'Having it All?' A Global Manifesto for Working Moms

Is "having it all" a global aspiration for working moms? And how far do they feel from that goal?
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With the continued reverberations of Anne-Marie Slaughter's article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" on why high-achieving American women still struggle to combine motherhood and work, it's time to look at the debate from a global perspective. Is "having it all" a global aspiration for working moms? And how far do they feel from that goal?

The International Museum of Women, a global online museum, asked working moms all over the world about their experiences for a new online gallery, Mama's Work. For most of these women, combining work and motherhood is often more a matter of "getting by" than "having it all." Yet many of them -- like Ms. Slaughter -- also call for the world which is fairer to working moms, and to the world's dads and kids too. It's time for a global manifesto for working motherhood.

So what are the world's working moms asking for?

  1. Survival. For many -- or even most -- of working moms globally, work is about survival, and the ability to feed and house themselves and their families. From mothers working in India's salt mines (photographed beautifully in our exhibition by Pattabi Raman) to teen mothers living in the slums of Kenya (documented by Rachel Ouko, another teen mom), the world's mothers' most basic need is for paid opportunities that will help them and their families survive. They should have a right to expect that that work will help them grow and thrive, too.

  • Recognition and fairer distribution of work. Working mothers work the longest hours of anyone in the world, when paid and unpaid work are combined. Women "spend an inordinate amount of time on the double burden of paid work and family responsibilities," according to the United Nations. Women's total work hours longer than men's across Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and in Europe, North America, and other wealthy nations, women spend two-and-a-half hours more than men on unpaid work each day -- and of course, most of these additional hours are spent on "mother's work" -- family responsibilities and caring for children. Globally, working moms need not only recognition for the extra work that they shoulder, but the chance to share that work more equitably.
  • Support from society and from employers. With so many mothers juggling commitments to the family and to the workplace, many of the world's moms are asking for more support. Most acutely, moms need accessible and affordable childcare, the right to parental leave, and the right to return to their jobs after taking that leave. Tellingly, the moms we profiled who felt closest to "having it all" lived in Scandanavian countries with solid state-provided childcare and parental leave entitlements. Interviewed as part of our exhibition, Irene Natividad, President of the Global Summit of Women -- a prestigious global group of women business leaders -- says that flexibility and parental benefits that apply to both women and men are key to empowering working moms.
  • A place for emotion. For many moms, work is a place that makes you repress or ignore your emotions as a mom, and especially the love that you feel for your children. In a powerful video montage of mother's global stories produced for our exhibition, Lan, a policewoman and working mom of two from China, says "It's really hard... you have to hold your tenderness as a mother back." Moms want to live in a world that does force them to compartmentalize their lives, emotions, and identities as mothers from their personas as workers.
  • A new role for dads. The global status, burden and experience of motherhood cannot change unless the global role of fathers changes too. As more women move into the paid workforce, they're asking their partners take on a greater share of parenting, and join them in advocating for more family-friendly workplaces and cultures. Our exhibition profiles men from Brazil to Peru who are confronting their society's views of what it means to be a dad, but yet it seems there is still so much more change needed. For example, as accomplished and visible women like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jennifer Siebel Newsom stand up to demand changes in American society to accommodate working mothers and parents, where are the high profile fathers taking a public stand for the importance of work life balance, parental leave, or family life?
  • Rewarding work. For too many women, flexibility and a desire to integrate work and family life comes at the cost of rewarding work, especially the kind that might lead to greater pay, career advancement or leadership opportunities. For example, we interview Patricia, a trained journalist from Colombia who became a waitress to get a part-time schedule that allows her to spend time with her son. These trade-offs doesn't just short-change women in terms of their personal career satisfaction, they short-change societies who lose talent, perspective and leadership with true economic and social value.
  • Health. Maternal health is still a critical issue for women all over the world (and among developed countries, the U.S. still lags far behind). Moms need governments to take high levels of maternal mortality seriously, and they need to be able to plan and space the children they do have to maximize the chance of healthy outcomes (especially if they are juggling work and in and outside the home).
  • A voice. The majority of the world's moms lack "a seat at the table, and a voice" -- as documentarian Jennifer Siebel Newsom so powerfully puts it in her essay "A Revolution, Stalled." That lack of voice comes from the fact that so many of them are consumed by care-taking responsibilities or basic survival, forced to choose between work and family, or too pressured by lack of time to engage in broader leadership roles. As Siebel Newsom continues, "We are missing the voice of motherhood at the tables of leadership because we continue to limit the choices of working women. Consequently, our entire society is deprived of what could be the most innovative, creative, strategic, and moving ideas of our time." Empowering the world's mothers will give them a voice, and that holds the potential to change our whole world for the better.
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter's now-famous comment about working motherhood is that "having it all... [is] airbrushing." We found that the true global experience of working motherhood is certainly more complex and more multi-layered. The words, art, photographs, and personal stories we illuminate show very few (if any) of the world's mothers who would say they "have it all". Today's story of global motherhood is about struggle and compassion, love and tenacity, fulfillment and frustration. It is also a story of unfulfilled hope and potential.

    When the world starts to hear the global voices of working moms, all us will be closer to a world which is more equal and fairer, because it recognizes and unleashes the potential of all parents, women and men. That aspiration, rather than 'having it all" should be at the heart of all of our endeavors.

    Mama's Work is a gallery of the International Museum of Women's online MAMA exhibition.
    The Museum has teamed up with Every Mother Counts to develop an online Maternal Health Pledge to spotlight the urgent issue of maternal health for moms around the world.

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