Most parents feel like they're failing during first year of parenthood

Way too many parents are internalizing blame they don't deserve.

Most parents feel like they're failing during first year of parenthood
Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

We need a generation that can take over after our own, and we need to make sure we're working to leave them with something. In order for our society to function we need parents and we need workers. But our culture sure doesn't make it easy to be both at the same time.

And if you feel like you are failing at the balancing act, know this: You're not. You're doing the best you can do, and that is enough. It's not you that's failing, mama. It's the system. And it's time to change it because way too many parents are internalizing blame they don't deserve.

According to a recent survey commissioned by WaterWipes, 6 out of 10 parents feel like they were failing during their baby's first year. More than 13,000 parents from around the world were polled and said their sleepless nights and hard days are just so different from the way parenthood is portrayed in popular media.

"The global research speaks for itself – at times parents are left feeling like they are failing, especially when they are surrounded by false images of perfect parenting, says Cathy Kidd, global VP of marketing at WaterWipes.

This follows another recent survey which found two-thirds of working parents in America feel like they are failing in parenthood because of pressures at work. That's 66% of working parents who are waking up each day feeling like they can't win, and that's not okay.

Teresa Hopke is the CEO of Talking Talent, the firm behind the survey of 1,036 working American parents. "According to our study, a majority of parents feel like they are failing," she tells Motherly, noting that the impact of these feelings of failure often isn't apparent to employers because many working parents get really good at covering or masking their feelings of failure.

"But digging below the surface, we see the impact showing up in the form of increased stress, a rise in mental health claims, reduced productivity, decreased engagement, and overall impact on well-being," Hopke says.

She explains that in some cases, this results in employees deciding to opt out of their careers, or move from company to company "in hopes of finding someplace where it feels more possible to do it all." In other cases, she says, the desire for control can "translate into an undesirable leadership style."

These issues disproportionately impact mothers, (today's moms are not only devoting more hours to paid work than previous generations, but simultaneously devoting more hours to childcare, according to Pew), but dads are also suffering under the burden of their perceived failure to balance work and home.

This needs to stop. It's time to examine why so many parents are unhappy at work, and what we can do about it.

Why workers aren't using parental leave even when they have it

These days more and more companies are officially adopting parent-friendly policies like paid leave—a welcome first step—but the Talking Talent survey reveals that while these policies look great on paper, workplace culture often prevents parents from feeling like they can actually use them.

The parents surveyed reported taking less parental leave than was available to them: Women used only about 52% of the time they could have, and the men surveyed reported using just 32% of the time available to them.

According to Hopke, this points to a real problem with current parental leave policies—the policies are celebrated, but are not embraced as a practice in our culture. This means that parents are afraid to take the time they need, for fear of being penalized or seen as being uncommitted.

The survey found 64% of parents say they would have been more likely to take a longer leave if their colleagues had.

When it comes to fathers in particular, this phenomenon can be seen even in countries where parental leave isn't an HR policy, but a national one. The UK's shared parental leave scheme allows parents to split up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay between partners (parents can take leave one at a time or be at home together with their child for up to six months) but according to the BBC, few fathers (like as low as 2%) take part.

In Canada too, fathers have been reluctant to take the leave available to them, something the government hopes to change with the introduction of a "use-it-or-lose-it" leave policy for fathers and other non-birthing parents. Starting in March 2019, couples will be eligible for five weeks of extra leave, meaning a family can get 40 weeks instead of 35, but only if the second parent uses at least five weeks of that time, CBC reports.

Parents need employers and lawmakers to implement parental leave policies, but we also need our peers to embrace and encourage their use. In 2017 the government in Finland (the country The Economist ranks among the best in which to be a working mother and the only country in the world where fathers spend more time with school-aged children than mothers do) encouraged fathers to make the most of the country's generous parental leave policy by literally launching a PR campaign to get dads to take their "Daddy Time."

American workers might want to take a page from the Finnish government when it comes to encouraging everyone to use their parental leave. According to Hopke, grassroots campaigns within offices could change workplace culture stateside. She says parents should talk about why they are taking their leave in an effort to normalize it.

"Be vocal and transparent about being a working parent. When working parents try to cover in an effort to appear committed to the organization, they not only make it challenging for themselves, they also perpetuate a culture that doesn't value the whole person. We can't ever solve for the problem if the problem isn't brought to the surface," she tells Motherly, adding that while it's great for workers to be vocal, companies need to do more than talk the talk.

"Paid leave policies are a great start, but in order to truly support employees and give them 'permission' to take the time they've been given, organizations need to create a culture of support," she explains. "Raising the visibility of parental leave by providing a robust package of support for both employees and leaders will help everyone feel more comfortable with new parents taking the time away—without guilt."

