A New Mother’s Day Proclamation: Balancing the Care(er) Continuum

The tension between being a successful professional who is a mother versus a mother who is a successful professional — and the rising expectations society seems to place on both roles — invites us to generate a modern version of the 1870 “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world.”

This month, some of the world’s 2.2 billion mothers and those in a motherly role, from Australia to Zambia, may be blessed with a celebratory dinner, flowers, and lovingly made drawings.

In the US alone, 113 million Mother’s Day cards are bought each year; in the UK, it was anticipated that £21.7 billion would be spent on the occasion.

Card made for author Verena Hefti by a little artist named Astrid

Mother’s Day is often presented as a celebration of the devoted mother who always puts her children first.

While this image might look nice on a Mother’s Day card, when we idealize motherhood as selfless in this way, we rob mothers of some of their humanity. When we present mothers as superhumans, able to run both careers and households, we crowd out conversations around what would help them have both.

This piece is a collaboration between Verena Hefti, CEO & Founder of Leaders Plus, a social enterprise dedicated to supporting working parents to progress their careers, and Harvard Business School Executive Director Carin-Isabel Knoop, author of Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace.

Mother’s Day in the US has many parents, but two stand out.

In September 1870, American abolitionist and poet Julia Ward Howe wrote an appeal to women as she believed they had the responsibility to help improve their societies. The “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world,” later known as the “Mothers’ Day Proclamation,” came in reaction to the American Civil War, which ended in May 1865 after claiming over 660,000 lives (some of which Howe had nursed and tended to as well as their widows and orphans on both sides), and the Franco-Prussian War, which had just started in July 1870 and would involve over 2 million soldiers.

Thus began Howe’s emotional call to arms for peace:

Arise, then… women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

Four decades or so later, social activist Anna Jarvis built on her own mother’s work to organize women’s groups focused on promoting health and friendship. Held on May 12, 1907, Jarvis organized a memorial for her mother, starting Mother’s Day, which would be honored in nearly every state by 1912.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued his own proclamation on May 9, 1914, asking his compatriots to publicly express their reverence for mothers through the celebration of an official Mother’s Day.

Modern Day Motherhood

Now, 110 years later, it may be time for another proclamation.

Motherhood is changing. Mothers are getting older. In 2002, the average US mother was 25.6 years old when she cradled her first newborn. Two decades later, this went up to 27.3 years. The picture is similar across the pond: in the UK, the average age of mothers went up from 28.7 years in 2002 to 30.9 years in 2021. The same trend is happening across the globe, from India and Nigeria to Australia.

Family size is shrinking fast, too, going from 6.1 children per woman in Nigeria in 2001 to 5 in 2023. In the UK, the number of births per woman shrunk from 1.63 in 2002 to 1.49 in 2022. The picture is the same in the US where a woman used to have 2 children in 2001, this went down to 1.7 in 2021.

And for many, it is not about choice. About 19% of couples in the US are diagnosed with infertility. Some resort to assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF, which accounted for 2.3% of all births in the US in 2021, with a similar rate in the UK, going up to 6% in Denmark.

No matter the path or context, pregnancy requires negotiating psychological factors ranging from hormonal to identity shifts and adjusting to new family and financial dynamics. Across the world, according to the World Health Organization, depression is 50% more common in women than in men, and about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who had just given birth experienced a mental disorder, primarily depression. (In developing countries, those stats rise to 15.6% and 19.8%, respectively). Poor screening by health providers and stigma related to mental health disorders depress the real numbers.

Meanwhile, expectations continued to rise.

Today, working mothers give more time and attention to their children than they did in the family-oriented 1960s. Sixty years ago, mothering advice might have come from a well-meaning grandmother or a sister or perhaps from a few books like those by the famous Dr. Spock.

Today, a new mother eager to do her best will find many parenting approaches, from the Ferberizing “crying it out” sleep training to gentle parenting — and everything in between.

She must also contend with the Insta-perfect image of motherhood on social media — a reality impossible to achieve. This may be one factor contributing to a sharp increase in postpartum depression for all ethnic groups in the US. Once the “golden months” of pregnancy are over, the pressure to be a “perfect mother” begins. For some, it starts in the hospital. Pregnancy and the postpartum period were also fraught times for women with pre-existing eating disorders and put women at higher risk of developing them.

The Perfect Mother vs. the Perfect Professional

Perfectionism is on the increase across society and is negatively affecting mental health, according to research by Tom Curran. This is greatly affecting working mothers.

For the high-achieving professional mother on the corporate ladder, having her first baby often follows a decade of excelling in the corporate world, where she was greatly admired for her hard work and cutting-edge results.

