Ai-jen Poo on making the invisible work of mothers and caregivers visible

Host Liz Tenety checks in with Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a non-profit with the goal to bring quality work, dignity and fairness to the growing number of caregivers in America. Together they discuss Ai-jen's work, her idea of care squads, and what we can all do, as mothers, to begin to correct a system that isn't working well for anyone.

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Hey, mama. Welcome to the motherly podcast, honest conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Tenety. I'm the co-founder of motherly and a mom of four myself. I am so excited for season four of our podcast.

Today, we're talking to Ai-Jen Poo, the co-founder and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a non-profit with the goal to bring quality work, dignity and fairness to the growing number of caregivers in America.

Ai-Jen's idea for Universal Family Care, a social insurance program that would provide affordable early child care and paid leave for people of all incomes was named a Fast Company World Changing idea finalist.

The work Ai-Jen has been doing for the last two decades has never been more relevant than right now. As we all know, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the pressures parents and caregivers feel like never before. We were thrilled to speak to her about her work, care squads, and what we can all do, as mothers, to begin to correct a system that isn't working well for anyone.

[00:00:00] Liz Tenety: Ai-Jen Poo welcome to the motherly podcast.

Ai-Jen Poo: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be talking to you.

Liz Tenety: So at motherly, you know, this podcast is all about having an honest conversation and this season's theme is motherhood your way. And so, I'm wondering, what do you think makes your approach to mothering and parenting unique?

Ai-Jen Poo: I'm obsessed with the idea of care squads that, um, that in this day and age, that we all have these amazing squads of people who help us mother, um, and who are. We voltron into what our kids and our families need. And, um, and that those are some of them most important relationships in our lives and not just in our own families, but that they're like, they're what powers the [00:01:00] economy.

And we should really value all of the different forms of those relationships.

Liz Tenety: So, what does that mean to you in your life to have a care squad and to be a part of a care squad?

Ai-Jen Poo: Oh, it means so many things, so many layers. So I have a nine-year-old stepdaughter and, um, she has four parents, so me and my husband, her mom and her stepdad were a squad. But then. We have like a squad around us of really good friends who also have kids her age and we all look out for each other. And my squad is also national because, um, I have my sister and my mom who live in California. And they're right now taking care of my grandmother, who is incredibly special to me.

She played a huge role in raising me and she's 94 and she needs care. And she also has two amazing hospice nurses who come [00:02:00] and support. Um, her and my mom is a family caregiver, and they're all squatting it up. I'm supporting my grandmother, but then there's also my four year old or just turned five niece named Agnes, and she has this squad. And so I feel like we're all these kind of concentric circles of squads that make it possible for the people that we love to be supported every day.

Liz Tenety: Oh, my gosh. I'm obsessed with care squads too. That is the most amazing and positive term. I want to talk a lot more about it, but you alluded to the fact about this multigenerational household. I knew you grew up in one. How did that experience shape your view of what it means and what it takes to raise a child.

Ai-Jen Poo: You know, I have been reflecting on this a lot because there's so much weird generational siloing that's happening right now in our [00:03:00] society. I feel like,especially because certain populations are more effected by the Coronavirus than others.

I feel like growing up intergenerationally was so core to who I am and how, how I was raised. I mean, I literally can't imagine who I would be if my grandmother and my grandfather for instance, weren't in my life, the way that they were. I mean, both of them played such a huge role in everything practical -- from my grandmother, potty trained me, which was very useful and important.

And my grandfather, I grew up watching him do Tai-Chi in the mornings, out of my bedroom window. And it was like my quiet time in the morning to just watch him. And I feel like that's how I learned hard work and discipline and patience was just a lot of what they modeled for me. And I really [00:04:00] believe that it's not a zero sum that in fact, having more adults in your life modeling different ways of being in the world is actually really, really important.

And there's something really unique about what different generations offer and bring to a child's awareness about the world and how we make meaning. And so I just think it's like more is more. And especially when there's intergenerational interactions where you can just get different perspective on life.

Like my grandmother was the one who, I think made me an organizer because she was just always such an optimist. She survived poverty and war and rebuilding her life multiple times and I've never heard her say a pessimistic thing. She was real, she was honest, but she always looked for the way [00:05:00] forward.

