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In praise of moms, our unsung heroes

By Divya Amladi
Motherhood is Ruth’s full-time job. She is the first to wake up, feeding the kids and getting them ready for school, and the last to sleep after she cleans the house and washes everyone’s clothes. She is pictured here with four of her children in the Philippines in December 2019. Photo: Jed Regala/Oxfam

This Mother’s Day, with so many women pulling double duty because of the coronavirus, we honor moms around the world and the work they put into making us who we are.

When I think about the women who shaped me, I think about my grandmothers. My Amamma (maternal grandmother), the youngest of 13 children growing up in a small village in Karnataka, India, taught herself English so she could speak to her American-born grandchildren and read us bedtime stories. She raised my mom and her two siblings; managed a multi-family compound in Chennai; and cared for her mother-in-law as well as scores of nieces and nephews.

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My Amamma (left) and my mother

My Pappamma (paternal grandmother) passed away at the beginning of this pandemic. Eleven years senior to her sister, she helped care for her, and after getting married, cared for her own three children, her sister’s children, and her sister-in-law’s children. Years later, she and my grandfather moved from Mumbai to Los Angeles to help care for my cousins.

These women dedicated their lives to caring for other people. They weren’t paid, yet this care work was integral to my family’s life—just as it is integral to society. But it’s often overlooked and undervalued. This past January our research found that globally, women take on 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care every single day. Here in the US, even before the coronavirus pandemic changed our lives, women were spending two more hours per day doing unpaid care work than men—equal to 95 eight-hour unpaid work days.

Now, in our COVID-19 reality, those hours are multiplying as mothers are adjusting to working from home while caring for and educating children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews; or they are out on the frontlines as healthcare workers and essential staff, coming home to make sure their loved ones are safe and healthy.

So this Mother’s Day, we are celebrating all the moms—in all their forms—who are pulling double duty and giving thanks for all their thankless hours. We asked Oxfam staff to share stories of the moms in their lives and how they have inspired them:

Elizabeth Stevens, senior communication officer, humanitarian leadership:

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Elizabeth's mother's work coat

“My mother was a farmer and a teacher, in that order. Teaching was a way to earn a living, but her heart was in the physical work of growing things to eat. Early on in her marriage, she would walk a mile uphill each day carrying two buckets of water for the pigs—while pregnant with twins. I know that sounds apocryphal, but in her case it was actually true. Later, with my father working away from home much of the time, she ended up caring for six young children while managing the farm, which included milking a handful of cows twice a day. She was frugal and never willingly threw anything away, so her work coats—while beautiful—were more patch than original material. Three things I learned from her example: do what you love, use things up, and don’t worry too much about appearances.”

Neal McCarthy, senior manager, ICT4D program

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Photo l-r: Neal’s sister Aisling, grandmother Bridie, and mother Sheila

“My mother Sheila died in in 2003. She had struggled with depression for a number of years…. She fought courageously against her ill-health for a long time, but sadly it got the better of her. She was part of a generation that saw profound changes in the lives of women, but not quickly and not enough. Her mother (and my grandmother) Bridie, who lived 96 great years, was part of a generation that experienced more change than perhaps any humans that came before–she grew up in a household that had personal memories of the Great Hunger in Ireland and lived to see the age of the internet. Both experienced difficult personal journeys: there was an unreasonable amount of poverty and bereavement in both of their lives. And yet they were never bitter, and always generous. In fact, they were incredibly resilient human beings, and strong feminists at a time when women were hugely constrained by the social and political and cultural limits on their lives and their agency, particularly in Ireland where I grew up. Between them, they made me into (what I much later understood to be) a feminist. Their views on the world, and on the rights of women and girls in the world, continue to guide my beliefs. On this Mother's Day, it's nice to think how proud they would be that I am part of a movement that works everyday to end poverty by advancing equality and gender justice."

Caroleena Vargas Fontes, senior program coordinator, food systems:

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Caroleena's mother at work

"During these times of COVID-19, my mom has to work everyday as a cardiac technician and COVID-19 Ambassador. She brings her radiant and loving energy to care for others. It is so scary to see her put herself at risk, but I am also so proud of her. She has worked so hard since she came to this country, and I'm eternally grateful for the sacrifices she has made for our family. Te quiero mucho, madre."

Patrick Greene, artistic and creative specialist, resource development

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Patrick's children wearing the masks their grandmother sewed for them

“My mom has always loved sewing. When I told my mom that I wanted to try to sew a Batman pillow for my girlfriend, she spent hours teaching me how to make a needle bar dance with just the right amount of tension and pressure. A few years later, after that girlfriend became my wife and we had our sons, my mother sewed them the most astoundingly ornate books from felt and twine and buttons. My parents had been watching our sons the week COVID-19 changed everything. My wife and I had taken a little sojourn to Quebec to celebrate her final semester of nursing school. Two days into the trip we realized we needed to come home early…. Saying goodbye to my parents, I didn’t realize just how protracted this quarantine was going to become. A few weeks ago, an overstuffed envelope arrived at our door. I instantly recognized my mom’s handwriting—those same loopy vowels that had adorned a hundred permission slips, brightened a thousand lunchbox Post-Its, Sharpied “PATRICK GREENE” onto every piece of clothing I wore for 15 years. The envelope was full of cloth masks. My mom, it turns out, has been working with my sister to sew masks not only for us, but for local hospitals and homeless shelters. Every time I step outside and slip on my mask, I feel my family’s presence with me. Like a hug."

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