But being a perfect, self-sacrificing mother often conflicts with the pursuit of being a high-performing, career-oriented woman.

For example, many mothers get told that breastfeeding for six months is critical. But in countries like the US, returning to work after 12 weeks of maternity leave makes this mothering standard almost impossible.

For many ambitious career women, professional achievement is closely woven into personal identity. Excelling was what she was known for at work. She enjoyed putting in long hours in a competitive environment, loved being seen as a leader with high potential, and relished networking with clients at elegant evening events.

But the behaviors that got her to where she is in her corporate career are now stumbling blocks.

The long hours become difficult as daycare closes at 6 p.m. Sleep deprivation makes it hard to enjoy those late-night client dinners. When the boss asks for a volunteer to lead that prestigious international project, she must consider who will look after the toddler when she travels.

On top of that, she feels the pressure to prove herself again and again by being a perfect employee and a high performer in the professional world. She works extra hard to demonstrate that she has still “got it” post-baby. She is adamant that she should not be amongst the many mothers affected by the motherhood penalty whose careers and earnings plateau because they are seen as less committed at work due to their mothering role. Contrary to popular belief, if she had a privileged education, it doesn’t mean she is likely to opt out of the workplace, as Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz found in their research at Harvard.

Getting a job in the first place is harder. The employment level for white mothers in the UK is 5% lower than that of their childless peers. For women in minoritized groups, such as women of Indian, Black African, and Chinese heritage, the rate is up to 11% lower compared to the childless peers of their own ethnicity.

In addition, in the UK, mothers with two children take home 26% less income than women without children — what researchers termed the ‘Motherhood Pay Penalty,’ which has compounding effects across a lifetime of earning and wealth building. In the US, researchers wrote about the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood premium in employment during COVID-19. Other authors found that mothers were 66% more likely to be laid off than fathers during the pandemic. (Dias et al., 2020).

The lifetime effects are particularly stark for single parents. According to a UK survey, 75% of single mothers could face challenges affording basic needs during their retirement years. In the US, women headed 80% of the 11 million single-parent families with children under 18 in 2022. Single-mother families nearly doubled from 10% in 1965 to 19% in 2022. (For more on the resilience of single mothers in the pandemic, see Maury, 2023).

For the woman in a heterosexual relationship, she may discover that the arrival of the first baby transforms a previously equal relationship into one where she carries the majority of the caregiving and mental load for household management. Women also play a central role in cultivating “family solidarity or connectedness,” or what Professor Carolyn Rosenthal described as kinkeeping in the 1980s.

These multiple demands and roles can present risks for mothers and for all in the family unit. Parenting role overload occurs when the time and energy required for the multiple roles in one’s life are too demanding and result in exhaustion (Voydanoff, 2002). Unaddressed, this can lead to parental burnout: exhaustion, detachment from children, and less pleasure and efficacy in the parenting role. (Roskam and Mikolajczak, 2021).

This is enabled by a system that prevents fathers from fully engaging in caregiving at the start because the woman is looking after the newborn at home while he goes back to work after a few weeks. However, we know that systems that enable fathers to take substantial parental leave, such as Sweden, are associated with better outcomes for fathers and better career trajectories for working mothers.

Many privileged young women in professional roles consider gender equality solved before they have children, spurred on by well-meaning corporate gender equality slogans.

But when the baby arrives, they discover that the rungs of their career ladder are systematically sawed into by the motherhood penalty, lack of well-paid maternity leave and affordable childcare, and a system that prevents fathers from fully engaging in their caregiving role.

A Proclamation for 2024 and Beyond

Women on Mother’s Day today are less happy with their lives than women were in the 1970s despite the increase in equality. Tali Sharot and Cass R. Sunstein argue in their book Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There that this is because their expectations for what is possible for their career have been raised sky high, but they can see the barriers ahead of them much more clearly than back in 1970.

So, should we tell mothers to simply lower their expectations and stop pursuing the corporate careers that were so important to them prior to starting a family?

Absolutely not.

Graphic of Women in Management Occupations
 Human resources managers 74%
 Social and community service managers 71%
 Education administrators 65%
 Food service managers 46%
 Marketing and sales managers 45%
 Chief executives 27%
 Computer and information systems managers 26%
 Construction managers 7%
US Bureau of Labor Statistics (https://www.bls.gov/blog/2017/12-stats-about-working-women.htm)

Supporting mothers in pursuing their careers is essential to closing the gender leadership gap. But working mothers haven’t pushed their ambition out with their babies. Research from Leaders Plus with nearly 900 working parents, predominantly mothers, shows that 86% wanted to move to a more senior level after having children, but only 30% felt they could do so with their current employer.

