American Mothers are Trying Harder Than Ever–So Why Do We Feel Like We’re Failing?

We are carrying the burden of society’s shortcomings

Mama, you deserve more support and way less judgment. Because the truth is American mothers are carrying heavy burdens that are so ubiquitous and yet so secretive we can only assume we are alone in our struggles.

But, mama, it’s society that’s failing, not you.

Motherhood is way harder than it should be because the deck is stacked against women. We live in a culture that gives lip service to the importance of family, but sees investment in children and parents as an “entitlement” too far. We operate in a business climate that prizes consumption and profitability above all — leaving families, and especially women, behind in its wake. We’re citizens in a country where “women’s issues” are seen as side issues, rather than foundational challenges of our society.

We, as mothers, are all too often left to figure out the biggest transformation of our lives — one rife with physical, mental, financial and relationship stress — in the midst of a radically individualistic society that at times almost blames us for having children. Can’t afford childcare? It’s your fault for not making more money. Struggle to breastfeed? You’re not trying hard enough. Coping with undiagnosed postpartum depression? Pull it together.

The finger pointing is everywhere except where it should be: at a society and structures that haven’t evolved to support women, children and families.

In order for change to begin we have to first understand the problem:

Motherhood isn’t supported: In generations past, adult children typically used to settle near their parents and raise their own offspring in highly-connected, intergenerational settings. That meant grandma would watch the baby while mama recovered from childbirth or that sisters traded childcare duties to allow time for housekeeping. While multigenerational living is actually at a high point in recent American history for largely financial reasons, the elements that define our vision of a village have been overridden by demands that cause people to work longer.

We now stand in a time where the villages that used to define the experience of parenthood have largely gone away — yet no other support has been put in their place. Grandparents are busy working long into retirement. A transient generation often doesn’t have support next door. People cannot rely on “traditional” sources of backup—or relief.

With such a dearth of support and a struggling economy, the American birthrate — once a fertile outlier in the Western world — in recent years has dramatically declined. Women are choosing to wait longer to have children, and then have fewer kids overall. In many cases, they’re having fewer children than they would ideally want to have because motherhood is just that hard. Even before they have children, women sense a lack of support that makes motherhood overwhelming — it’s this anxiety that sells books and fuels a never-ending debate over whether women can ever “have it all.”

The lack of resources is only compounded by the abundance of pressure. From over-engineering children’s activities to an abiding sense of guilt for not doing “enough,” American mothers often place their self-worth on the degree of their involvement in the minutiae of their children’s lives.

Giving birth in America is shockingly dangerous: Discrimination against women, and women of color in particular, has led to an appalling maternal health crisis — where women’s voices are not heard, women’s needs are not met, and they, as well as their children and families, suffer.

Statistics prove American mothers die in childbirth more than in any other country in the developed world — and the death rates are actually getting worse, not better. According to research in the New York Times, “Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts,” with racism playing a direct role.

Sexism also plays a role with 26% of maternal deaths attributable to heart conditions, which may not display themselves with the same symptoms as among male patients. “Doctors may be more likely to attribute those symptoms to anxiety than heart disease,” said Kim Lavoie, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec at Montreal and co-author of a 2016 study on the topic. “So, in other words, a diagnostic bias may occur.”

Postpartum women are left to fend for themselves: While newborns are typically seen at least four times in their first two months of life, their mothers routinely have no postpartum care from 48 hours after birth until six weeks. During these critical weeks of physical recovery and a psychological transition to parenthood, women are left to figure out the transition alone while navigating an exhausting, achy haze of postpartum bleeding, milk supply issues and financial stress.

The irony is this is perhaps one of the most vulnerable periods for mothers when support is often most needed. Case and point: Learning how to breastfeed, critical to keeping her baby healthy and alive for mothers who opt to exclusively breastfeed, is a learned skill. But, after her baby is born, a woman might see a lactation counselor right away, or might have to wait days to learn how to nurse — if she ever sees a consultant at all. Private lactation consultants often cost hundreds of dollars, an expense that is often out of reach during this financially stressful time in life.

No relief for working mothers: One in four new mothers returns to work out of economic necessity within two weeks of giving birth. Federally, American mothers are not guaranteed paid leave, making the United States an appaling exception in the global sphere. Recent statistics from the U.S. Labor Bureau indicate that only 12% of American workers have access to paid leave — the rest are left to fend for themselves.

The one piece of federal legislation that could make a difference, The Family Medical Leave Act, only guarantees that a new parent’s job will be held for 12 weeks — but doesn’t require any compensation during one of the most vulnerable times in their life. And that’s only if the employee meets certain eligibility conditions to begin with, which include having worked on a nearly full-time basis for at least one year and the company having 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius.

After the initial adjustment, working women face the motherhood penalty — which amounts to a decrease in 4% of her earnings for every child that she has. That stands in stark contrast to the fatherhood bonus, which describes a 6% income boost the average father experiences for the birth of each child.

Motherly’s 2018 State of Motherhood survey revealed that the majority of women scaled down their careers after the birth of a baby, while their partners often scaled up — a split that sometimes happens by choice, but other times happens by default, thanks to issues such as the incredibly high cost of childcare, which is not subsidized or covered fully as a tax credit, unlike in other countries.

The victims blame themselves: The worst part? Research shows American mothers largely blame themselves, experiencing waves of guilt and self-criticism for struggling to manage the inordinate task of working, raising children and maintaining a household. As it is, the burden is on these mothers in already vulnerable, challenging positions to ask for help — rather than how it should be done by offering resources and support in the first place. It’s as if we’re wading through a fog and cannot see that we’re not doing it wrong, it’s that modern American motherhood is just that hard.

But it is NOT our fault.

As Beth Berry wrote in a telling Motherly essay that has become our anthem, “It takes a village, but there are no villages. . . [mama,] you and I are not the problem at all. WE ARE DOING PLENTY. We may feel inadequate, but that’s because we’re on the front lines of the problem, which means we’re the ones being hardest hit. We absorb the impact of a broken, still-oppressive social structure so that our children won’t have to. That makes us heroes, not failures.”

That bears repeating: It makes us heroes, mama.