May 5, 2003
Should Mother's Day be about nice words and pretty flowers? Or should it be about giving the people who care for us, and the essential work they do, real worth?
In our wealthy nation, millions of mothers -- largely former middle-class women who devoted most of their lives to taking care of others -- face an old age of poverty. They are twice as likely to be poor than older men.
Despite all the rhetoric about motherhood and apple pie, our economic system does not support mothers or other family members who do the work of caregiving. It does not reward this essential work in a way that helps put food on the table or a roof over our heads.
The work of caregiving in families, whether it's done by women or men, is not even included in measures of economic productivity, such as gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP does include, however, work such as building and using weapons, making and selling cigarettes and other activities that destroy rather than nurture life.
High-quality caregiving is essential for children's welfare and development. Community investment in caregiving will pay for itself in less than a generation. Consider the enormous community expense of not investing in good childcare -- from crime, mental illness, drug abuse and lost human potential -- to the economic consequences of lower quality "human capital."
Women are still the main caregivers. Professions that entail caregiving, such as childcare and elementary school teaching, where women predominate, are lower paid than professions that do not involve caregiving, such as manufacturing and engineering, which are predominantly male.
More than half of mothers in the United States are now in the labor force. But only a small number of businesses have policies that support caregiving. In programs to aid families with dependent children, poor mothers are pushed into low-paying jobs with no benefits such as health insurance and retirement pensions.
We can change all this. We can (and ought to) have government and business policies that support caregiving.
In the Scandinavian nations, as well as in France, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and other industrialized democracies, there is paid parental leave, and California recently enacted such a law. In other industrialized nations, there are government subsidies for childcare and home elderly care.
Some critics claim that such policies will encourage people to stay home and not take outside jobs, and will lead to a high birth rate. But nothing of the sort has happened in nations with such policies that are friendly to caregivers.
The Scandinavian nations have a low birthrate, prosperous economies and high rate of women in elected positions (in Finland, both the president and prime minister are women).
The lesson from this is that only when caregiving is valued can we realistically expect more caring social policies.
Let's take a good look at our values and economic policies this Mother's Day, and see to it that our policy-makers do the same. This is the real gift we should give mothers -- and fathers and children -- this Mother's Day.
Riane Eisler is author of The Power of Partnership (New World Library, 2002), a handbook for personal and social transformation, and the international best seller, "The Chalice and The Blade" (Harper and Row, 1987). She is president of the Center for Partnership Studies (www.partnershipway.org).