The united state of motherhood
This speech was delivered by Jill Koziol on Friday, October 11th at Mother: The Summit in Detroit, Michigan. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Thank you, Blessing and Mother Honestly for this great honor to be among so many inspiring women today. The feeling is electric—do you feel it? What’s happening here today is an example of women lifting women and is exactly how we change the world.
I’m excited for all we are going to experience together today—whether you are an entrepreneur, a SAHM, or a working mom, there is something here for you, from inspiring fireside chats to headshots and a great marketplace, and many other resources to inspire and support you.
To kick off this Summit, I want to start by saying:
THIS is our time. Motherhood matters.
We are living in an important (and exciting!) moment in history as society comes to terms with the importance and value of caregiving. It’s time we take motherhood seriously—it’s time we take ourselves as mothers seriously and demand change, moving what has been treated as niche issues into the mainstream.
Because the reality is, motherhood is one of the most universal experiences that we as human beings share.
At Motherly, we believe that mothers deserve way more support—and way less judgment. Each month, 30 million women read or watch Motherly content—and we hear their voices loud and clear. Speaking on behalf of this generation, we are leading the conversation demanding change.
Because the truth is, American mothers are carrying heavy burdens. The burden is so heavy, and so many other women are carrying it too, that we can start to assume it’s normal. That this is what it’s supposed to be like. And that everyone else is carrying it well—that it’s just you that is struggling.
Mama, it’s not just you. Motherhood shouldn’t be this hard. It is society that is failing, not you.
We live in a culture that gives lip service to the importance of family, but sees investment in women and children as an ‘entitlement’ too far. We operate in a business climate that prizes consumption and profitability above all, and leaves families, and especially women, behind in its wake. We’re citizens in a country where ‘women’s issues’ are seen as side-issues, rather than foundational functions of our society.
Motherhood is way harder than it should be because for too long, our stories have been pushed to the sidelines.
Despite all of this, I am incredibly optimistic. We are living in an era of major consciousness-raising, where women no longer fight one another in some kind of ‘mommy war,’ and instead are looking around us at the root causes of this profound unfairness.
And from where I sit, these are major signs of progress for women, mothers, and society at large.
But in order to get where we need to go, we have to first understand the problem:
To start, motherhood seems overwhelming.
It’s not a secret that American motherhood is incredibly burdensome. Even before they have children, women sense a lack of support that makes motherhood overwhelming—it’s this anxiety that sells books like “Lean In” and fuels a never-ending debate over whether women can ever “have it all.” In fact, Motherly’s 2nd Annual State of Motherhood survey, the largest, most statistically-accurate and comprehensive study of US Millennial mothers, reveals that 51% of moms feel discouraged when it comes to managing the stress of work and motherhood. About one-third of moms said that their mental and physical health is suffering. And 85% of moms said that our society does not do a good job of supporting mothers.
Society is asking you to nurture in an environment that does not nurture you back. So, let me pause here so you can truly hear me: You are not imagining your burnout. And your burnout is not your fault.
In addition, motherhood can be dangerous.
Discrimination against women, and women of color in particular, has led to an appalling maternal health crisis—where women’s voices are not heard and women’s needs are not met. American mothers die in childbirth at a higher rate than in any other country in the developed world—and the mortality rates actually getting worse, not better. According to research in the New York Times, “Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts,” with racism playing a direct role. In the United States, in 2019, sexism and racism interplay in a dangerous mix that puts all new mothers at risk.
And, there is no relief for working mothers.
One in four new mothers return to work out of economic necessity within two weeks of giving birth. Recent statistics from the U.S. Labor Bureau indicate that only 12% of American workers have access to paid leave—the rest are left to fend for themselves without paid compensation during one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. The United States remains the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee paid family leave upon the birth of a baby. For all our talk about being family-focused, we refuse to act on it.
Case in point, women experience tons of pressure to breastfeed, but little support.
Before and after birth, breastfeeding education and support is hit or miss—there is no routine education for new mothers to learn how to nurse. Breastfeeding might be ‘natural,’ but it is a learned skill. Women routinely are forced to figure it out on their own—a reality that leads to anguish for mom, and struggle for baby. Private lactation consultants often cost hundreds of dollars, an expense that is frequently out of reach during this financially stressful time in life. And if a woman formula feeds her baby, for whatever reason, she is made to feel that she has made a lesser choice for her child. Our society expects mothers to be endlessly self-sacrificing, but is unwilling to give her the support she needs along the way.
