The Hollowness of Mother’s Day: John Oliver and Hillary Clinton Point Out That What Moms Really Need Is Paid Family Leave


Mother’s Day has been criticized for as long as it’s been popular — not because it’s a bad thing to celebrate mothers, per se, but because of what the Hallmark holiday doesn’t even attempt to achieve.

Mother’s Day doesn’t compensate for the drudgery of housework, childcare, and other caretaking tasks. It doesn’t create a safety net for struggling families. It doesn’t offer better and more equitable childcare options. It doesn’t help struggling low-wage caregivers and domestic workers. It doesn’t fix workplace leave options, or mandate lactation rooms or help improve abysmal maternal mortality rates or expand reproductive justice.

No, it replaces these concepts with flowers, cards, TV specials, advertisements, and promos at your local store. As I explained to a European friend who asked why Mother’s Day is such a big deal in the US, the quality of a society’s treatment of families and moms appears to be inversely correlated to the hoopla around Mother’s Day.

The irony hasn’t been lost on savvy observers. Since before the dawn of The Feminist Internet, the Mother’s Day op-ed or thinkpiece has consisted of the above thoughts, shaken, stirred, and rearranged. Not much has changed, however, policy-wise, except for California’s paid leave law.

This year, John Oliver sounded a lot like a feminist op-ed when he delivered an absolutely scorching segment on America’s lack of maternity leave policy. “In America, there is nothing we wouldn’t do for moms, apart from one major thing…” he said, latching on, in particular, to the fact that America is one of a minority of nations, along with Papua New Guinea, that don’t offer paid maternity leave at all. Our single law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, offers unpaid leave of 12 weeks for employees of large companies.

Oliver’s juxtaposition between this reality and the saccharine media bonanza around Mother’s Day hurts to watch, but it gets more hopeful when he takes a look at actual policy and discovers that in places like California, which recently passed a paid family leave law, nothing catastrophic has happened. “Paid maternity is a bit like having hockey on in the background at the bar,” he said. “It’s not hurting anyone and a couple of people are really into it.”

Yet although it worked in California, Oliver notes that few states have followed suit. Why? Mostly because of the whole women thing. In legislation, “the W-word” ensures a certain amount of opposition. Oliver ended up naming and shaming a number of (male) legislators who voted down a family leave bill in Minnesota but also sent out heartfelt Mother’s Day messages.

Oliver invented a new rule: “You can’t go on and on about how much you support mothers, and fail to support legislation that makes life easier for them.” His message echoed that of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who released her own video yesterday advocating paid family leave:

Addressing new moms, much as Oliver does, Clinton says, “At a time that should be so exciting and joyful, I see so many women who are just distraught. They have to immediately go back to work. They don’t know how they’re going to manage.”

With California’s law, a viable candidate unabashedly pushing for policy change, and a feminist media environment that’s getting louder and louder, we’re arguably closer to making real progress on this issue than we have been for decades. “It’s outrageous that America is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid leave,” said Clinton in her video, which features tributes to the candidate’s own mom and daughter. As we well know, there are a lot of things that are outrageous about American society that remain dismally slow to change — but the more media and political figures acknowledge the hollowness of Mother’s Day, the better chance we have for an actual agenda that backs up the pro-mom rhetoric with action.