And I think it was a product of her experience and everyone's is different. And I just feel like it was such a valuable part of how I got to see the world through her eyes.

Liz Tenety: How do you contrast the way you grew up with, what is often this Idealized version of the nuclear family, especially the American (put that in quotes) nuclear family.

Ai-Jen Poo: I feel like the notion of the nuclear family has been harmful to a lot of us and especially to women. Right. I think there's so much wrapped up in it. That's not, there's just not cool or helpful. You know, like it's like this whole notion that there's the nuclear family and then there's everybody else like drawing that line has just reinforced some of the inequities that exist within that dynamic [00:06:00] and, you know, and it's everything from gender roles within the household and expectations to the fact that in general. Right? So I think a lot about Caregiving and about how undervalued caregivers are and how we've never as a society really recognized what goes into taking care of families and like accounted for it, we've just always assumed that women would take care of it.

And it's like, It's at a breaking point for us right now. And I feel like the cultures where there has been this, this notion of it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to live. Right? And that there's wisdom in that for the ages that we've just cut ourselves off from. And it has so many ripple effects.

And the biggest one to me right now that I've been obsessed with is this idea that caring for your family is [00:07:00] somehow like a private responsibility or something that you just have to kind of deal with, within your nuclear family, it's like your responsibility. And if you can't figure out how to take care of your kids, you're a bad parent.

And if you can't figure out how to take care of your parents, you've somehow failed as a daughter, whereas it's actually something that everyone grapples with that everyone struggles with, and especially financially with childcare and long-term care being so expensive. It's pretty much impossible for us to do this alone. We need squads. We need villages and we need policy that really supports us as families.

Liz Tenety: So let's talk about both the language and the values around women and work, right? So there's this term women's work. There's the idea of help. There's the idea of care. You've written and spoken [00:08:00] extensively about these terms. And what's being said, when we use them, can you help us understand what, what you hear when you hear those terms and what it says about how we value women and caregiving?

Ai-Jen Poo: Well, I think at the heart of all of our language and a lot of our cultural norms is what I call a hierarchy of human value, where the structure of our culture and economy really reflects a core set of values and assumptions. And underneath it all, we value the lives and the contributions of men over women.

And we value the lives and contribution of certain groups of people, you know, white people over people of color. I mean, there's all kinds of hierarchies of power and privilege that shape our world and women's work and the fact that we've really devalued so much work that women do, [00:09:00] caregiving, cleaning everything that's associated with emotional labor.

The fact that that's so devalued is a reflection of the fact that our society has treated women as less than. And I think that it's like, even though a lot has changed in that world -- even the fact that we have, I still have pay equity problems where for the same job, women earn less than men, is in some ways a reflection of that.

And I feel like the truth, is that there is no more fundamental, role in life than that of a caregiver. And, the first lady Rosalind Carter famously said that there's only four kinds of people in the world. People who are caregivers or will be caregivers, people who need care or will need care.

And in that way, it's like each of us are doing this in a different way, but it's always been associated with women and [00:10:00] therefore kind of made invisible and taken for granted. And that has really harmed a lot of people. Now, these days, about 40% of all family caregivers for the elderly are men.

And they're completely invisible in this equation because this work has always been associated with women. And it's a perfect example to me of how men are harmed by some of these gender norms that have to change.

Liz Tenety: There's also a big racial factor at work, and you've pointed out that it stretches back really to the beginning of our country, to the founding of the American story. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Ai-Jen Poo: Well, yeah, I mean, I think if you look at the domestic work industry, for example, this is an extension, right? The work that domestic workers do is associated with women right at the caregiving and cleaning work that women should do for their families have always done.

[00:11:00] And as a profession, domestic work has always been associated with women of color, especially black women and immigrant women. And some of our first domestic workers in this country were actually enslaved black women. And throughout history, black women have played a huge role in this work, but also in making it better and have organized and sought to improve the dignity and the quality of this work ever since 1881, when the first black women washerwomen in Atlanta, went on strike to try to raise wages. And still our laws have consistently excluded this workforce from real protection. So, the foundational labor laws in this country were put into place as part of the new deal in the 1930s. And they explicitly excluded domestic workers and also farm workers who are mostly black at the time from those protections because Southern members of Congress refused to support labor laws that would treat black workers equally. And so that's been codified in our lives cause and has shaped the quality and the nature of domestic work for generations. We're still living with the legacy of that exclusion. So it's, it's definitely real. It's in our laws.

