05/12/2008 10:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mother's Day: The Morning After

Hi Moms! I hope the flowers were beautiful, the brunch was sumptuous, that your husband pampered you and your oldest remembered to call you from college. Because Mother's Day is over, and the next 364 days will be harder than they ought to be. There is a litany of factors that create hardship for mothers in our society. These factors are too often overlooked, and the "family values" Bush administration thumbs its nose at them.

Cheery articles about work/life balance in glossy magazines abound. But in a Harris poll I will soon release along with my new book, Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women's Lives Aren't Getting Any Easier, and How We Can Make Real Progress For Ourselves and Other Women, seven of ten women said they have no control over their work schedules. Blue-collar wage earners are hit hardest. I tell a story about a company where 500 such workers who were subject to mandatory overtime, sometimes on short notice, protested by bringing their children to work. They told their aghast managers that they would be imprisoned and have their children taken away if they left them home alone. (Job security alert: Don't try this without a union card.).

One study that Congressman John Dingell and I asked the General Accountability Office to conduct found that after couples had children, fathers' incomes went north and mothers' incomes went south.

Stereotypes about motherhood are one reason why. Studies show that:

-- After women give birth, in the eyes of their colleagues, their "warmth" ratings rise, but their "competence" ratings fall. New fathers see their warmth ratings rise, but their "competence" ratings holds steady. A high competence rating gets you hired and promoted. A high warmth rating only gets you smiled at in the hallway, and smiles won't close the wage gap.

-- When women are out of the office during the day, their colleagues are more likely to presume that they're attending to a family matter, while men are more often believed to be at a business meeting.

Washington has done nothing to make mothers lives easier in the past 15 years. During my first term in 1993, the last in which Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, we passed Family and Medical Leave Act. It guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents, to care for a sick relative, or recover from a serious illness.

That was a good start, but progress went into a deep freeze.

Today, America's neglect of working families remains shameful. In guaranteeing financial benefits for new mothers, which we don't, America ranks 164th - tied for last with Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.

But surprisingly, stay-at-home moms are the ones most penalized in the system. Social Security's formula calculates your benefits by averaging your 35 highest-paying years. If you have enough zeros because you're a stay-at-home for part of your career, that average comes down, those years count against you, and you effectively lose money.

In divorce, stay-at-home moms have it even worse. If a couple gets divorced after having been married for under ten years, each spouse gets only the benefits he or she earned in the paid workforce. If you stay at home for nine years and your husband leaves you, he gets 100 percent of his benefits. You get zilch.

In addition, Bush tax policy has transferred a greater percentage of the tax burden to wage earners, while lightening the percentage load on corporations and unearned income. Since women typically rely more on wages and have less investment income, this disproportionately hurts women.

All too often, these factors add up to constant stress, financial hardship, and the tragic reality best expressed by author Ann Crittenden: "Motherhood is the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age."

But despite all the bad news, I'm very optimistic about the future of women and girls. I believe that over time, if we all strive to make a difference both inside and outside Washington's Beltway - as workers and moms, scholars and senators, activists and mentors - American women and like-minded men will solve these issues.

Fortunately, many wonderful individuals and organizations are working to make a difference for women and girls. There are dozens of things you can do create a workplace that works for families, bring economic justice for women, and raise your own salary and working conditions. Join or start a WAGE Club, a nationwide network of women battling the wage gap in their workplaces. Work with Mothers and More, another organization with chapters nationwide that does everything from organized socializing to issues-based advocacy on balancing family and work. Join a woman's network at your job or an industry association. Learn how to negotiate a better salary. Or support my bill to reduce the Social Security penalty for stay-at-home moms, to name just a few of the solutions outlined in my book, which you can learn more about at

If we all work together, we can make every day Mother's Day. And I expect we will. Because the power of women, when we resolve to do something, is one thing that can never be exaggerated.

"Rumors of Our Progress" on