There have been lots of discussions around sustainability recently. To counteract the unprecedented damage done to the global economy by the pandemic, the World Economic Forum has launched The Great Reset initiative: a commitment to build the foundations of our economic and social system for a more fair, sustainable and resilient future. This welcome step is a great opportunity to address social injustices – such as those faced by mothers.
In the past few decades the situation of mothers has changed drastically. Due to urbanisation and globalisation extended family no longer live together, which means mums don’t have the support of grandparents or aunts that was traditionally always there. Also, the norm now is for women to work and have a career, but maternity leave policies vary widely from company to company. Some mothers need to go back to work just weeks after their babies were born. Women don’t always have a choice: many of them simply can’t survive without an income.
Even if there’s paid maternity leave of a few months or a couple of years in some very generous cases, families still depend on childcare for years to come until those children reach adolescence. Who covers all the school holidays or looks after the kids when they’re sick? It used to be the grandparents and extended family, but this is becoming less and less viable as everyone is working, grandparents too, and large families no longer live close together.
Mothers are currently shouldering a lot more than ever before in history – and it takes its toll. Many of them are exhausted, overwhelmed, depressed, or burnt out. Our current society does not work for mothers. If we want to build back a more sustainable society, we need to consider the needs of mothers more.
New mothers need more support
Becoming a mother is a very delicate time in a woman’s life. The changes are enormous, and women need all the help they can get to navigate this rite of passage. But the modern day reality is that new mothers are left on their own – which was unheard of even a generation or two ago. There were always extended family around to help mums recover after birth and teach them how to look after the baby, but family support is no longer available for most women.
Postpartum care and support have technically disappeared. Unfortunately, mums pay a high price: the rates of postpartum depression and loneliness are shockingly high, and suicide is a leading cause of maternal deaths in the Western world.
The lack of postpartum care for new mums also means that many women cannot fully recover physically and mentally after having children. This can unfortunately impact their health for years to come, and it might also affect their ability to return to the workforce.
The Economist discussed this issue in its article “Beyond baby: Why so little is done to help new mums cope” in 2018. Public health care predominantly focuses on the health of the baby after birth, while the wellbeing of new mums is neglected. Some countries are waking up to the fact that they need to do more to help new mums. Such an example is Japan, where more and more postpartum support centres are popping up, and where the government has subsidised municipalities that offer postpartum-support services since 2015.
A public health crisis
Mothers are not the only ones affected by poor postpartum care. The problem goes far beyond that. Essentially, mothers are the cornerstones of the family – and when they’re struggling, that impacts the wellbeing of their children and the whole family unit as well. As Jenny Allison, author of the book “Golden Month: Caring for the World’s Mothers After Childbirth” says, this is a matter of public health:
“It is well-known that social support is one of the biggest determinants of public health in general. This is especially true for the health of new mothers.” – Jenny Allison 2016:86
The fact that mothers, and indeed fathers, are struggling has wide-ranging repercussions across society: mental health problems are on the rise, divorce rates are up, family units are less strong, children feel more insecure. The list goes on and on.
The BBC article “Fertility rate: ‘Jaw-dropping’ global crash in children being born” draws attention to the fact that women are choosing to have fewer children, which can pose serious challenges in the coming decades. When societies have a disproportionately high number of old people and much fewer working age people, the questions arise who pays taxes, who pays for healthcare, who looks after the elderly, or how it would be possible to retire at all.
The truth is, it’s not at all surprising that women are choosing to have fewer children. It is simply not financially viable to have a large family any more. Gone are the days when the average family could survive on one paycheck; and also, many women enjoy working, building a career, being independent. The “you-can-have-it-all” myth has been debunked and we now know that for the majority it’s just not possible to have a great career, financial stability, and a big family at the same time. Of course there are exceptions, but for the majority, no.
The effects of the pandemic
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his Mandela day lecture “Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era”, women everywhere are worse off than men as a result of the historic inequalities of patriarchy, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this divide: “The economic fallout of the pandemic is affecting those who work in the informal economy; small and medium-size businesses; and people with caring responsibilities, who are mainly women.”
Indeed, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women. The injustices that riddle our societies have been laid bare: women have been more negatively affected in the past months from job losses, taken on more of the housework and homeschooling duties, and in many cases got dangerously close to breaking point.