Liz Tenety: There's also this other way that we put certain groups of women down, which is, you know, I've heard people say that stay at home moms don't work.

Ai-Jen Poo Right.

Liz Tenety:What's your response when people, when people say that,

Ai-Jen Poo: I think it's ridiculous and everyone knows it's ridiculous. I don't know why we still, I don't know why anybody still says that, but I think especially now in the wake of the coronavirus. We have this moment of awakening that's happening where so much work in our world is starting to be not only [00:13:00] made visible, but seen as essential. And I think it's our big, I think this is our big moment. Like, I think we all just kind of rally because it's true. Everyone is essential. Every worker is essential, including stay at home moms and all caregivers. Caregivers are essential.

And in fact, we actually have a campaign going right now called Care for All, which is really trying to uplift and talk about just how essential caregivers are, whether they're family caregivers, and moms, or they're professional caregivers. But not just caregivers, everyone who is working right now, in the home outside of the home home is clearly essential to our safety and our wellbeing and ultimately to our ability to recover as a country.

So, I think we're finally at this tipping point moment where we can change these ideas, these false ideas, that some work is real work and should be valued and other work is [00:14:00] help or not work or right. It's all essential. This is our moment.

Liz Tenety: You've called caregiving and domestic work, the work that makes all other work possible. And that rallying cry really does seem to have solidified in people's minds, the idea that something has to change, right. We all acknowledge that this system is broken.

Ai-Jen Poo: I hope that's true. I think it's true. I'm starting to see signs that it's true. And I feel like this podcast is a great, great channel to catalyze that change because it's so long overdue.

Liz Tenety: [ADD BACK AMEN] So how do we actually start to change the perception around caregiving and not just to get the sort of nice pats back that, Oh, you're doing a great job. What you do matters, but actually structurally and on the public policy level. What is that next rallying cry to [00:15:00] show people not only how valuable it is, how essential it is, and how much work needs to be done to improve the lives of the women who do that labor?

Ai-Jen Poo: Oh, this question is like music to my ears. I'm so excited. I think that this is our moment, as I've said, and we are in the middle of a public health crisis, which is also an economic crisis. And it's really highlighted just how important care is on every front. And I think that we have an opportunity to rally all of our champions and all of us who believe in the importance of care in our economy and in our society to move major public policy forward.

And the way I've been thinking about it is what is going to be required to get America back to work again. Right. What are going to be the investments that [00:16:00] support our recovery and one thing that I've been,thinking about is how much our care economy is actually infrastructure in the 21st century.

If you think about infrastructure as the, the roads and tunnels and the, the transportation highways and all of the things that make our economy work and our commerce possible that.

What could be more fundamental than care, ensuring that families who are our workforce actually have the support. They need to take care of the people that they love first and foremost, so that they can go out into the economy. And so if we think about investing in care as infrastructure and that what we're going to need to get America back to work again, is essentially investing in a whole bunch of care jobs, making care jobs, really [00:17:00] good jobs, but also supporting family caregivers in the ways that they need support.

These are investments that enable other jobs. Every living wage childcare job is a job that supports another worker to go out to work, or maybe even multiple families, right? Every home care job supports the elderly and family members to go out and work.

Liz Tenety: Even before coronavirus, you know, there has been this, massive dilemma that women face, right. That on the one hand. For individual families to pay for childcare. It is...

Ai-Jen Poo: It is insane.

Liz Tenety: It's the, the largest expense,, in many cases or the second largest after their mortgage or rent. And it's a leading reason. The high cost of childcare is the leading reason that women drop out of the workforce in the United States, in, in the rates at the rates that they do.

And yet [00:18:00] it's also true that caregivers, largely women of color are underpaid. So, on the one hand, it's really expensive and they're underpaid for the work that they do. So how are those both true?

Ai-Jen Poo: Right.

Liz Tenety: And, and how do we get beyond, how do we get to that place that you outlined?

Ai-Jen Poo: Well, part of it is that at that core, our, we have never invested in our caregiving systems as essential.