The childcare problem

Parental leave is a huge factor in the unhappiness of working parents, but childcare is another issue that contributes to moms and dads feeling like failures (when they are so not).

CNN reports American couples spend 25.6% of their income on childcare and single parents spend a whopping 52.7% on having their children watched while they work. As Motherly has previously reported, day care in America can cost as much as rent, or more than college in an era when many families find getting by on a single income impossible.

Childcare is expensive, but those who have it (even when it drains the bank account) consider themselves lucky, because many working American parents struggle just to find quality childcare.

Research shows high-quality day care programs are good for kids' emotional and prosocial development, but when parents can't find that kind of child care (due to long wait lists, a lack of choices in their area or prohibitive prices) and have to go with their second or third choice of childcare, they may spend the work day feeling guilty about leaving their child with a babysitter they don't trust.

In the search for solutions, we might again look to Finland, where The Guardian reports "the state provides universal daycare." The biggest bill parents could expect for day care in Finland is the equivalent of about $330 a month (the national average in the U.S. is about $800, according to Care.com, and can get closer to $2,000 in some cities). And in Finland, finding high-quality childcare doesn't mean doing endless preschool tours, internet searches, interviews and waitlists. According to one parent The Guardian spoke with

"I guess the big difference is it is not stressful at all," father Tuomas Aspiala told The Guardian. "Someone else organizes everything."

According to Aspiala, when his children were waitlisted for day care due to a lack of available spots,the city of Helsinki organized a nanny share to look after them until spots opened up at the childcare center.

"The situation at the day care centre is really fantastic. It's really close, the people who look after the children are wonderful," Aspiala told The Guardian. "We really don't feel guilty about leaving them there at all."

If American parents could go to work without feeling guilty about where they are leaving their children, would 66% be feeling like failures? Probably not.

Finland's childcare solution sounds like a dream come true, but let's be real, no one is holding their breath waiting for the adoption of a similar system stateside.

In the absence of a national childcare solution, what can be done to help working parents who are bearing the emotional burden of a system that works against them?

Parents shouldn't cover for the system's failures, and should speak up

According to Hopke, individuals can challenge the system by being more understanding of all who are working within it. "[One] thing employees can do is challenge themselves to be more inclusive of all people and needs. The more we create a culture that values diversity and inclusion, the more likely people within an organization are to ask about and support the needs of everyone, including working parents."

When this happens, change can move up in a company, and again, Hopke says parents need to be vocal about what we need and know that we are assets to our employers because of our dual role, not despite it.

"Organizing with others from a grassroots level to advocate for change is also something I advise. Many organizations we work with implement policies and programs as a result of efforts that came from a group of employees rather than an idea from HR or benefits," Hopke explains.

Maybe you have an idea for implementing or optimizing parental leave, on-site day care, childcare subsidies, or flexible work arrangements that could be the catalyst for removing the burden of perceived failure from your fellow employees' shoulders.

"Ask leaders tough questions about why they don't support parents in the way that you are looking for and let them know that you know why it is important to the organization to value parents more," Hopke suggests. "And in the end if you don't get the answers you want, then do your research to find an organization that provides a culture you are looking for. They are out there and the more we push the envelope within our current organizations, the more there will be over time."

Unfortunately, change does take time, but if you are feeling like a failure as a working parent, don't.

You are doing what you need to do right now for your family and there is nothing wrong with that. But remember that you can use your voice (and your vote come election time—ask your reps about childcare and paid leave!) to change the culture that is making individual parents shoulder the pressure for an entire work culture.

[A version of this post was published January 8, 2019. It has been updated.]

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    With National Breastfeeding Awareness Month this month, it's a great time for mamas (and expectant mamas!) to gather the supplies that will support their feeding journey—whether it looks like exclusively breastfeeding, pumping or combo-feeding.

    Customflow™ Double Electric Breast Pump

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    7 hacks for simplifying after-school snacks

    Prepping delicious and nutritious foods shouldn't take all day.

    When you're in the middle of the school year and managing a family, each minute of time becomes very precious. Sometimes that means healthy food choices in the household can take a backseat. But don't stress it, mama. Prepping delicious and nutritious choices for the kids to munch on doesn't need to take all day.

    Remember to keep it fun, simple and interactive! Here are tips for simplifying after-school snacks once and for all:

    1. Prep snacks on Sunday

    This simple trick can make the rest of the week a breeze. Tupperware is your friend here, you can even write different days of the week on each container to give the kids a little surprise every day. I really like storage with compartments for snack prep. Personally, I slice apples, carrots or cucumbers to pair with almond butter and hummus—all great to grab and go for when you're out all day and need some fresh variety.