It isn’t the women who need to change, it is the workplace that needs to ensure everyone can excel at their job in a way that enables them to fulfill their other commitments.

The world of work has changed significantly in the last 50 years. Women make up more than half of entrants for many university courses. The six-day working week was replaced by a five-day working week; in many places, parental leave is now guaranteed, and technology has progressively provided more opportunities regardless of geographical location.

However, despite these changes, women are still underrepresented in senior leadership, with only 10 CEOs leading FTSE 100 firms in the UK versus 9% of female CEOs in US S&P 500 firms.

The world of work will continue to change dramatically. We need to act now to shape it so new mothers have the same potential to get to the CEO role as everyone else.

For Mother’s Day Season, What do you Proclaim?

Without a system structured to support the advancement of working mothers, the responsibility for change will remain on women’s shoulders and progression will continue at a glacial pace. This includes consequences for discrimination (legal and financial), policies that promote women’s opportunities, and well-funded childcare.

Our Proclamation would include the following building blocks.

Protect all parents, including non-birthing partners: Guarantee leaves for all parents so they can be present at key moments of childhood development. Supporting fathers and other non-birthing partners in fulfilling their caring roles is critical to ensuring the career progression of working mothers.

Equal parental leave for all genders enables men and non-birthing partners in same-sex couples to fulfill their caring roles while meeting professional goals.

If this is rolled out across society, it will make a huge impact on not just men’s happiness but also women’s career progression.

It is critical that both parents have access to a “use it or lose it” parental leave. Otherwise, societal pressure might prevent many men from taking full paternal leave. Put another way, it is critical to protect leave for the non-birth partner to ensure they actually use it.

Embrace the anti-hero view of parenting: We could educate our children to grow up knowing that if they choose to be parents, it is okay to be a “good enough” parent who loves and cries.

A child wants happy, accessible parents, not superheroes.

As mothers, we need to give ourselves permission to be “good enough” at parenting, to focus on strong relationships and love, and ensure that basics are met — but to walk back unrealistic expectations of being a perfect parent (and professional and community member) at all times: expectations which cause harm to our mental and physical health.

Reconsider productivity and how we measure it: We have known for a long time that long hours aren’t linked to productivity. Long hours also impose costs on workers with ripple effects for families and communities.

Finding a new way to talk about productivity that isn’t hinged on face time in the office will not only unlock opportunities for working parents but also benefit employee well-being for all; it will allow more open conversations between working mothers and their employers about their commitments outside of work.

The Four Day Working Week experiments are interesting ways of exploring this dynamic. Despite some organizations calling their employees back to the office post-pandemic, flexible working options, such as working from home, are here to stay.

Promote flexibility: Too many working mothers feel forced to go freelance because that is where they find the control they need over the working lives they have. This results in too many working mothers missing from the career pipeline and, eventually, senior leadership rooms.

Instead, we need to give working parents more control over how they achieve the deliverables their leaders set. This won’t just benefit mothers but increasingly also meet the demands of Gen Z or those with other responsibilities, such as caring for the elderly or aging parents.

The legal right to request flexible working from day one was codified into law this April in the UK is one example. The experiments of listed companies with self-guided teams are also worth serious consideration.

Cultivate career management communities: In an ecosystem that isn’t designed for mothers to thrive professionally, many informal career-advancing opportunities — think after-work drinks, evening networking events, and extended water-cooler moments — simply aren’t as easily accessible.

But there is an antidote: well-resourced career management communities for working parents with access to senior leaders, strategic networks, and investment by peers in each others’ career progression. These types of communities can counteract the trend of working mothers’ careers plateauing when they have children. Employers’ parent networks or the Leaders Plus Fellowship community for working parents are examples of such communities.

The world of working will continue to change. This Mother’s Day, let’s ensure that we guide that change in a direction where all mothers can be CEOs and care for children at the same time if that’s what they want to do.

The etymology of the word care is from the Old English noun caru and verb carian before the 900s. It is related to the Old High German chara, meaning “lament.” There is a lot that employers, policymakers, and all of us can do to reduce the laments at home and work for working mothers.

Change will come when we, as parents, embrace our role as pioneers.

We are the generation that will break free from the dichotomy of being either a perfect parent or a powerful leader.

For more tips on how to shape the horizon for working mothers, take a look at The Leader Plus article from an event at the House of Commons in June 2023: What if…? The future of work for working parents.

Please reach out for feedback and ideas or just to talk,

Verena & Carin



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.