America treats its mothers like shit.
This Sunday, families across America will be celebrating Mother’s Day. I will be doing the same, gathering with my own mother, my mother-in-law, my children. But this year, I can’t quite settle into it the way I usually do. Something doesn’t sit right with me. To put it simply: I have been thinking how America treats its mothers, and I’m pissed.
America does not treat its mothers kindly.
Let’s start with birth. Although America spends more money than any other country on medical care for pregnant and birthing women, we have one of the highest infant mortality rates of all developed countries. And in the past decade, maternal mortality rates have risen substantially. Unsurprisingly, lower-income mothers and mothers living in poverty—who have less access to good prenatal and maternity care—are the majority of the women who die during childbirth.
According to the 2013 U.S. Census, 46.5 million people are living in poverty in America. But poverty strikes American mothers and their children more than anyone else. The majority of single-parent homes are led by women, and 31% of all families headed by single mothers were found to be living in poverty. But here’s the number that gets me in the gut: 16.1 million American children are living in poverty.
These are children of mothers—mothers just like you or me. Children who don’t always go to sleep with a decent meal in their belly. Mothers who lie awake, knowing their children are suffering. Not just a few women, the ones you see begging for money on the street. Not just a few hundred. These are millions of moms, millions of children, in your country, in your America.
Fuck that, America. Not acceptable. This isn’t about politics. I don’t care who’s wrong or right. I’m a mother. I can’t accept that millions of children are living in poverty. I’m sickened by it.
I started out wanting to write about my own struggles as a mother. I wanted to complain a bit about the long, tiring hours I put in, and tell you that all I really want for Mother’s Day is a few hours of nothing. But when I began thinking about my own complaints as a mother—what I want to escape from—I realized that these are exactly the things that I am blessed with. These are exactly the things I am privileged to have.
My 2-year-old still doesn’t sleep through the night, but he goes to sleep in a room piping with heat in the winter, and enough electricity to run a fan or air conditioner in summer. He goes to sleep under warm, clean blankets. If he gets sick, we drive our car (a 14-year-old banged-up Honda, but it’s ours) to a doctor who takes our insurance, and if we need antibiotics, it costs us $5 (which we have).
I bemoan the messes that my kids make—matchbox cars, playdough, train tracks, you name it—all strewn across the living room floor. But that’s because they have a ridiculous supply of toys. I struggle with how much screen time is appropriate for my children. But what I should not take for granted is that we have a TV, a Wii, a Kindle, two iPods, an iPad, and two iPhones to choose from, to fight over. I’m ashamed even to type the list of electronics we own.
Like many middle-class Americans, my family has struggled—and still does struggle—financially. We became parents just as the Great Recession hit, and we definitely felt it. About three years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child, my husband lost his job. He had been working as a disability awareness educator in New York for 10 years, and the grant that funded the program was cut.
For a good year—as my husband worked on his teaching certificate, and then subbed until he could find a job—we received food stamps. We were grateful, but it wasn’t enough to cover our groceries, even when we cut back on luxury items. My anxiety was through the roof then. We were still living in a one-bedroom co-op with our two children, the real estate market was awful, and I didn’t know if we would ever be able to move. I worried for my children, for their futures. I worried whether my husband would ever get a job.
But not once did I worry for my children’s survival. Not once did I fear for their health. Not once did I even fear for my marriage. We had some modest savings. We had extended family who could help us in a pinch.
I am not saying that my struggles or the struggles of middle-class mothers are unimportant, or less real. I am not saying I shouldn’t complain about how awfully tired I am, or how isolating motherhood can be. I am not saying I do not deserve more help, more breaks, more flowers, more dates with my husband, more chocolate, more massages, more vacations.
But I am saying that I ask for those things with reservation. I ask for those things with humility. I ask for those things knowing that as a white, educated, middle-class woman, I am coming from a place of privilege.
Ultimately, whatever class, race, or economic background we come from, all mothers want the same thing. It’s simple: We want our children to be healthy and happy. And mothers’ hearts are heavy with those desires, because no matter where you come from, happiness does not come easily. And even with all the money in the world, and the best medical attention out there, health is not guaranteed.
So, to all the mothers out there, I wish you a Mother’s Day with less worry, less strife. I wish you a Mother’s Day with more silence, a few more moments to rest your bone-tired body. I want your children to adorn you with kisses, flowers, breakfast in bed—whatever they can give, whatever makes you happy. I want abundance for you on Mother’s Day, and every day.
But I can’t help but want more. I want a gentler, more generous America. And we can’t wait much longer for that to happen. We shouldn’t have to wait for paid maternity leave (of more than three months!); free, no-strings-attached universal healthcare for everyone; more respectful and safer medical care for pregnant mothers and babies; easier access to programs for low-income women that would actually allow families to eat well—and so much more. So much more.
Meanwhile, mothers aren’t waiting. They can’t. They are doing the best with what they have—giving to their children, every waking moment, even when they feel like they’re failing, even when they are. Mothers are courageous, imperfect, stronger than they know. And their children know it best. Whatever life looks like, their children see them for the rockin’ goddesses they are.
But even that is not always enough if you are a mother living in poverty, if you are a mother without food or shelter. Kisses and respect can only go so far when basic needs aren’t being met.
So this Sunday, I will be celebrating mothers across America. I will be reflecting on their love, their courage. But I will also be mourning. And I will be brainstorming, trying to think of ways—in my small life, with my children by my side—to give, to stand up, to shout, to fight, to change.
Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC). She is the author of two books of poems (CW Books), and her writing has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Mamalode. She lives in New York with her husband and two sons. Find Wendy at WendyWisner.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.