Motherhood — especially first-time motherhood — is intense and exciting. For some women, it is daunting. No one is fully prepared for every challenge presented during pregnancy, delivery and the first year of caring for a brand-new human being. While all mothers need help, especially in those early days, some women are uniquely ill-equipped, and others are sick or in economically unstable situations.
Thankfully, innovators and funders have pioneered solutions to help women overcome social, economic and health challenges when mothering. As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we can reflect on the ways that the civil society provides a springboard — and safety net — for women as they leap into motherhood.
For a pregnant 17-year-old from Elmira, N.Y., who drank, smoke and was frequently in trouble with the law, the support she needed was not financial but emotional. During her pregnancy and after the baby’s birth, she was visited by a nurse who learned that the teen had been tortured as a child and was fearful she might hurt her baby. Both of them participated in David Olds’ nurse home visiting model, later called Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP).
Together they identified a neighborhood “grandmother” (not an actual relative) as a safe babysitter. After the baby was born, the teen moved in with the “grandmother.” The teen mom — along with the baby’s father — successfully raised the child and broke the cycle of dysfunction that she faced.
This was possible because of the NFP program.
This 40-year-old evidence-based program sends specially trained nurses to visit regularly with young, first-time mothers-to-be from early in the pregnancy continuing through the child’s second birthday. New moms receive information, coaching and tools to have a healthy baby, care for the baby, and develop the skills to create a stable future for themselves and the child.
Nurse-Family Partnership is credited with reductions in maternal and child mortality, better health outcomes, reductions in child abuse, and reductions in behavioral and criminal problems among children among other benefits. RAND researchers found that NFP’s net benefit to society was $34,148 (in 2003 dollars) per higher-risk family served, or $5.70 return for every dollar invested.
NFP receives public funding but is largely privately funded. It likely would never have served more than 366,000 families over decades or achieved the positive health, educational and social outcomes for vulnerable mothers and children without the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In 1979, the foundation funded Olds’ initial experiment in Elmira and follow-up studies of program participants to measure the effectiveness of prevention programs years later.
Philanthropic gifts often fund new ideas that government agencies are unwilling or unable to invest in for the long-term. However, once proven effective, government may scale those programs statewide and nationwide. The happy ending that the Elmira teen mom experienced is an example of what is possible when funding follows social risk-taking.
But foundations are not the only charitable sources of support for moms and families. Individuals and the religious community are also actively engaged.
When an economic crisis — such as an eviction or job loss — places an expectant mother in a vulnerable position just before childbirth, she may be looking for options.
Kim, a pregnant young woman from China but living in Chicago, had just broken up with her boyfriend, and having dropped out of school was working as a cashier. Unable to care for her baby, she went to an adoption agency. They directed her to Safe Families for Children, an alternative to the foster-care system that provides babies and children with a nurturing, temporary home with host families for short periods of time while parents work out their situations.
For 19 years, this nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Dave Anderson has given families facing a crisis hope and support. The program is entirely voluntary and operates in 70 cities across the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and beyond. More than 90 percent of the children hosted through the program are successfully reunited with their biological parents and the family remains intact.
Community-based and hyper-local, Safe Families is effective because it is flexible and quickly able to meet the needs of families. Private philanthropy supports the costs of the program — around $10 a day per child served — which is a fifth of what taxpayer-funded foster care costs. Safe Families and similar programs mobilize the faith community as volunteers and as financial sources along with individual donors and foundations.
Moms, such as 28-year-old, Shanell Bryant, call her host family and the organization “angels” for stepping in temporarily to care for her 5-year-old and 2-year-old after she was diagnosed with cancer, lost her job and then her apartment. These children avoided the child-welfare system, which is built for the situations where there is abuse and neglect. Bryant, like many other women, was able to resume mothering when she was more stable.
Whether you’re a first-time teen mom struggling with childhood trauma or a sick mother battling disease, motherhood can feel suffocating. These mothers, like all parents, want what is best for their little ones. They just may not all have the resources or emotional strength to provide it.
Thankfully, we live in a society that rallies support and offers that helping hand to women who need it. The formula is simple: When mothers succeed, children thrive and society makes strides.