non-unionized counterparts. And in general, women who belong to unions make 33 percent more than non-unionized women. Working moms both need and deserve those extra wages! Unions also protect mothers when they need to take time off for family needs and can help working mothers secure fair and flexible work arrangements. So when you see politicians (like, say, Scott Walker) push anti-union policies, oppose them, for mom's sake.

7. Fight for affordable health care.

Health care: it costs a lot, even when you have insurance. This is especially true for mothers, who are responsible not only for their own healthcare costs (including giving birth) but for their children's. We have the Affordable Care Act passed, yes, but at the same time Republicans have tried to slash budgets for CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) and Medicaid, which serve low-income children and adults. We have to push back against these kinds of moves and support efforts to make health care affordable for every mother and every American.

8. Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was first passed in 1994, and at the time had broad bipartisan support. That is no longer the case, as Republicans have launched a bizarre attack on the law, which would expand support for domestic violence programs. Domestic violence is a serious issue not only for women and mothers, but for their children as well -- studies have shown that domestic violence has devastating, long-term effects on children. Supporting mothers means bolstering support for domestic violence programs, not politicizing the issue.

9. Address cuts to safety net services.

What do government-supported childcare, food stamps and reduced or free breakfast programs have in common? Two things: they all serve as lifelines to mothers who are struggling financially, and they all have all been threatened with budget cuts in the years since the Great Recession started -- years when these services are needed the most. Republicans in particular argue that we should spend less money on these services at the state and federal level (even as they benefit from the services themselves).

10. Ensure that mothers behind bars are treated with dignity.

The number of incarcerated mothers is growing (the number grew 88 percent between 1991 and 2002). Indeed, some 75 percent of women in U.S. prisons are mothers, and 25 percent either give birth while in prison or are pregnant when they are arrested. These mothers are often denied basic rights, like the right to give birth without being shackled and the right to appropriate prenatal care. These rights violations are unacceptable, period.

11. Celebrate mothers of all stripes, from all backgrounds.

I saved an important one for last. As a clever, new Strong Families campaign reminds us, it's critical that we honor all mothers this Mother's Day -- not just the white, heterosexual, cis, 20- and 30-something, economically secure mothers who dominate the media landscape. So many mothers who don't fall into those categories are routinely ignored or reviled, so we must help dispel those stereotypes in whatever way we can.

All mothers deserve love and respect, on Mother's Day and every day.

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