Mai Kaw is one of the most vibrant and energetic people you’ll ever meet. She is a mom to a seven-month-old girl, and lives with her partner in Madison. Her parents immigrated to Wisconsin from Laos in the mid-1980s, and Mai Kaw was born and raised in Milwaukee before moving to Madison as a young professional. Just as she was finishing her undergraduate degree, Mai Kaw was hit by a vehicle as a pedestrian and suffered life-threatening injuries. She was given a 10% chance of survival, but she beat the odds and has worked hard to overcome significant and lasting physical and mental trauma, and even managed to graduate with honors. Mai Kaw now works as a massage therapist, but lasting injuries from her accident limit her physical ability to work more than 20 hours a week. Her reality is that—despite wanting to be able to work more—there are just physical limits to how much she can do without compromising her health, which also limits how much money she can earn each week. Mai Kaw says, “I feel a little bit of societal shame. A lot of my friends are also college graduates and have a lot of financial stability in their lives. They didn’t have trauma like me, they didn’t have setbacks. They can have steady jobs. I am someone who was hit with a vehicle and was in a coma with multiple heart surgeries. You would never see that. You can’t judge a book by the cover. I look great on the outside, but [most people] would never assume I was going through such a thing.”
The birth of Mai Kaw’s daughter in 2022 brought immense joy, but also put additional strain on her family’s finances, as many families have experienced. Her work did not provide any paid parental leave or maternity benefits, and worrying about how to support her family while also recovering from her birth was causing high levels of stress and anxiety for Mai Kaw. But the Madison Forward Fund (MFF) was there to provide a cushion, right when she needed it most. The income from MFF has offset a portion of her lost earnings from not being able to work during the postpartum period and has provided her financial flexibility as she begins her transition back to work. In short, the program helped ensure that Mai Kaw had financial support during her baby’s first few months. While some parents in other industries have access to employer-provided benefits, that is too often unavailable for self-employed workers. Thanks to MFF, Mai Kaw’s baby was able to have a mom who was better rested, less stressed, and healthier.
“This is humanizing. I don’t feel stuck. That is a huge, huge mental break. I feel like I am alive. I am proud to be a mom, and I am proud to be American. We are gonna have differences, gonna have different cultural norms, but at the end, financial stability is a foundation. This country can be a family together.”