By Dana Gershon
Last month, three-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix announced that she will commit $200,000 in childcare costs for nine athletes who are mothers and competing in the 2021 Tokyo games. Her decision came after her own difficult experiences after giving birth — and unsupportive sponsors who denied maternity protections and pushed pay cuts, despite her clear prowess as a sprinter. The fact that top athletes, decorated Olympians, cannot access childcare and responsive maternity policies underscores a deeper problem within our society and how we undervalue mothers — especially Black mothers.
As a white woman, I come from a place of privilege. But as a working mother, I too, have struggled to afford the childcare I needed for my growing family, in spite of the fact that I am an attorney with access to better benefits than most women in the US. After having my first child, I received eight weeks of paid leave and took an additional three weeks unpaid. With my second child, I was able to take six months off, but only three of which were paid. And after giving birth to twins, with four children at home under age 6, I was forced to leave my job, as my childcare costs would have exceeded what I would have earned after taxes.
While some parents choose not to return to work after a new child, that should be a choice, not an economic necessity. Parents should have the flexibility to make decisions that work best for their family’s well-being without having to do financial gymnastics to ensure their children are well-cared for at the end of the day.
Paid parental leave of any kind is rare in the United States — one of the only countries to not mandate paid family leave. Only 21% of American workers get access to any paid family leave. This is especially true in low-income jobs. Part-time workers — who are more likely to be women of color, white women and Black and Latino men — do not even receive job-protected, unpaid leave in most of the US.
Having time off after the arrival of a new child is critical for the health and wellbeing of parents and children alike. Black women in the United States experience unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality — and are three times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women. Ensuring paid leave is just one step in improving care and support for Black mothers — and all parents.
For a year, after my twins were born, I did not go back to work at all. Only with additional financial support from my family — something many others do not have access to — was I able to return to work.
During the pandemic, an overwhelming majority of jobs lost were held by women, particularly women of color. And because of unpaid, undervalued, and extraordinary care responsibilities due to children learning from home, even more, women were forced to leave their jobs.
According to a recent report, more than half (52%) of Latinas and almost half (44%) of Black women reported their unpaid care responsibilities would negatively impact the amount of paid labor they would be able to do.
Individual employers and organizations need to support working parents, and working mothers in particular. We also need federal policies that ensure all families have the flexibility and support they need. The expanded child tax credit in the most recent pandemic relief package is an important start, but we, as a country, must go further and make this tax credit a permanent relief for American families.
The families that would most benefit from this investment — low-income families and Black and Latino communities — are those that have been the most impacted by the pandemic.
Now is a critical moment to envision an economy that works for everyone; that means valuing mothers instead of neglecting them. Robust funding for childcare, a plan for paid leave, a permanent expansion of the child tax credit, investments in education, and support for workers are all essential for an economic recovery. We must reframe how we understand the care economy and value the work — largely done by women of color — to care for children, elders, and others in need of additional support. We have an opportunity to truly pursue gender and racial equity — and we cannot let it go to waste.
As we continue to witness the incredible athletic feats of Olympic athletes, we should remember the sacrifice too many of those mom-athletes have had to make to be there. For them — and for all the working moms — we should follow the lead of Allyson Felix. We should demand a better future with childcare investment, paid leave, and support for working families.
Dana Gershon is the president of National Council of Jewish Women and is an attorney with a private practice that specializes in employment law.