We’re creeping into the second year of a global pandemic.
Career dropout among working moms and maternal burnout (among all moms) is at an all-time high. Motherly’s own State of Motherhood survey showed that 93% of mothers said in 2021 that they felt burned out.
And although mothers were burned out long before any of us heard the words “COVID-19,” the global pandemic has made clear that, as The New York Times so perfectly put it, mothers are “society’s shock-absorbers.”
Mothers are exhausted from absorbing so much shock.
And while there is beauty in the fact that mothers will do anything necessary to care for their families, there is profound shame in the fact that our society has forced them to be selfless to the point of losing themselves.
Mothers are burned out because they are carrying an entire broken society on their backs.
More than ever before, mothers are being asked to do the labor of an entire community—without any load being lightened. Without recognition or pay. More and more has been placed upon mothers’ shoulders, and in America, government, corporations and society at large has done far too little to support them.
Mothers are burned out because they are constantly on society’s back burner.
Mothers are asked to work as if they don’t have kids.
Mothers are made to become overnight medical providers, on alert for symptoms of a disease that they still can’t protect their babies from or adequately treat.
Mothers are forced to carry educational worry, needing to become their children’s teachers—adding the role of educator to an already-full plate, and without any financial support or logistic accommodations.
Mothers are suddenly needing to manage their family’s food supply amidst an economic recession, job loss and global supply chain shortages.
Mothers are tasked with becoming trauma therapists, holding together their families amidst a global trauma. They’re navigating conversations between the vaxxed and unvaxxed, the super cautious and the caution-to-the wind, while the science and circumstances continue to evolve.
Teaching, working, counseling and organizing—mothers are doing the work of an entire small village, but without the structure of the ancient village, as Beth Berry so beautifully put it in an essay at Motherly.
Mothers have never needed a village more.
We’ve never had access to a village less.
Mothers evolved to thrive when they have the support of an extended community. In fact, research from NPR Science correspondent and Hunt, Gather, Parent author Michaeleen Doucleff, suggests that in pre-modern human societies around the world, mothers spent on average 20% of their time directly watching their children. (You can listen to my interview of Doucleff on The Motherly Podcast here.)
Reimagine what you think you know about how families functioned in the past. Though humans are highly adaptable, mothers have rarely had to function with this much pressure on their nuclear families, and so little support from their community, government and society.
Ample research shows that mothers thrive when they have access to a rich network of care support. A sister next door to jointly watch their children. An employer who understands that she has kids and why does it really matter when the work gets done? A boss who is willing to set schedules far enough in advance to make arranging childcare possible. An extended network that’s able to lighten the load (caregiver activist Ai-Jen Poo called this a care squad). And yes, a government that provides the critical safety net its citizens need to keep their families healthy and whole when the rest of society falls short. It’s positive, long term investment in women and childrens’ wellbeing, but it’s one that America simply has not been willing to make.
In 2021, other wealthy economies have determined that where society falls short, government steps in—to provide paid leave for mothers and fathers to stay home after the birth of a baby, to provide high-quality, affordable (even free!) childcare for infants and toddlers. To require workplaces to provide generous vacation time or to set standards for work outside of business hours.
But not in America. Not at any level of society.
In America, mothers are saddled with the weight of the world on their shoulders. The labor of an entire community on their backs. As Berry noted, they carry the expectations of an entire village, but no access to a village. Mothers are burned out because we ask the world of them, and give them nothing in return.
Mothers are society’s life-givers.
It’s far past time to give them support back.