It begins postpartum where women have been left to fend for themselves.
While newborns are typically seen at least four times in their first two months of life, their mothers routinely have no postpartum care from 48 hours after birth until 6 weeks. During these critical weeks of physical recovery and a psychological transition to parenthood, women are left to figure it out alone. A lack of consistent postpartum screening and support leads to record levels of physical and mental health problems.
A major contributing factor is that childcare is as expensive as a mortgage payment/college.
The incredibly high cost of childcare puts enormous stress on families. The high cost is a leading reason that so many American women drop out of the workforce when they become moms. It’s a barrier to entry for them to start a business. It’s a massive strain on family finances. Families today pay a huge price to work—one that the federal government nor the majority of employers do much to support.
Sadly, we have an American work culture that penalizes women.
It’s no secret that working women face the motherhood penalty at work—which amounts to a decrease in 4%of her earnings for every child that she has. But it’s an extra sting to learn that men benefit from a fatherhood bonus—on average earning 6%more after their first child is both. Motherly’s State of Motherhood survey revealed that the majority of women scaled down their careers after the birth of a baby, while their partners often scaled up—a split that sometimes happens by choice, but other times happens by default, thanks to a lack of paid family leave, the high cost of childcare, and inflexible work environments for parents.
And, this is the worst part: The victims blame themselves.
Research shows that American mothers largely blame themselves, experiencing waves of guilt and self-criticism for not being able to accomplish the herculean task of working, raising children and managing a household, entirely on their own.
But it is NOT our fault.
As Beth Berry wrote in a Motherly essay that has become our anthem, “it takes a village, but there are no villages. . . you and I are not the problem at all. WE ARE DOING PLENTY. We may feel inadequate, but that’s because we’re on the front lines of the problem, which means we’re the ones being hardest hit. We absorb the impact of a broken, still-oppressive social structure so that our children won’t have to. That makes us heroes, not failures.”
It makes us heroes, mama.
So, the system is stacked against us. Recognizing the problem is the first step. The next is identifying the structural changes that can and must be made to make American society a family-friendly one.
At Motherly we are declaring 2020 The Year of the Mother, calling on lawmakers and employers to hear our voice, the voice of today’s mother, because we deserve better. Today’s mothers are better educated than any generation before, working more than ever before, and our governmental policies, corporate governance, and culture have not adjusted to provide the support needed to ensure mamas and families thrive.
So let us imagine the world as it could be. This world is in our reach. Together we can advocate for six critical changes to ensure progress for American mothers:
First, it’s time to address our maternal health crisis, making pregnant women safer.
The United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. Giving birth in America is shockingly dangerous, black mothers are three to four times more likely to die during or after pregnancy or birth and Native American and Native Alaskan mothers are also dying from complications in childbirth at a disproportionate rate. Systemic racism, socioeconomic disparities, heteronormative expectations and unequal access to healthcare are hurting mothers and babies. This is unacceptable and Motherly supports the modernization of obstetric medicine standards and policies which address implicit bias among providers in clinical settings.
Second, it’s time for paid family leave.
Paid family leave is good for babies, families, and businesses and the United States is the only member country of the OECD that has not implemented paid leave on a national basis. Support for paid leave is growing in both parties because this is truly a non-partisan issue. Paid leave is good for babies, parents, society, and even the long-term economic flourishing of American businesses. With a groundswell of new mothers taking to the 2019 Congress, and unprecedented support for paid leave emerging on the right, action on the federal level is on the horizon. And it’s about time.
Third, it’s time for a mother’s right to feed her baby where and how she wants to be recognized.
We need a no-judgment breastfeeding revolution. Breastfeeding in public is legal in America, and yet nearly every week there is a new news story about a mother being harassed for simply feeding her baby. Motherly supports the rights of mothers to breastfeed and pump where and how they want to, including in the workplace. No mother should have to choose between breastfeeding and keeping her job.
Motherly recognizes the World Health Organization’s recommendation that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life, but like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Motherly recognizes that a baby’s mother “is uniquely qualified to decide whether exclusive breastfeeding, mixed feeding or formula feeding is optimal for her and her infant.” Mothers should be free to choose formula if that is what they want, but also supported in nursing. Right now, mothers do not feel supported when doing either.
Fourth, it’s time to raise the standard for postpartum care and address maternal mental health.
The simple act of feeding babies is way harder than it should be. America’s mothers face intense pressure to exclusively breastfeed, but lack societal, corporate, and government support to enable breastfeeding success, including paid family leave and protection from breastfeeding discrimination.