    2. When in doubt, go for fruit

    Fruit is always a quick and easy option. I suggest blueberries, clementine oranges, apples, frozen grapes or even unsweetened apple sauce and dried fruit, like mixed fruit. It's fun to put together a fruit salad, too. Simply cut up all the fruit options and let the kids decide how they'd like to compile. Prepped fruit is also great to have on hand for smoothies, especially when it's been sitting in the fridge for a few days—throw it in the blender with some nut milk and voila.

    3. Pair snacks with a dip

    Hummus is a great dip to keep on hand with lots of versatility or you can grab a yogurt-based dip. Easy and healthy dippers include pre-sliced veggies, baby carrots and multigrain tortilla chips. Plain hummus is a great way to introduce seasonings and spices too—shake a little turmeric, add fresh basil and you'd be surprised what your kids will take to.

    4. Have high-protein options readily available

    Snacks with high protein, like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, hard boiled eggs and jerky will fuel kids for hours. One of my favorites is a turkey stick, which is a fun addition to the hummus platter. Just slice into bite-sized pieces. I love cottage cheese because it can go savory or sweet, use as a dip with your prepped veggies, or drizzle pure maple syrup and sprinkle with berries.

    5. Always keep the pantry stocked

    Monthly deliveries keeps the pantry updated without a trip to grocery store. Many kids are big fans of popcorn, granola and pretzels. We like to DIY our own snack packs with a little popcorn, pretzels, nuts and whatever else is in the pantry so there's always something different!

    6. Make cracker tartines

    I love the idea of replicating popular restaurant dishes for kids. Here are some of my favorite snack-sized tartines using any crisp bread, or favorite flat cracker of your choice as the base. There are no rules and kids love adding toppings and finding new combinations they love.

    • Avocado crackers: Use a cracker and then layer with thinly sliced avocado, a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese topped with roasted pepitas or sunflower seeds.
    • Tacos: The base for this is a black bean spread—just drain a can of black beans, rinse and place into a wide bowl. With a fork or potato masher, lightly smush the beans until chunky. Spread onto your cracker and top with tomato, cheddar cheese and black olives. Try out a dollop of super mild salsa or some lime zest to introduce some new flavor profiles.
    • A play on PB&J: Smear peanut butter, almond or a favorite sun butter on the cracker. I like to get a mix it up a bit and put fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries and tiny diced apples) and a little bit of dried fruit sprinkled on top.

    7. Pre-make smoothie pops

    The easy part about meal prep is the prep itself, but knowing exactly how much to make ahead is tricky. Freeze a smoothie in popsicle molds to have a healthy treat ready-to-go snack. They're super simple to make: Add any fruit (I like apples, berries, pineapples and mangoes) and veggies (carrots, steamed beet and wilted kale) to a blender with your favorite nut milk until you have consistency just a bit thinner than a smoothie. Pour into your trusty reusable popsicle molds and then into the freezer to make an ice pop so good they could eat them for breakfast.

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    15 toys that will keep your kids entertained inside *and* outside

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    Keeping kids entertained is a battle for all seasons. When it's warm and sunny, the options seem endless. Get them outside and get them moving. When it's cold or rainy, it gets a little tricker.

    So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of the best toys for toddlers and kids that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, many are Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these indoor outdoor toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.


    Stomp Racers

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    Step2 Up and Down Rollercoaster

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    Tiny thrill-seekers will love this kid-powered coaster which will send them (safely) sailing across the backyard or play space. The durable set comes with a high back coaster car and 10.75 feet of track, providing endless opportunities for developing gross motor skills, balance and learning to take turns. The track is made up of three separate pieces which are easy to assemble and take apart for storage (but we don't think it will be put away too often!)

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    Stepping Stones

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    Sand play set

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    Sensory play set

    kidoozie-sand-and-splash-activity-table

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    Vintage scooter balance bike

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    Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

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    Foam pogo stick

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    Designed for ages 3 and up, My First Flybar offers kiddos who are too young for a pogo stick a frustration-free way to get their jump on. The wide foam base and stretchy bungee cord "stick" is sturdy enough to withstand indoor and outdoor use and makes a super fun addition to driveway obstacle courses and backyard races. Full disclosure—it squeaks when they bounce, but don't let that be a deterrent. One clever reviewer noted that with a pair of needle-nose pliers, you can surgically remove that sucker without damaging the base.

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    Dumptruck 

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    Hopper ball

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    Burn off all that extra energy hippity hopping across the lawn or the living room! This hopper ball is one of the top rated versions on Amazon as it's thicker and more durable than most. It also comes with a hand pump to make inflation quick and easy.

