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A reality check on the Hallmark version of motherhood 

May is almost over and Mother's Day has passed, but it's never too late to honor thy mother. Despite all of the Mother's Day sales and discounts on expensive ticket items such as appliances, cars and jewelry—or the wonderful chocolate-covered treats that make it easy to postpone diet plans—I fail to see the point.

Don't get me wrong. Anyone who's willing to mother and nurture a child deserves all of our respect, love and support. In fact, it doesn't really matter if you're a birth mother or not. I couldn't have asked for two better mothers than my godmothers, Susan Tipograph and Cathy Wilkerson, who couldn't love me any more than if they had given birth to me. It doesn't matter that I am black and that they are a white, half-Jewish, lesbian couple. They're always there for me, no questions asked, with as much resolve, love and commitment as a birth mother, and, in my case, more.

Their love reminds me that if we're going to honor our mothers we can't simply exalt motherhood one day a year but then ignore the ways so many mothers are oppressed and, worse, forgotten the rest of the year.

As a kid, I watched my birth mother go from one low-paying job to the next with no hope of having more than just enough to get by. She worked jobs that didn't fulfill her as a woman or empower her as a mother, so it was hard for the both of us. It was a struggle that I will never forget, and it resulted in years of my being in the foster-care system and many more years of having the most difficult relationship that I've ever had with another human being.

Today, I no longer blame her for not living up to those sappy Mother's Day cards of the proverbial perfect mother. For all of her faults and shortcomings, she's not responsible for a system that characterizes poor and working-class mothers of color—particularly black women and their children—as loathsome.

Motherhood is the leading cause of poverty for single women, and my mother was no exception. The problem is that we've come to accept this as the status quo when someone chooses to mother outside our cultural norm of marriage.

However, my mother did get married. She did the best she could as a single mom after my father was incarcerated. If you're like she was—with a couple of kids, an incarcerated husband, no high school education or any extended family support and immersed in a culture obsessed with pathologizing black mothers—it's going to be hard to convince people you deserve anything other than their absolute disgust. And it shows.

Luckily, my mother was able to get her GED and later secure a very stable job with a pension. She worked for a long time and took advantage of employment-based training that helped her become a technician. She eventually did well for herself and retired to Florida. My mother benefited from a good economy, access to affordable housing programs, food stamps and training programs.

Today, many of those same programs and jobs don't exist or have been heavily cut. There are few safety nets. Since the recession, one of our biggest policy mistakes has been laying off government workers. Those jobs used to be the path out of poverty for poor and working-class families. There's no clear plan that will bring those jobs back.

I am the first generation in my family to earn a college degree. When she graduates next year, my 21-year-old daughter will be the second generation, and yet none of this makes me feel secure. I have an excellent Ivy League education, but I worry about our financial future every single day. I work as a college educator, but I am unable at times to afford groceries and rent because of significant cuts in the state's education budget.

Here are a few policy suggestions that we can advocate for at work and within our government:

  • End the war on drugs. It's a well-known fact that the war on drugs is more a war on blacks and Latinos.
  • Increase affordable housing.
  • Pass a law requiring paid sick leave in every state.
  • Establish good parental leave policies.
  • Address food deserts.
  • Provide access to reproductive health care.
  • Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, raise the minimum wage, end income disparities and stop expecting teachers to work for low pay.
  • Support Sen. Elizabeth Warren's new student loan bill, which seeks to lower interest rates on student loans.
  • Fund child care subsidies.
  • End payday lending by ensuring that people have other options.

These are only a few simple things that we can do if we had the political will. As I write from Cape Town, South Africa, where I'm expanding my social justice and advocacy work to end gender inequality and violence, I am reminded that people here have a philosophy known as "Ubuntu."

Ubuntu teaches us that we're all interconnected and that when one suffers the whole suffers. In the spirit of Ubuntu, the next time you want to do something special for Mother's Day, don't just enrich Hallmark. Instead, let's all demand strong political leadership and support these basic policy reforms for all of our beloved mothers.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A mother of reinvention."

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