Mom on a red heart

Philanthropy’s blind spot for the well-being of mothers

This month, I returned from maternity leave after having my third child in October. With my first two children, I went back to work after about eight weeks. This time around, I was able to take nearly double that amount of time. For all my pregnancies, I’ve had access to midwifery care outside of the hospital setting, which has been shown to improve health outcomes in low-risk pregnancies — even though my insurance didn’t cover it. And I had access to mental health support when I experienced postpartum depression. My care providers never questioned my requests and concerns. Most importantly, I came back to an organization where my identity as a parent is celebrated, and I have the flexibility to do what I need to do to honor my family, not just my work. 

This is a different reality than for so many mothers in our country, especially for Black mothers who experience more maternal health complications than any other demographic group in the United States.

Being a working mom in America is rough. And despite all of my privilege, I’ve spent the last five years feeling like I’m failing everyone around me. 

Whether it’s feeling like I’m missing my kids’ childhood when I drop them off at daycare or feeling like I’m falling behind at work when I need to move meetings around to accommodate a sick kid at home, I almost always feel like I’m coming up short somewhere, even with all of my advantages and supports.

Our society expects so much of mothers and gives us so little in return. 

We’re the only developed nation that doesn’t have paid parental leave. We have the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world — and it’s been steadily increasing since the CDC started keeping track in the 1980s. Access to high quality, affordable childcare in the U.S. is virtually nonexistent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. A Brookings Institute study put it bluntly: “COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up.”

 

The well-being of mothers is not a political priority in this country, and that has only become more evident as we navigate the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

 

Unfortunately, it seems the well-being of mothers is not a priority for many philanthropists either. Philanthropic giving toward organizations focused on women and girls makes up one of the smallest buckets of giving in the U.S., according to a study by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. In 2018—the latest year for which data is available—charitable giving focused on women and girls totaled just over $8 billion. Compare that to the $59 billion given toward education in the same period. Or the $125 billion toward religion. 

I will never downplay the importance of philanthropic giving toward education. I believe that an excellent education can change the trajectory of a child’s life. But I also believe that if we’re looking to change the trajectory of kids’ lives, we have to ask ourselves why those kids need a trajectory change. Could it not be because we’ve provided so little support to their mothers?  I’ve been working in K-12 education and policy for more than a decade, and in that time I’ve gone from being a teacher, living alone and willing to work crazy hours, to being a married mom of three kids under five. It’s never been clearer to me that focusing exclusively on schools to change kids’ lives just won’t work.

We know that students benefit from parental involvement in education — both at home and in school. And we know that the trauma of poverty impacts students’ ability to learn, and one in three children of single mothers experience poverty. But rarely do we talk about the link between our nation’s lack of support for mothers (whether they are single or married) and our educational outcomes. 

If we want to build more equitable and just educational systems so that kids can grow up feeling safe and able to reach their full potential — how can we do that without also changing the way our society values mothers?

At Building Impact, we counsel funders to deeply examine the root causes of the problems they seek to solve and to explore the issues that intersect with their primary areas of work. So much of the giving in this country deals primarily with symptoms of larger societal problems, while ignoring the governmental policies, public attitudes, and economic realities that create these issues. 

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen an encouraging trend as many of our education-focused clients broaden their grantmaking and program focus to address many needs that would have traditionally been considered mission-creep but that present an obvious barrier to the effectiveness of their primary mission.

And yet, I believe there’s a still huge blind spot among philanthropists when it comes to the intersection of motherhood and education.

What might happen if we as a society placed more value on the well-being of mothers? 

Can you imagine the transformative effect on education if every mother in this country had the kind of health care and emotional support I had before, during, and after my third child’s birth? If every mother could afford high quality childcare? And if mothers could earn a livable income from one job instead of two or three, giving them more time and mental energy to engage with their kids’ education?

This year, as I lean into my identity as both a mom and an agent of social change, I’m going to be looking for opportunities to engage with philanthropists who are interested in changing what it means to be a mom in America. Because there’s a good chance that if we can change how motherhood looks and feels, the impact on education could be transformative.