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    Pull-along ducks

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    Rocking chair seesaw

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    Baby forest fox ride-on

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    Even 5 hours of screen time per day is OK for school-aged kids, says new study

    Researchers found screen time contributes to stronger peer relationships and had no effect on depression and anxiety. So maybe it isn't as bad as we thought?

    MoMo Productions/Getty Images

    If you've internalized some parental guilt about your own child's screen time usage, you're not alone. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to significant amounts of screen time in children leads to an increased risk of depression and behavioral issues, poor sleep and obesity, among other outcomes. Knowing all this can mean you're swallowing a big gulp of guilt every time you unlock the iPad or turn on the TV for your kiddo.

    But is screen time really that bad? New research says maybe not. A study published in September 2021 of 12,000 9- and 10-year-olds found that even when school-aged kids spend up to 5 hours per day on screens (watching TV, texting or playing video games), it doesn't appear to be that harmful to their mental health.

    Researchers found no association between screen usage and depression or anxiety in children at this age.

    In fact, kids who had more access to screen time tended to have more friends and stronger peer relationships, most likely thanks to the social nature of video gaming, social media and texting.


    The correlations between screen time and children's health

    But those big social benefits come with a caveat. The researchers also noted that kids who used screens more frequently were in fact more likely to have attention problems, impacted sleep, poorer academic performance and were more likely to show aggressive behavior.

    Without a randomized controlled trial, it's hard to nail down these effects as being caused directly by screens. The study's authors analyzed data from a nationwide study known as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD Study), the largest long-term study of brain development and children's health in the country. They relied on self-reported levels of screen time from both children and adults (it's funny to note that those reported numbers differed slightly depending on who was asked… ).

    It's important to remember that these outcomes are just correlations—not causations. "We can't say screen time causes the symptoms; instead, maybe more aggressive children are given screen devices as an attempt to distract them and calm their behavior," says Katie Paulich, lead author of the study and a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. Also worth noting is that a child's socioeconomic status has a 2.5-times-bigger impact on behavior than screens.

    Weighing the benefits with the risks will be up to you as the parent, who knows your child best. And because we live in a digital world, screens are here to stay, meaning parents often have little choice in the matter. It's impossible to say whether recreational screen time is fully "good" or "bad" for kids. It's maybe both.

    "When looking at the strength of the correlations, we see only very modest associations," says Paulich. "That is, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it's unlikely to be important at a clinical level." It's all just part of the overall picture.

    A novel look at screen time in adolescents

    The researchers cite a lack of studies examining the relationship between screen time and health outcomes in this specific early-adolescence age group, which is one of the reasons why this study is so groundbreaking. The findings don't apply to younger children—or older adolescents, who may be starting to go through puberty.

    Screen time guidelines do exist for toddlers up to older kids, but up to 1.5 hours per day seems unattainable for many young adolescents, who often have their own smartphones and laptops, or at least regular access to one.

    Of course, more research is needed, but that's where this study can be helpful. The ABCD study will follow the 12,000 participants for another 10 years, following up with annual check-ins. It'll be interesting to see how the findings change over time: Will depression and anxiety as a result of screen time be more prevalent as kids age? We'll have to wait and see.

    The bottom line? Parents should still be the gatekeepers of their child's screen time in terms of access and age-appropriateness, but, "our early research suggests lengthy time on screen is not likely to yield dire consequences," says Paulich.

    Children's health

    This mama shares the raw reality of newborn quadruplets

    "Most of the day, this is where you would find me―snuggled up with four little babies."

    The early days of motherhood are as raw and real as they come, and there's no doubt that mothers of multiples feel this even more intensely. Danya is a mother of quadruplets (plus an older son), and when her children were newborns, her husband was often on the road for work. This photo, which quickly went viral after Dayna shared it on her Instagram page, Hello Quadruplets, shows an authentic snapshot of what postpartum life really looks like with multiples after her babies came home from the NICU.

    Dayna reminisces, "This one really shows the rawness of how crazy and messy the first few weeks with quadruplets is. I basically lived in bed with them back then while my husband was on the road for work. I lived off a couple hours of sleep at night between them waking up and having to pump."


    Pretty incredible, right? Exhaustion didn't prevent this mama from being prepared, however.

    Dayna writes, "I had my nightstand covered with everything I needed, my pump, milk containers, their bottles, formula, their reflux medicine, pacifiers and drinks and snacks for me. I had the bed lined with Snuggle Me beds for when I needed to pump so they didn't grab the cords. Most of the day this is where you would find me, snuggled up with four little babies."

    As the old saying goes, "the days are long, but the years are short" (why is this SO accurate?), and Dayna looks back on this time fondly.

    "I actually miss those days, they went so fast. I feel like I was destined to be a quadruplet mom. Though it was tough, I have loved every minute of it."

    Life