Motherhood is so much at once. It's loving looking into your child's wondering eyes, but sometimes also wishing that they could just shut them for a couple of hours. It's creating a safe, supportive home for your children while also trying to stretch a dollar that used to finance one or two lives to support three or four. It's passing out juice boxes with one hand while taking a work call with the other.
Motherhood is love in action, but it is also really, really hard. And in her new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, sociologist Caitlyn Collins suggests that for American mothers, it's more challenging than it should be.
According to Collins, it's harder to be a mom in America than in any other developed country, and "women's work-family conflict is a national crisis."
Collins came to this conclusion after studying the lives of American mothers and their counterparts in other nations and finding that America's lack of supportive public policy has created a society in which mothers who have no paid leave, no minimum standard for vacation and sick days, a high gender wage gap, a lack of affordable childcare and an unsustainable stress level.
Collin's thesis is no surprise to us. Last year Motherly's State of Motherhood Survey asked 5,700 moms if society does a good job of understanding and supporting mothers.
Nearly three quarters said no, with 49% suggesting stronger government policies around paid family leave and childcare would help, and 20% suggesting the USA should shift toward flexible work culture.
When we asked the question again as part of the second annual State of Motherhood Survey in 2019, the majority of mothers, 85%, said they do not feel supported or understood by society.
American moms are overburdened and feel unsupported, and are coming home after work to do more work, but as Collins points out, it doesn't have to be this way. She interviewed 135 middle-class working mothers in four countries: Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States, and believes that work-family conflict does not have to be inevitable for mothers.
In Berlin, for example, working mothers feel the culture is supportive of them working. Many moms there work part-time or telecommute after taking a full year of parental leave. When moms go back to work they have access to universal childcare, something that is a hot topic stateside as we gear up for the 2020 presidential race.
Policies like universal childcare and paid family leave would certainly go a long way to reducing the stress levels of American mothers, but Collins wants people to look beyond what policies the country is lacking and also consider how America's history and cultural beliefs about individualism, men and women have led us here.
Collins suggests that the sky-high stress levels American moms have can't be fixed with policy alone. She's calling for lawmakers to support families and mothers, but also for America to redefine what motherhood, work and family look like.
That is something that we at Motherly are proud to do every day.
In an interview with Psychology Today, Collins said something else that we wholeheartedly agree with. She wants American mothers to understand that they are not to blame for how hard this all is. "I want American mothers to stop thinking that somehow their conflict is their own fault, and that if they tried a little harder, got a new schedule, woke up a little earlier every morning, using the right planner or the right app, that they could somehow figure out the key to managing their stress. That's just not the case," she told Dr. Alison Escalante.
We can't fix this by working more or sleeping less. But this generation of mothers can lead the way by calling for the support we need and redefining motherhood as something that works for us. Something beautiful and complicated and fulfilling, but hopefully a lot less stressful.
[A version of this post was originally published March 14, 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most recent State of Motherhood survey results.]
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