This speech was delivered on May 5, 2019, by Motherly’s co-founder Liz Tenety at the MomCongress summit in Washington, DC.
Thank you so much for this great honor to be among so many inspiring women and men in support of this great mission.
It’s wonderful to be back in DC, a city I lived in for a decade and truly adore. A city that gave me a college degree, where I met my husband, had my first “real” job and gave birth to our first child.
A city that is constantly brimming passion and activism and the hope that the status quo can be made better.
And so, to the mothers in the room, I want to say this: THIS is our time.
It’s time to take motherhood seriously.
It’s time to talk about motherhood not just as a women’s issue—but as a human issue.
Because the reality is, motherhood is one of the most universal experiences that we as human beings share.
At Motherly, we believe that mothers deserve way more support—and way less judgment.
Because the truth is, American mothers are carrying heavy burdens. The burden is so heavy, and so many other women are carrying it too, that we can start to assume it’s normal. That this is what it’s supposed to be like. And that everyone else is carrying it well—that it’s just you that is struggling.
Mama, it’s not just you. Motherhood shouldn’t be this hard. And it’s society that is failing, not you.
We live in a culture that gives lip service to the importance of family, but sees investment in women and children as an ‘entitlement’ too far. We operate in a business climate that prizes consumption and profitability above all, and leaves families, and especially women, behind in its wake. We’re citizens in a country where ‘women’s issues’ are seen as side-issues, rather than foundational functions of our society.
Motherhood is way harder than it should be because for too long, our stories have been pushed to the sidelines.
Despite all of this, I am incredibly optimistic. We are living in an era of major consciousness-raising, where women no longer fight one another in some kind of ‘mommy war,’ and instead are looking around us at the root causes of this profound unfairness.
And from where I sit, these are major signs of progress for women, mothers, and society at large.
But in order to get where we need to go, we have to first understand the problem:
1. Motherhood seems overwhelming
It’s not a secret that American motherhood is incredibly burdensome. Even before they have children, women sense a lack of support that makes motherhood overwhelming—it’s this anxiety that sells books like “Lean In” and fuels a never-ending debate over whether women can ever “have it all.” In fact, Motherly’s recently-released State of Motherhood survey reveals that 87% of Millennial mothers say that that society does not understand or support them.
2. Motherhood can be dangerous
Discrimination against women, and women of color in particular, has led to an appalling maternal health crisis—where women’s voices are not heard and women’s needs are not met. American mothers die in childbirth at a higher rate than in any other country in the developed world—and the mortality rates actually getting worse, not better. And according to research in the New York Times, “Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts,” with racism playing a direct role. In the United States, in 2019, sexism and racism interplay in a dangerous mix that puts all new mothers at risk.
3. There is no relief for working mothers
One in four new mothers returns to work out of economic necessity within two weeks of giving birth. Recent statistics from the U.S. Labor Bureau indicate that only 12% of American workers have access to paid leave—the rest are left to fend for themselves without paid compensation during one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. The United States remains the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee paid family leave upon the birth of a baby. For all our talk about being family-focused, we refuse to act like it.
4. Women experience tons of pressure to breastfeed, but little support
Before and after birth, breastfeeding education and support is hit or miss—There is no routine education for new mothers to learn how to nurse. Breastfeed might be ‘natural,’ but we all know it is a learned skill. Women routinely are forced to figure it out on their own—a reality that leads to anguish for mom, and struggle for baby. Private lactation consultants often cost hundreds of dollars, an expense that is frequently out of reach during this financially stressful time in life. And if a woman formula feeds her baby, for whatever reason, she is made to feel that she has made a lesser choice for her child. Our society expects mothers to be endlessly self-sacrificing, but is unwilling to give her the support she needs along the way.
5. Postpartum women have been left to fend for themselves
While newborns are typically seen at least four times in their first two months of life, their mothers routinely have no postpartum care from 48 hours after birth until 6 weeks. During these critical weeks of physical recovery and a psychological transition to parenthood, women are left to figure it out alone. A lack of consistent postpartum screening and support leads to record levels of physical and mental health problems.
6. Childcare that’s as expensive as a mortgage payment/college
The incredibly high cost of childcare puts enormous stress on families. The high cost is a leading reason that so many American women drop out of the workforce when they become moms. It’s a barrier to entry for them to start a business. It’s a massive strain on family finances. Families today pay a huge price to work—one that the federal government nor the majority of employers do much to support.
7. We have an American work culture that penalizes women
It’s no secret that working women face the motherhood penalty at work—which amounts to a decrease in 4 percent of her earnings for every child that she has. But it’s an extra sting to learn that men benefit from a fatherhood bonus—on average earning 6 percent more after their first child is both. Motherly’s State of Motherhood survey revealed that the majority of women scaled down their careers after the birth of a baby, while their partners often scaled up—a split that sometimes happens by choice, but other times happens by default, thanks to a lack of paid family leave, the high cost of childcare and inflexible work environments for parents.
8. This is the worst part: The victims blame themselves
Research shows that American mothers largely blame themselves, experiencing waves of guilt and self-criticism for not being able to accomplish the herculean task of working, raising children and managing a household, entirely on their own.
But it is NOT our fault.
