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A message to working moms, from working moms

Hallmark has Mother's Day all wrong.  Mothers’ Day isn’t about kids across the U.S. simultaneously expressing their gratitude to their moms.  It’s about moms taking a step back from our own frenetic lives, catching our breath and assessing how well we’re performing our most critical and consequential job: raising our children. 

The view from Ann O'Leary's Mother's Day breakfast tableBoth of us – like most mothers we know – hold multiple jobs.  In both of our cases, the title “Mom” is accompanied by “Vice President of Next Generation” and “Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.”  We are so deeply engaged in our professional lives, contributing to our professions and earning income for our families as co-equal breadwinners, that we often wonder whether we are “leaning in” so hard that we will soon lean over from exhaustion.  At the same time, we’re trying hard to be good moms to our kids: each of us have two, all under the age of seven.

In these daily struggles to lean in to our professional and personal jobs, we are far from alone.  Whether by choice or need, the era of the stay at home mom is over.  In 2011, just 1 in 5 families had a stay-at-home mom. Today, in two-thirds of American families, mothers are significant breadwinners, and in 40 percent of families, mothers are either the sole breadwinner or earn as much or more than their partners in two-parent families.

Kate Gordon and family on a hard-earned day in the parkYesterday’s “typical” mom of media and ads was June Cleaver or Donna Stone; today it’s more likely to be Sheryl Sandberg or Melissa Mayer.  But in reality, many moms today look more like Susan Connell, 39, the mother of two young girls, who drives a truck in North Dakota to financially support her family. 

No matter how hard our hardest days are (and we have both have had days where we came to work with red eyes from crying through a terrible morning following yet another sleepless night), we are blessed.  We both have husbands who do as much caregiving as we do, high-quality childcare for our little guys, and good public schools for our kindergarten daughters.  We give ourselves a hard time each Mothers’ Day, knowing that we are not living up to our full expectation of ourselves as mothers, but we also know that it’s a day to celebrate those in our lives who play a central role in helping us raise our children.

But too many women are really doing it alone with extreme, and well-founded, anxiety about how their children are faring when they are at work.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that of moms in the workforce, 65 percent have kids under 6, and 60 percent have infants under one year old.  Because of this, 8.2 million kids spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – high quality childcare can be a hugely positive experience for young children.  But in the U.S., “the quality of the care [young children] receive is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian.”  (Jonathan Cohn does have a way with words.)

And even at the low end, childcare is incredibly expensive.  Despite the fact that the majority of mothers with young children now work, Child Care Aware, the nation’s leading voice for childcare, reports the average cost of center-based childcare for 4 year olds is higher than public college tuition and fees in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

If “every day is Child’s Day,” as we’ve all told our kids at one time or another each Mother’s Day, then we need to do something to improve the situation for our children.  In his 2013 State of the Union address President Obama proposed one solution: an initiative for universal, high-quality pre-k education.

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.  But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.  Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool.  And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.  So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.

The benefits of high-quality preschool education are beyond advantageous to society.  Kids with access to these programs have been shown to have better education, health, social and economic outcomes than those without such access.   According to economist James Heckman, preschool is an investment that reduces ‘the need for costly remediation and social spending while increasing the value, productivity and earning potential of individuals.’

The long-term impact of both high-quality child care and high-quality preschool have the potential to positively transform the entire fabric of society.  It also can alleviate the stress, anxiety and financial pressures of both mothers and fathers who need childcare so they can go to work.  It’s about investment to create opportunity with a huge dose of peace of mind sprinkled into the mix.

It is what we wish for all those working Moms – that they can have the peace of mind to earn an income for their child and know that their child is well taken care of when they do.  Talk about a Mothers’ Day gift with bragging rights.  

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