Happy Mother’s Day?

OK, I don’t like Mother’s Day. I admit it up front.

My mother didn’t like it either. And I try to take after her … she is one of the world’s great mothers. An unsung hero who survived the worst the world had on offer, and then raised me to appreciate the beauty all around.

Her take on Mother’s Day was that it was silly commercialism, a conformist push to help the floral industry. That real mothers have kids who appreciate them every day, and don’t need to be told when to bring flowers … that the real rewards are the love petals in children’s eyes, and in the connections they nurture with you throughout their lives.

As a global gender balance consultant, I have learned to become suspicious of countries – and religions – that worship “motherhood.” This tends to do women no good. The more you elevate one dimension of womanhood, the less you value all the others, like, for example, power. And the more shrill the elevation of the one, the more resistant they are to the rise of the other. And women understand this very well.

I usually suggest to managers (male or female) that they don’t just listen to what women say (they are still too often trying to please someone). Instead, watch what they do. Global demographics is the most earth-shattering example of this. Women everywhere on the planet this Mother’s Day are voting – with their wombs. Countries that are attached to traditional definitions of motherhood and gender roles (think Italy, Japan or Germany) are less likely to have a population-stabilizing number of babies than those more willing to accept new roles for men and women.

The Economist has written a frightening piece on the consequences of parts of Asia’s refusal to let women become more than moms. While Steven Kramer wrote an excellent article called “Mind the Baby Gap in Foreign Policy” (summarized in the New York Times detailing how France and Sweden took a highly strategic approach to creating a public policy infrastructure that recognized that parents – both of them – wanted to work AND have children, and how most of the rest of the world is no longer at even replacement ratios on birthrates, accelerating the trend toward an aging population.

Anglo-Saxon countries seem stuck in this supermom versus working mom thing, as though choosing between career and family is a legitimate choice. Women are defined by a lot more than this one role. While it is, for some, one of life’s great tasks and pleasures, it is not the only one. And when lives extend to beyond 80 years, child-rearing becomes just one segment among many, and countries and companies that don’t recognize this lose out on female talent, creativity and productivity.

For privileged American women, motherhood has become an outlet for career ambitions, or a defensive rejection of them. Anna Quindlen calls it “manic motherhood” with a life “somewhere between the Stations of the Cross and a decathlon” Companies often tell me that women lack ambition – this shows they have never been to the birthday party of a 5-year-old kid in Manhattan. The absurd competitiveness around parenting in the U.S. has created its own publishing sub-industry, with books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or Bringing Up Bébé spoofing, criticizing or benchmarking best practices in child raising. It’s as ruthless as any boxing fight. Less blood, but more wounds.

We desperately need to move toward the un-gendering of parental roles, and get fathers more involved at home as women get ever more involved at work. Today, it is much easier for a woman to get some flexibility around children in most companies than it is for your average man. Most policies are geared at mothers, not at parents. Here too, we need more gender neutrality. We could start by replacing maternity leave with parental leave as Sweden and Germany have done. They’ve even put in minimums for men.

Oh yes, I’m afraid I have to remind you that the U.S. is the only developed country on the planet without paid maternity leave. This is one country we won’t accuse of worshipping mothers. Public policy speaks volumes about values.

Mother’s Day is a paltry replacement for maternity leave (let alone paternity leave), quality day care and the choice of avoiding being a mother if one doesn’t want to. Wherever these basics are in short or threatened supply, no amount of mother worship will get you more mothers.

My proposal would be to update Mother’s Day to be more in tune with the times. This has two dimensions.

•    First, make it Family Day, acknowledging that most children are raised by a network, if not a village. This would help take some of the load off moms and legitimize the role of everyone else involved, especially dads.

•    Then, have it during the week, rather than on a weekend, so companies could actually walk the talk on all that work/life stuff (another obsolete formula in our knowledge economy, as though work and life were opposites). They could give the day off to parents and grandparents and children of parents and grandparents and you get the idea; this could make up for all the inroads that technology has allowed companies to make into our families. It would be one day where families could push back.

So drop the flowers, and let’s get back to basics: babies, balance and both (men and women).

Oh, I almost forgot. Happy Mother’s Day, Ma. This one’s for you.