By Ulya Aligulova

On October 20th, the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women in Maine organized a virtual panel, “Spotlight on the Childcare Needs of Maine Women of Color.” The Commission is an unfunded, non-partisan, independent advisory board charged by statute to advise the Governor and the members of the Maine State Legislature about policy and social issues affecting women and girls. Moderated by State Representative Rachel Talbot Ross, with PCSW member Fatuma Hussein providing the welcome and wrap-up, the panel included Noor Almazeri, Capital Area New Mainers Project; Maulian Dana, Tribal Ambassador from the Penobscot Nation; Shima Kabirigi, Acting Director, Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center; Betsy Paz-Gyimesi, Spanish Parent Community Specialist, Portland Public Schools; and Tierra Ross, Survivor Speak USA.

Women of color stand at the intersection of multiple barriers, experiencing the combined effects of racial, gender, ethnic, and other forms of bias in navigating systems and institutional structures in which entrenched disparities remain the status quo. Many women of color must grapple with negative stereotypes and attitudes that affect how they’re treated at work, whether they can provide for their families, and whether they can access quality healthcare. Understanding these concerns can help reveal in stark terms where inequities need to be addressed and what interventions can help families of color survive. More importantly, acknowledging the critical role that women of color play in families and communities is necessary for developing specific strategies to allow them to actively participate in Maine’s economy, in which everyone needs to be engaged in order to deal with the difficult days and months ahead.

Data shows that consistently, across all family structures, women of color play a vital role in providing economic support for families. In families with children, many women of color who are mothers are the sole breadwinners, meaning that they earn more than, or as much as, their partners. National research shows that 67.5% of Black mothers and 42% of Latina mothers are the primary breadwinners for their families, compared to 37% percent of white mothers. Other studies found that 68% of Native American mothers and 48% of Asian and Pacific Islander mothers provide at least 40% of their family’s income. Unfortunately, no such data addresses these demographics in Maine.

All the panelists discussed their own struggles with trying to balance a job, or in some cases multiple jobs, with the responsibilities of raising children. Across the board, all the women stressed the great importance of having access to affordable childcare in order to pursue financial independence and stability. Unfortunately, many found few childcare options open to them, whether due to financial reasons, lack of flexibility, lack of culturally relevant options, or needing access to breastfeeding. Many mothers had to rely on friends, family, and acquaintances to babysit. These options naturally do not provide the same benefits enjoyed by many white women with higher incomes, who are able to send their children to certified daycare centers where they can engage in pre-literacy and other activities aimed at preparing them for kindergarten. This also often means that women of color cannot take adequate maternity leave. Ambassador Dana shared her experience of having to go back to her job a mere four days after the birth of her second daughter. She believes that without people around her who helped her with childcare, her career wouldn’t have been possible at all.

Tierra Ross, with Survivor Speak, explained how childcare struggles affect women of color more than most white women. South Portland, which she feels caters more to a white demographic, has many more schools and learning centers helping kids with remote learning than do the schools in her own district. Because of this disparity, she’s forced to bring her son with her wherever she goes. Spanish Parent Community Specialist Betsy Paz-Gyimesi echoed Ross’s concerns stating that there are zero childcare options for Spanish speakers and other newly arrived immigrants. She spoke of many immigrant mothers who come to America in pursuit of the American dream, wanting to learn English, go to school, and find employment, but lack of affordable and culturally sensitive childcare proves to be the biggest barrier in that pursuit. Those who can afford to send their children to regular daycare often must sacrifice cultural relevance, which sometimes results in the child’s mistreatment or bullying.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have compounded the struggles of women of color. Many are essential workers, and don’t have the option of working from home. This leaves them with the difficult choice of either spending most of their salaries on childcare, thus sacrificing their financial progress, or completely quitting their jobs. Social distancing has meant fewer opportunities for informal co-ops, in which mothers care for each other’s children on their days off; understandably, mothers are less inclined to interact with people outside of their households.

The biggest takeaway from this panel discussion was acknowledgement of the need to keep discussing this issue at many levels so that, eventually, these conversations begin to permeate how people – particularly legislators – think about policies and laws that systematically hinder women of color. Aggregating data about some of these opportunity gaps can begin to help address the issue on local levels. Some panelists advocated easier methods for women to obtain home daycare certificates, since women already informally support each other in that way. Shima Kabirigi stressed the importance of leveraging one’s privilege, in terms of working in a specific sector, to raise awareness about this topic and to advocate for resources to be directed to these issues. Most importantly, she said we need to teach young women, women of color, and all women to advocate for themselves, especially when they become mothers, and to learn to advocate for their children. These kinds of conversations, featuring voices often left unheard, play a crucial part in paving the way to empowering women’s economic independence.