And so we've starved our public programs that support childcare, and they're not universally accessible to people who need them. And so people are basically completely on their own trying to figure out how to afford childcare when 70% of the American workforce earns less than $50,000 per year.

I mean, when the average cost of childcare is nine- $10,000 per year, the numbers just don't add up. And then the average wages are somewhere around 10 bucks for a care [00:19:00] worker. You cannot support your family. And so, we're paying for care and incredibly expensive and inefficient ways because we've left it up to individuals to try to figure it out.

And it's just not working. We have a patchwork system at best and for most people there's really nothing in place. Before COVID -- what we were proposing is the idea of universal family care.

Liz Tenety: Yeah. And it was actually just named like a world changing idea by Fast Company, which is super exciting for the movement.

Ai-Jen Poo: Super exciting. Yeah, and it's a really simple, elegant idea. I think.

Liz Tenety: Tell us more!

Ai-Jen Poo: It's the idea that we should have one insurance fund that we all contribute to, that we can all benefit from that helps us pay for childcare long-term care or paid family leave. Basically everything we [00:20:00] need to take care of our families while we're working.

And because we're socializing the cost and sharing the cost and the risks associated with the cost, it basically makes a lot more affordable for all of us. And it puts enough money in the system that we can pay every care worker, a living wage with benefits.

Liz Tenety: How would that actually work? Does it come out of your taxes? Like how what's the proposal?

Ai-Jen Poo: The proposal starting from the time you get your first job that you would start paying into this fund, right? It would get taken out of your paycheck, like social security or anything else. And then when you need childcare or you need to take time off from work to take care of a sick loved one, or your mom gets Alzheimer's and she needs care, then you would be able to apply to the fund for a benefit to help cover the costs.

Liz Tenety: What about the idea that I've heard, [00:21:00] battered around that your decision to have kids -- that's your decision? Why should I have to pay for your choice to have a family? how do you respond to that?

Ai-Jen Poo: Well, each of us is a product of a family. We all have families and in this day and age, in fact, there is no way that families can do this on their own.

We used to rely on a default care infrastructure of women, staying home to take care of their family. And that has not been our reality for several decades. For the women who do stay home or the men, right. For whomever stays home, they should have support to do that. And every single thing family should have access to resources to help them afford the care that they need.

And this is just a fundamental part of life in this country right now that we've never accounted for, [00:22:00] that's completely become unsustainable. If you think of it, the whole phenomenon of a family, the sandwich generation that's panini between all of the pressure of taking care of their aging loved ones and their kids at the same time. It's completely impossible and makes people less productive if they're working. There's all kinds of cost to it that we're not accounting for. And I think if we invest in care in a different way, it will release so much possibility and productivity and also just give us some breathing room as families to do what we need.

Liz Tenety: So if our listeners want to support this plan, especially at this moment of crisis, where we know we need something different going forward, how will they, how can they sign on, how can they get involved?

Ai-Jen Poo: So they can go to the caring across generations website, And there's going to be all kinds of actions that we can take [00:23:00] to really call upon our elected leaders to invest in care, to support caregivers, to make care affordable, to make care jobs better jobs. These are all pieces that we're moving forward now in some of these relief and recovery efforts and that state's are also moving forward. So you can find out more about what's happening in your state too through us.

Liz Tenety: Awesome.You know, at the beginning of our conversation, you talked about the care squad that you're a part of and raising your child. And, what I love about the way that you phrase that and the energy that you use describing that term is that, it's sort of the flip side of the shame that many women feel for needing help, right?

We have this idea in our culture, that if you need someone to come and help clean the house, or if [00:24:00] you want to escape to go with your girlfriends and call a babysitter like that, you're that you're a bad mom or that you're -- you're not mom enough. And I wonder, where do you think this shame for needing a care squad comes from and, and how can we start to be the generation that says, of course, you need a team. This is how human beings have raised children for all of time and really de-stigmatize and value the support systems around us in a new way.

Ai-Jen Poo: I think we just have to model it. And model it confidently and proudly.

And I think it comes from just a deep, longstanding set of narratives that we've internalized about what is expected of us.And the truth is, is that what has been [00:25:00] expected of us has never been realistic. It's never been sustainable. It's never been fair. Well, honestly, it's just not fair.

