'Moms as Superheros' Mantra is Hurting Our Nation

05/08/2015 04:24 pm ET Updated May 08, 2016

I love my work, but being a mother is by far the most profound and important thing I do. That said, I'm no superhero -- and I shouldn't have to be.

We are a nation of working caregivers, with one in two children living in households were all adults are working outside the home. Yet, we still treat caregiving as a private matter, one that's primarily mom's domain.

As a result, there is no national support system. Instead, each family is struggling on its own. Is it any wonder that work family conflict is a higher predictor of health problems than second-hand smoke? And just like with second hand smoke, we are all paying the price. According to an analysis by professors at Stanford Business School, workplace stress--such as long hours, job insecurity and lack of work-life balance--accounts for up to $190 billion/year in health care costs.

While most Americans will say that they don't believe a woman's place is in the home, most of us still believe that women are naturally better caregivers -- and that therefore, caregiving, especially when it comes to children, should be a woman's responsibility.

Here are a few statistics that indicate how we feel about who should be doing the caregiving:

  • 67 percent of Americans believe it's "very important" that a man be ready to support a family before getting married, while only 33 percent believe the same about women.
  • 51 percent of Americans believe that children are better off if the mother stays home, but only 8 percent say children are better off if the father stays home.
  • 20 percent of employers who are required to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act do not provide any paternity leave.
  • When paternity leave is offered, men take one week on average, because of the financial and career penalties associated with taking more.
  • A study of 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates show that men expected their career to be primary and their spouse/partner to do the majority of caregiving, and that is what happened, even though women expected to share caregiving.
  • The wage gap has shrunk for childless women but stayed the same or widened somewhat for women with children, especially at lower wage levels.

We expect moms to provide care -- yet two thirds of families rely on moms' incomes to make ends meet. Just this week, the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee issued a report detailing the central role that mothers play in the economic security of their families and the wage disparities between mothers and fathers caused in large part because we expect moms provide care but don't provide them with any support. As the National Partnership for Women and Families explains:

Mothers may be paid less than fathers and women without children because the country lacks supportive workplace policies, such as paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, predictable or flexible scheduling, and better and more affordable child care. Without these supports, women with caregiving responsibilities experience more job interruptions and fewer opportunities for advancement, which can have a negative effect on wages that compounds over time.

To be sure, more and more working fathers are doing their part at home, especially when it comes to caring for their kids. These fathers, our data shows, are feeling even more work life conflict that mothers. Treating care as a private matter is hurting dads too. But the truth is that it hurts moms more, simply because moms are doing more of the care.

So, this Mother's Day, let's say: enough is enough. Mothers are not superheroes, and caregiving is not a private matter. It's time to see caregiving as something we are all responsible for. Here is what that would look like:

  • Universal paid family leave for both mothers and fathers
  • Investments in child care made by both employers and government
  • Universal pre-K that is not just a few hours a day
  • Incentives to promote greater flexibility
  • A living wage, so working families don't need public assistance to survive

These policies would not in any way diminish motherhood. They would strengthen it. Because they would help working families better manage their lives, and give mothers and fathers the support they need to be the best they can be both at work and at home.

And that should be something we can all get behind.

Yes, I want my children to see me as a role model and a hero. I certainly feel that way about my mother, who worked and raised my sister and me as a single mom for many years. She died 34 years ago of breast cancer, but not a day goes by when I don't think of her.

But as much as I want my kids to revere me, I don't want them to raise families in a society that does so little to support working families.