At the same time, formula feeding is stigmatized, leaving mothers feeling judged for making a deeply personal choice filled with complexity.
No mother should have to choose between breastfeeding and keeping her job and no mother should be shamed for exclusively breastfeeding, feeding with formula or doing both.
There is no easy way to feed a baby in America. It is time to change that with more support and way less judgment.
Fifth, it’s time for affordable childcare solutions.
The desperate need for affordable childcare has become a rallying cry for a generation of Millennial parents saddled with student loan debt and an unprecedented high cost of living. The cost of childcare is increasing faster than household incomes and parents can keep up. Parents are struggling to find care that meets their standards and are burdened not only by the financial costs but the time it takes to investigate childcare providers.
Motherly believes all children in America deserve access to quality, affordable preschool, and we know it is possible as universal childcare has been successful in Washington, DC where 90% of 4-year-olds attend a full-day preschool program for free and where the city’s maternal workforce participation rate rose by more than 10%.
Startups and tech companies like SnapChat and Facebook all offer subsidies or benefits to help parents offset the cost of childcare. Patagonia is another example of a company that goes even further—providing free, on-site childcare to all of its employees.
These cities and companies make the case that investing in families is a long-term benefit drawing people to live and work in these places and companies. The cry is getting louder—and there is a lot more that must be done.
Sixth, it’s time for changes to the cultural expectations that contribute to maternal stress.
Research suggests America’s mothers are the most stressed moms in the western world. We are parenting under intense and incompatible cultural pressures and doing way more than our fair share of unpaid work while increasingly serving as household breadwinners.
Meanwhile, work culture tells us we need to pretend we aren’t parents while the wider culture suggests mothers need to prioritize parenting over work by continuing to frame mothers as the default parent.
As a workplace, Motherly is supporting parents by providing something American parents are increasingly seeking: flexible schedules and remote opportunities. My experience as a working mom commuting two hours a day while pregnant and newly postpartum was central to our decision at Motherly to have a fully remote workforce. In today’s dual-income families, the flexibility provided by remote work can be a key ingredient in helping families thrive. In the four years since launching Motherly my co-founder, Liz Tenety, and I have only been co-located for a total of four months. In fact, we didn’t see each other at all the entire second year of Motherly—we are evidence that remote work works and can scale successfully.
American women are defining career and using technology to get what they want. Millennial women represent the first generation in history where women are more highly educated than men. Full stop. This is a very big deal. But when they become mothers, they find that many corporate cultures are unable to keep pace with the very reasonable idea that a person should be able to thrive in her career—and have a family. That’s why we’re seeing Millennial moms embracing entrepreneurship at unprecedented levels, particularly among women of color. When the system isn’t working for them, these women are inventing systems of their own that do.
A host of female-founded startups like Werk, The Mom Project, Power to Fly, and Apres have also emerged, using technology to help women find flexible, remote, high-quality employment opportunities. This new generation of entrepreneurs are helping their fellow Millennial moms to find opportunity where in the past, none existed. And I’m proud to share that at Motherly, we employ over 30 working mothers, all of our employees work flexible schedules, and we are 100% remote. This IS the change we wish to see in the world.
We recognize that no single company or policy will shift the status quo, but by supporting mothers at work and supporting fathers to be the caregivers they want to be we aim to redistribute the uneven ratio of unpaid work, lessen the mental load of motherhood, and help equalize pay.
Before I close, and join you in the amazing day we have ahead, I want to implore you to join me today in rebranding motherhood.
Yes, motherhood is all-consuming, but the transformation of motherhood is far from all bad. It’s getting in touch with our deepest strengths. It’s experiencing the greatest love of our lives. It’s making us more efficient at work. Motherhood needs to be reclaimed for the woman-empowering experience that it is. Motherhood is tenderness and strength. Motherhood is purpose and power.
From Sand Hill Road to the Halls of Congress, we are seeing American motherhood emerge as a source of massive power and strength.
It’s time for us to stop blaming ourselves when the burdens of modern American motherhood feel heavy.
It’s time for us to seize this moment to take motherhood seriously. Because, motherhood matters.
It’s time for our generation to rise up and demand that society give more than lip service to being family-friendly.
It’s time for our incredibly outdated structures to reflect our modern reality.
It’s time for women to do more than just survive motherhood.
I believe it is finally time for mothers to thrive. Because, when mamas thrive, families thrive, and the world thrives.
And mama, we’ve got this. Together.