As Beth Berry wrote in a Motherly essay that has become our anthem, “it takes a village, but there are no villages. . . you and I are not the problem at all. WE ARE DOING PLENTY. We may feel inadequate, but that’s because we’re on the front lines of the problem, which means we’re the ones being hardest hit. We absorb the impact of a broken, still-oppressive social structure so that our children won’t have to. That makes us heroes, not failures.”
It makes us heroes, mama.
So, the system is stacked against us. Recognizing the problem is the first step. The next is identifying the structural changes that can and must be made to make American society a family-friendly one.
So let us imagine the world as it could be. This world is in our reach.
I see 8 steps + signs of progress for American mothers
1. It’s time to rebrand motherhood
Yes, motherhood is all-consuming, but the transformation of motherhood is far from all bad. It’s getting in touch with our deepest strengths. It’s experiencing the greatest love of our lives. It’s making us more efficient at work. Motherhood needs to be reclaimed for the woman-empowering experience that it is. Motherhood is tenderness and strength. Motherhood is purpose and power.
2. It’s time for new policies making pregnant women safer
We are seeing small but important steps in the right direction, from the Preventing Maternal Death act on the federal level, to state-initiatives aiming at reversing the maternal death rate. New York, for example, has launched a program to cover doula services for low-income women during their births, a small but powerful sign that at least some women are getting the community-centered support they deserve. The elective use of midwives for low-risk births is also on the rise United States, helping give women more options to access the birth experience they desire. These are all good signs for women in America, and you are all here today to help get us across the finish line.
3. Let’s learn from states leading the way on paid family leave
New York state has begun phasing in 12 weeks of paid family leave to help mom and dad bond with a newborn or newly adopted or fostered child. Washington state just followed suit with a paid 12-week plan of their own. And California governor Gavin Newsom recently proposed the most comprehensive plan of all, calling for 6 months of paid leave, able to be divided between both parents. Paid leave is good for babies, parents, society, and even the long-term economic flourishing of American businesses. With a groundswell of new mothers taking to the 2019 Congress, and unprecedented support for paid leave emerging on the right, action on the federal level is on the horizon. And it’s about time.
4. We need a no-judgment breastfeeding revolution
In recent years, the rate of breastfeeding has continued to rise, with most recent data indicating that 83% of newborns are now breastfed in the United States. All 50 states now have laws on the books protecting public breastfeeding. Workers now have the right to demand the time and space to pump during the workday. And the Affordable Care Act made it a lot easier for mothers to afford lactation support. A new generation of female entrepreneurs have invented breastfeeding pods, cordless breast pumps, and baby bottles that make it easier for baby to transition from breast to bottle and back. That certainly doesn’t mean that breastfeeding will come easy to every woman, or that every woman will choose to breastfeed, but we have finally reached an era where women have more options and support no matter how they feed their babies.
5. We’re raising the standard for postpartum care
In 2018, ACOG updated its recommendations in 2018, calling for women to be seen at three weeks postpartum instead of six. This appointment ‘includes a full assessment of her physical, social, and psychological well-being.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also followed suit, calling for its pediatricians to screen mothers’ mental health during their baby’s well visits, providing two essential stop gap for women who were otherwise falling through the cracks. I know I personally would have benefitted from earlier, more rigorous care after the birth of my first son, and I’m grateful this standard will become the new normal.
6. We’ve got to make childcare more affordable
The desperate need for affordable childcare has become a rallying cry for a generation of Millennial parents saddled with student loan debt and an unprecedentedly high cost of living. Some states and cities like NY are beginning to offer free public preschool to 4 and even 3-year-olds, providing massive relief to families in those regions.
Startups and tech companies like SnapChat and Facebook all offer subsidies or benefits to help parents offset the cost of childcare. Patagonia is another example of a company that goes even further—providing free, on-site childcare to all of its employees.
These cities and companies make the case that investing in families is a long-term benefit drawing people to live and work in these places and companies. But the cry is getting louder—and there is a lot more that must be done.
7. American women are defining career and using technology to get what they want
Millennial women represent the first generation in history where women are more highly educated than men. Full stop. This is a very big deal. But when they become mothers, they find that many corporate cultures are unable to keep pace with the very reasonable idea that a person should be able to thrive in her career—and have a family. That’s why we’re seeing Millennial moms embracing entrepreneurship at unprecedented levels, particularly among women of color. When the system isn’t working for them, these women are inventing systems of their own that do.
A host of female-founded startups like Werk, The Mom Project, Power to Fly and Apres have also emerged, using technology to help women find flexible, remote, high-quality employment opportunities. This new generation of entrepreneurs are helping their fellow Millennial moms to find opportunity where in the past, none existed. And I’m proud to share that at Motherly, we employ over 30 working mothers, all of our employees work flexible schedules, and we are 100% remote. This IS the change we wish to see in the world.
8. There’s no reason to blame ourselves when the burdens of modern American motherhood feel heavy
And we have lots of people to thank for the progress we’ve made in the last decade.
From updated public health standards, to a new conversation around motherhood. From Sand Hill Road to the Halls of Congress, we are seeing American motherhood emerge as a source of massive power and strength.
It’s time for us to stop blaming ourselves when the burden is heavy.
It’s time for us to seize this moment to take motherhood seriously.
It’s time for our generation of parents to rise up and demand that society give more than lip service to being family-friendly.
It’s time for our incredibly outdated structures to reflect our modern reality.
It’s time for women to do more than just survive motherhood.
I believe it is finally time for mothers to thrive.
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