Mothers spend a lot of time cleaning up other people’s messes. Recently, as I was preparing to present at the 2018 Mamas’ Summit held by League partner Mothering Justice, I realized this work never ends—we go from picking up after our kids at home to cleaning up the social fallout from policy decisions that harm our families and communities.
In the spirit of Mothering Justice’s mission of “equipping the next generation of mother activists”, the theme of this year’s Summit was “Policies by us, for us, with us!” Throughout history, women and mothers have been shut out of a formal political system that deems them too emotional to be rational and mistakes a lack of empathy for objectivity.
As a result, the history of mothers in advocacy is largely one of keeping their children fed, clothed and safe with one hand while fighting from the margins with the other for policy that ensures everyone else is fed, clothed and safe, too. Every day, mothers engage in acts of advocacy large and small, even as society blames them for systemic problems and dismisses them as hysterical when they call for change.
They pick up the slack for a society that hates taxes more than it values the lives of children, the sick and elderly, providing countless hours of unpaid care for family members because qualified professional care is out of reach for so many.
From Mother Jones to Mama Shu, mothers who have known the grief of losing their children have drawn on their pain to take on far more than their fair share of the burden of creating a better world for all of us.
But all of this fighting is exhausting. It takes a toll on mothers’ minds and bodies.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research gives Michigan a grade of D+ and ranks us 36th among the states for women’s health. In terms of women’s mortality from heart disease—the nation’s number one cause of death—Michigan ranks an embarrassing 42nd.
The state’s numbers are even more alarming when broken down by race and ethnicity: heart disease kills African American women in Michigan at nearly 1.5 times the rate of White women and more than three times the rate of Asian/Pacific Islander women.
Heart disease is the result of a number of factors, including chronic stress. The body releases two primary hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—in response to stress. In the moment, these hormones protect us by triggering biological responses that prime the body to react to a threat quickly. If the stress never goes away, however, these hormone levels remain elevated over time and the resulting “fight or flight” functions can lead to a number of health problems including anxiety, diabetes and heart disease.
This link to stress goes a long way in explaining unjust health outcomes for African American women. As Summit speakers noted, African American women have exceptionally high cortisol levels—a reflection of the disparate tension they face navigating a society that continues to be shaped by individual and systemic racism.
Given the devastating impact of toxic stress, there was a lot of talk at the Summit about the importance of self-care. That’s why Mothering Justice has been leading the charge to ensure that all people in our state have paid sick leave so they can care for themselves or family members without worrying about losing wages or their jobs. These are the kinds of policies we need to protect the health of those who continue to bear primary responsibility for nurturing our state’s next generation of workers, thinkers, parents and leaders.
For Michigan to thrive, we must improve our dismal ranking in women’s heart health by addressing geographic and racial disparities in access to healthy food, health care and exercise opportunities. We must protect and expand measures that reduce exposure to toxic stress by reducing poverty, improving health, expanding opportunity and keeping families together. Our state cannot prosper without healthy women and mothers.