Women have always taken on more of the unpaid work at home, such as cleaning, cooking, caring for children, and looking after older family members. This is not exactly surprising, considering that traditionally these were typical jobs women have been doing for millennia – the only problem is that these are all unpaid jobs. And as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres argues in his speech, the pandemic has revealed “fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built”, including “the fiction that unpaid care work is not work”.
All of a sudden, mothers across the globe finally feel heard. It’s about time.
The good news is, there are solutions to these injustices – and I am hopeful that The Great Reset initiative will consider addressing them.
We need to re-think work
There have been talks about closing the gender pay gap, but not many dare mention the “motherhood penalty”: the fact that women are less likely to be promoted at work or might even lose their jobs if they have children. The pension gap also becomes significant if a woman is out of the workforce for a number of years, or has to cut her working hours in order to care for her children or elderly relatives. According to OECD data in many European countries there is a 30-40% pension gap between men and women – and though the figure is shocking on paper, it hardly comes as a surprise.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says, unpaid care work is still work – so would it be possible for this unpaid work at home to become paid work? Would it be possible for carers and stay-at-home mothers to get a universal basic income? And could this income count towards their pension too?
Of course, not all mothers are at home doing care work. Women being more educated and more represented in the workforce has made priceless contributions to our society, and the world is better for it. But juggling a career with motherhood is still hard. Gender pay gap, glass ceiling, “motherhood penalty”, pension gap – these injustices are widespread in many countries. Lots of women end up in small businesses or part-time jobs – but that means retiring on a pension is going to be problematic.
Would it be possible to rearrange the workplace so that women could have a part-time career as well? Could job-sharing be possible in high-level management positions too? If Switzerland allows women to go back to work at 40% or 50% employment, can more countries adopt this method?
New job opportunities
With every challenge comes opportunity – and building back after the pandemic is no exception. With so many people losing their livelihoods, job creation is one of the number one priorities at the moment, and politicians are pledging their support left, right, and centre. With the obvious need for mothers to have more support, there is great opportunity to create new jobs aimed at helping them. Some of these jobs could include:
- postpartum doulas: these trained postpartum support workers could look after new mums to make sure they recover fully after childbirth;
- mothers’ helpers: available for childcare and housekeeping duties to help out mums in need;
- parent educators: antenatal education is currently focused on pregnancy and birth – but we also need to prepare parents for the postpartum, and teach them basic parenting skills.
These positions are crucial for mums to be able to recover from birth, to step into their new role with confidence, and to reduce the risk of postpartum depression and other mental health problems. Unquestionably, a healthy mother is also more able to fulfil her parenting duties, return to work, and perform better than a depressed and depleted one. Mum benefits, baby benefits, family benefits, workplace benefits – the whole society benefits.
This support needs to happen in an organised way, and it should be available to everyone. Private postpartum services can be found already, but the costs involved mean lots of women can’t afford to use them. Instead, local councils could be responsible for referring women to community postpartum doulas and mothers’ helpers, to make sure the services can be accessed by all those families who need them. The demand is huge, and it would be a win-win for everyone: more jobs created, and more families helped.
Imagine a world where every new mum has the support of a postpartum doula so she can fully recover from childbirth and return to the workforce performing better. A world where families can sign up for the services of a mother’s helper who could help out with childcare or housekeeping duties. A world where large corporations create a postpartum policy to help mums during maternity leave. There are so many ways to make this work.
The result would be a world where mums feel good instead of burnt out and depressed, families and children are happier, and workplaces have employees performing to the best of their abilities. The Economist article argues that it makes economic sense to help mothers:
“More postnatal care would add costs to strained public-health services, yet besides sparing women unnecessary suffering, it might make economic sense. Better childbirth procedures could prevent problems, and better postnatal services could stop them growing, saving money for medical services in the long term, and allowing women back into the workforce earlier. Moreover, the mother’s well-being affects her child’s future health and educational attainment.”
Investing in the wellbeing of parents is crucial for the healthy functioning of society as a whole. It is the only way we can ensure that the next generation grows up to be healthy, well-rounded citizens reaching their full potential.
So if we have an opportunity now to address social injustices and create a more sustainable society, I would ask policymakers to please consider implementing measures that help mothers – because it is not just mums who would benefit from that, but our whole society.