And I think what we can start doing is modeling a different way of being for our daughters and showing them that more is more. And I bet you, so many of them will have so many great stories to tell about their aunties and all the members of their care squad and the special things that they've learned from each and every one of those people.

And over time that will change and I think the more of us proudly declare that we cannot do it alone and shamelessly ask for help and recognize the members of our squad the better.

Liz Tenety: Hmmm. Something I've been reflecting on myself during. Quarantine is… we've talked, we talk a lot about how interactive connected we are as human beings. It's sort of a nice idea that we put forth. Bbut that it is shown us in such an acute way, how truly interdependent we are for our survival, you know, um, your wellbeing affects my wellbeing. Your health affects my health, literally in such a real and tangible way.

That's what I've learned during this crisis. One of the things I've learned, I'm wondering what has this moment taught you?

Ai-Jen Poo: I think that I totally agree with what you just said. And I think that it would be a beautiful thing if what we reflect back on and we tell our kids about this time is that we realized how interconnected we are and we learned how to really take care of each other.

Whether it's through policy or through how we treat each other, that [00:29:00] that's, that was the big takeaway. And, I think that that's possible that that is within our reach to achieve that. And wouldn't it be a beautiful thing to be like a grandma on a rocking chair being like, yeah, we went through this horrible time. It was so scary and it taught us how to take care of each other.

Liz Tenety: It would be, I love that. So you are, you are a catalyst of this movement. You believe this is our moment. Can you paint the picture of if we get this legislation passed, and if we use this moment to transform from the individualistic culture to, to the one that recognizes how interdependent we are, what does that look like for caregiving?

Ai-Jen Poo: We are marching towards a world where [00:30:00] all of us who are taking care of our families are recognized and supported and where the struggle to afford basic things like childcare and long-term care are no longer a struggle that we get to focus on the real parts.

I mean, raising families is hard enough, right? Being a present and grounded and centered mom is so hard. Set aside all the financial worry and struggle. And we shouldn't have to worry about something as basic as how we're going to pay for childcare. We should be focused on how are we going to make sure that our daughters have everything they need to feel like they can realize their full potential in the world.

Liz Tenety: Um, is there any topic that we haven't touched on so [00:32:00] far in our conversation that you think our listeners should know?

Ai-Jen Poo: I think that right now, you know, people are dealing with so much between the homeschooling and, you know, some people are going to be out of work. It's just, there's going to be a lot.

And I, I can't underscore enough how important it is to our collective recovery that we stay engaged in terms of what's happening on the policy front. And a lot of people are still calling their members of Congress and talking about what's important to them. And I think that that could not be more important.

And even if the voicemail box is full, call the district office, call any number until you can get through, because these decisions about our families and our future are getting made now. And we want to make sure that caregivers are fully included. So call your senators, call your members of Congress candidates who come knocking for your support.

Let them [00:33:00] know that you want to see them support caregivers, like never before. You want to see them support real public investments in our caregiving systems, because that is what is going to help us stay resilient from crises like these in the future.

[00:44:00] Liz Tenety: Ai-Jen Poo thank you so much for joining us on the motherly podcast.

Ai-Jen Poo: It has been Great. and love you to all moms out there. What you do is amazing. You are superheroes.

Kid Story:

Kid Story:

Liz: Now we have had three different au pairs, right?

Mary: Marina when I was a baby, when I was two years old. And now it's not now it's the Talia when I'm three

Liz: that's. Right. And they all, where are they all from?

Mary: Brazil.

Liz: Yeah. And what are the fun things that your three au pairs like to do with you?

Mary: The floor is lava!

Liz: And what do you else do you want them to know?


Liz Tenety: Well, that's it for our show this week. Thank you so much Ai-Jen. And thank you for listening.

We would love it if you spread the word about our podcast. We have an incredible season coming up with amazing guests. I know you're going to love them. So if you can please leave a review on Apple podcasts. It takes about 30 seconds.

I really appreciate it. It really helps other mamas discover our show. And I love reading your feedback. I read every single one.

The motherly podcast is produced by Jennifer Bassett. Our editor is Anthony Lemos. Our music is from the blue dot sessions. I'm your host, Liz Tenety. Thank you so much for listening.

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Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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