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Mothers and women

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - May 18, 2021 - 12:00am

The concept of a “mother” is one of the first that we encounter in this world, and there are as many ways to engage with it as there are human beings. Just over a year ago, I wrote about our primordial relationship with our mothers, and how the institution of motherhood is often placed on a pedestal that creates unrealistic expectations of real women, creating inequities that the pandemic was bound to exacerbate: mothers bear the brunt of the emotional labor and unpaid care work in families, face greater costs for leaving the work force and deal with biases that can prevent them from receiving equal pay or career advancement opportunities.

In the year that has passed since I wrote that column, the prediction about the effects of the pandemic has unfortunately proved true for many women. A recent column from the World Economic Forum (WEF) reveals some sobering statistics of the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women in general and mothers in particular:

• Women’s jobs made up 39 percent of global employment during the pandemic but accounted for 54 percent of overall job losses, making women’s jobs as much as 1.8 times more vulnerable than those of men (from a study by McKinsey & Company);

• Women were more likely to say they were hit by income loss, that they didn’t have enough food and that their mental health was adversely affected during the pandemic (from a study by Care.org);

• In some nations, the closure of schools has led to many mothers leaving work, and this especially impacted single mothers, which has led to material hardship for many families (from a study from Brookings.edu);

• According to the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report, the length of time it would theoretically take to close the global gender gap at our current rate of progress has increased by as much as a generation, from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.

It is important to realize that the plight of mothers is inextricable from the plight of women. That may sound like an obvious statement, but in practice things are not so simple. One can gain some semblance of understanding of that by taking a look at the backlash and controversy that surround the celebration of International Women’s Day as opposed to the celebration of Mother’s Day. It’s not just about tradition, or the fact that people are less likely to know about International Men’s Day than they are to know about Father’s Day.

Society distinguishes between women and mothers, or at least it makes the attempt to, placing one in competition with the needs of men while enshrining the other as the tireless pillar of family life. But a woman does not cease to be a woman when she becomes a mother. In fact, when she becomes a mother may be when she most keenly feels the norms imposed by society on womanhood, the things that are expected of her, the things others take for granted about her.

That is not to say that becoming a mother does not change things. There are few things as life-altering as becoming a parent. It may not happen magically, it may not happen overnight, but the simple fact of becoming responsible for a life that is – at least at first – completely dependent on you, will alter the way you perceive the world, and the way you perceive yourself.

Becoming a mother has been the single most defining moment of my life. I was able to conquer some of the hardest challenges in my life because of the strength that my daughter gave me. But for all that, being a mother sometimes feels like some parts of our lives have been traded in for diapers and feedings. However, motherhood is not a subtraction but an addition. We are ourselves, but more.

You are a woman and a mother, not a mother instead of a woman. Acknowledging this is an important first step in freeing yourself from the unfair myths of the ideal mother – the one who happily sacrifices all of herself for her family, leaving nothing behind for herself, not even the stump of the Giving Tree.

After all, what matters most for one’s children is that their mother be there for them (not necessarily physically). That she survives with them, stays with them. What Rachel Cusk wrote in her book “A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother” has a particular resonance here:

“I have been there all along and this, I suddenly and certainly know, is motherhood; this mere sufficiency, this presence. With every cry she has tutored me, in what is plain and hard: that my affection, my silly entertainments, my doting hours, the particular self I tried to bring to my care of her, have been as superfluous as my fury and despair. All that is required is for me to be there; an ‘all’ that is of course everything, because being there involves not being anywhere else…”

There is much that can be done to support mothers. Programs should be explored that can assist mothers who have lost or had to leave their jobs because of the pandemic, child care options should be provided for those who are unable to depend on outside or domestic help to watch their kids and employers must have policies in place that allow for greater flexibility for working mothers – even after this pandemic has passed, many of the remote work options for mothers should remain.

The concessions that employers and government agencies have had to make to allow for the conduct of business from the home are some of the few positive gains from this past year, and they should not be given up.

But any attempt to uplift mothers without uplifting women in general is doomed to fail. We should explore hiring subsidies and training programs that help women find jobs in industries not vulnerable to pandemic-imposed quarantines. We should continue to demand that the gap in pay between men and women who do the same work be eliminated. We should uproot the sources of systematic and institutional biases against women and continue to educate our youth about equality.

We owe so much to mothers. And the best way to repay them is to empower women.

COVID-19 WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
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