It’s Mother’s Day, and I’m thinking about my mom’s extraordinary life.
My mom raised me in 1960s Korea in a house without basic amenities. She had moved to Seoul to be with the love of her life, my father, and that meant she was two-days travel away from her neighborhood, family and friends. My mom was very aware of how difficult it was to raise a child without a support system. She was a working mom and shared caring for me with a local nanny, but it really does take a village to raise a child. It was not until I had my own small children, in somewhat similar circumstances in South Africa, that I realized just how extraordinary what my mother regularly did was.
This is often true about mothers around the world, and especially so during this global crisis. The work they do for us continues to be “invisible” and go unacknowledged even though we are all quick to acknowledge that without their unpaid labor, our families wouldn’t be able to function. This is why the best gift we can give our mothers is truly recognizing and valuing their “invisible work” every day and striving towards a more equal distribution of unpaid work.
One of the things I am most proud of about Women for Women International’s work is that we give women the confidence to view housework and care-work as valuable work and as worthy. Learning skills to negotiate and share chores and decision-making about parenting is a part of our training for women we serve around the world. We also work with men so they see women as true partners and take on more responsibilities at home. This is so important because often motherhood is a tenuous balancing act.
There is this notion that mothers are always there for their children and that their job is to protect their children from any hardship. And when we fail in meeting this standard, we feel immense guilt. As a single mom, I spent years feeling awful whenever I prioritized work or my own needs over my children’s, even when that work was what kept our household going, and even when I was in extremely stressful situations where I absolutely needed to put my own oxygen mask on first.
And my Mom, who is just about to turn 80 and has seen all three of her children thrive in life, still apologizes for what she perceives as her failures as a mother. I’ve seen this tendency to feel guilty exacerbated in the last two months as women berate themselves if they can’t achieve just as much in their jobs, while also home schooling, all during a pandemic.
Balancing parenting with other responsibilities - whether that be a paid job or subsistence farming to get food on the table – is a constant struggle and it is impossible to be “a perfect mother.” And, in fact, in trying to protect our children and achieve perfection we are actually not doing them any favor, because we as humans need to experience some challenge, pain, and failure, in order to grow the skills we need to survive and thrive in an imperfect world. When I consider what I’ve learned from my Mom, it is the values she passed on – her commitment to justice, to social change, to kindness and to community, which have sustained me.
On this Mother’s Day, I want my mother – and all of us – to celebrate rather than berate. Lay the guilt down and lift up the love. On this Mother’s Day, I want the world to take action to value motherhood not just in words, but in actions, such as ensuring paid family leave.
While working with Women for Women International, I’ve seen that the women we work with balance so many of the demands of motherhood in much harder circumstances. Many live in poverty, war, and instability. They have to worry day to day whether they will be able to feed their children, and keep them physically safe. Many have escaped violence and conflict and have had to uproot their whole lives. The obstacles they face are so much bigger than mine and they have so much more to balance.
I often think about how the mothers in our programs do it. What allows them to be the superstars that they are and the glue holding together their communities and families? I think a big part of that is the sisterhood of the classroom, the cooperative, the association, the village. On average 80% of the women who graduate from our programs every year are mothers and they often find that their classroom is their support system. Connecting mothers to each other so that they can discuss decisions and challenges is a powerful thing. It creates a space in which mothers, who are pulled in so many different directions, can help each other with some of the load and rely on each other.
In the United States, we are very individualistic and not having a stable community to help with mothering can be a challenge. One of the advantages of raising my sons in South Africa was that raising kids there was very communal, and I had a large support system despite being away from my own nuclear family.
My mother had to raise me with little to no support, in a foreign country, and without a consistent sisterhood. She regularly subsumed her career and priorities to that of my father, and to being our mother. While I acknowledge and honor her strength and sacrifice, I also know that mothers shouldn’t have to give themselves up in order to bring us up, nor should they have to carry the bulk of the care work alone.
When mothers join their hands together and form collectives they are able to support each other, and problem solve together instead of dealing with the obstacles they face in isolation. But it is equally important that fathers and the rest of society are supportive. When society as a whole acknowledges the immense burdens placed on mothers and works towards decreasing those burdens with practical measures such as affordable child care and paid family leave, we can begin to truly honor our mothers in a meaningful way. More personally, let every mother know that ‘perfection’ is neither attainable nor helpful, and that it is sharing her own priorities, needs, and passions that is the most valuable gift she can give her children, and society.