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

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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.

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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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When infectious diseases make headlines parents naturally get a little worried, and this week coronavirus is in the news constantly. The coronavirus has infected more than 600 people worldwide, though mostly in China. As of Jan. 23, Chinese authorities have reported 17 deaths from the virus so far. Only two cases have been confirmed in the U.S. and officials are monitoring 63 suspected cases.

Here's what you need to know, mama.

1. Don't panic.

According to the World Health Organization the coronavirus outbreak is not an international public health emergency.

"CDC believes the immediate risk to the U.S. public is low at this time, but the situation is evolving rapidly," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on a conference call with media on Friday. "We have our best people working on this problem," Messonnier explained, adding that we will likely see more cases in the coming days.

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2. There have been no fatalities in children.

The youngest victim of a confirmed case of novel coronavirus is 36 years old. Most of the fatal cases in China have been in people over 60 and more men than women have been impacted.

3. The family of coronaviruses is a spectrum of severity.

According to the CDC, most people will be infected with a coronavirus at some point in their lives. The common strains of coronavirus cause "moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold" while more severe strains, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) can be fatal.

The strain that is making headlines is a severe and novel coronavirus. It's new and the similarities to influenza make it difficult for experts to distinguish it from all the other respiratory illnesses floating around this time of year.

4. There is a test for it.

When public health officials suspect someone may have coronavirus they can send respiratory and serum samples to the CDC and find out if it's coronavirus or just the flu within about 24 hours.

5. There are steps to take for prevention.

To prevent the spread of the virus the U.S. State Department has issued its most severe travel advisory for the area of China (the province of Hubei, where the city of Wuhan is) most impacted by the coronavirus.

The CDC offers the following tips for protecting your family from the coronavirus (as well as other respiratory illnesses):

  • "Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds."
  • "Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands."
  • "Avoid close contact with people who are sick."
Bottom line: Don't panic, mama. The illness is likely to be in the headlines for months, but that doesn't mean we need to live in fear. We just need to be proactive and keep washing those little hands.
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We often think of the unequal gender division of unpaid labor as a personal issue, but a new report by Oxfam proves that it is a global issue—and that a handful of men are becoming incredibly wealthy while women and girls bear the burden of unpaid work and poverty.

According to Oxfam, the unpaid care work done by women and girls has an economic value of $10.8 trillion per year and benefits the global economy three times more than the entire technology industry.

"Women are supporting the market economy with cheap and free labor and they are also supporting the state by providing care that should be provided by the public sector," the report notes.

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The unpaid work of hundreds of millions of women is generating massive wealth for a couple of thousand (predominantly male) billionaires. "What is clear is that this unpaid work is fueling a sexist economic system that takes from the many and puts money in the pockets of the few," the report states.

Max Lawson is Oxfam International's Head of Inequality Policy. In an interview with Vatican News, he explained that "the foundation of unpaid work done by the poorest women generates enormous wealth for the economy," and that women do billions of hours of unpaid care work (caring for children, the sick, the elderly and cooking, cleaning) for which they see no financial reward but which creates financial rewards for billionaires.

Indeed, the report finds that globally 42% of women can't work for money because of their unpaid care responsibilities.

In the United States, women spend 37% more time doing unpaid care work than men, Oxfam America notes in a second report released in cooperation with the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

"It's an economy that is built on the backs of women and of poor women and their labour, whether it's poorly paid labour or even unpaid labour, it is a sexist economy and it's a broken economy, and you can only fix the gap between the rich and the poor if at the same time you fix the gap between women and men," Lawson explains.

According to Lawson, you can't fight economic inequality without fighting gender equality, and he says 2020 is the year to do both. Now is a great time to start, because as Motherly has previously reported, no country in the world is on track to eliminate gender inequality by 2030 (one of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by 193 United Nations member countries back in 2015) and no country will until the unpaid labor of women and girls is addressed.

"Governments around the world can, and must, build a human economy that is feminist and benefits the 99%, not only the 1%," the Oxfam report concludes.

The research suggests that paid leave, investments in childcare and the care of older adults and people with disabilities as well as utilizing technology to make working more flexible would help America close the gap.

(For more information on how you can fight for paid leave, affordable childcare and more this year check out yearofthemother.org.)

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For new mamas back to sitting behind their desks at work some six weeks (or fewer) after their babies are born, the institutionalized parental leave policy in Denmark is the stuff of daydreams: Over in that Scandinavian paradise, parents are granted 52 weeks of paid leave to divide between them.

There's no denying this is much, much better than the state of parental leave in the United States, but it isn't quite as perfect as it seems from the outside. According to Denmark's Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, women take an average 93% of leave allotted to couples. And when they do return to work, mothers' wages suffer both in comparison to men and women without children.

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The good news is that it seems the solution to this gender income gap is something we—the mothers of today, even here in America—can do something about.

A new paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research that examined Danish administration information from 1980 to 2013 found the motherhood penalty “creates a gender gap in earnings of around 20% in the long run," which is comparable to the gap in the United States.

What's more, the income discrepancy only increases for each child a family in Denmark has: If a woman has four children, her income is only $0.60 to every dollar a man makes—10 years down the road.

While this indicates paid parental leave alone may not be the panacea for the gender income gap, the researchers suggest that changing the way we think about roles in the workplaces and homes could help—at least when it comes to the next generation.

“As a possible explanation for the persistence of child penalties, we show that they are transmitted through generations, from parents to daughters (but not sons)," the researchers note, explaining that the more a daughter's mother worked while the girl was growing up, the less the daughter's income was affected when she became a mother.

“Women tend to adopt a balance of paid work and childcare that is correlated with the one they saw their mother strike when they were growing up," Henrik Kleven, a Princeton economist and the paper's lead author, tells Quartz At Work.

What this looks like in practice is splitting household responsibilities from the get-go and encouraging fathers to take more leave. (In Sweden, where fathers are penalized for not taking advantage of paternity leave, women's earning rose an average 7% for each month of leave that men took.)

According to the State of the World's Fathers' report, produced by Promundo (a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging men and boys in gender equality in partnership with Dove Men+Care) 85% of dads surveyed in the United States, the UK, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands want to take paternity leave, and yet less than 50% of fathers take as much time as their country's policy allows, and social norms, financial pressures and a lack of support from their managers are all factors.

The report also found that if fathers are able to do just under an hour of unpaid work per day, mothers can cut their unpaid labor time by the same amount.

"We need men to do our share. Fifty minutes more to relieve women of 50 minutes less would get us really close to equal," the president and CEO of Promundo, Gary Barker, told Motherly.

This may help shift us toward more income equality today—and, as the research shows, our daughters will really be able to reap the benefits.

[A version of this post was first published January 29, 2018. It has been updated.]

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Each day, licensed clinical social worker Ofra Obejas has appointments with a number of parents—with the idea that this is a designated time for them to decompress, turn their attention inward and concentrate on the counseling session. Yet, Obejas says she has noticed a disappointing trend: Many clients don't disconnect for that brief period.

"Parents have sat in therapy session with me and checked every time their phone alerted them, 'In case that's my kid calling me,'" she tells Motherly. "The smart device allows parents to never be away from the child."

Unlike in generations past, today's parents can be always "on" due to everything from high-tech baby monitors to a stream of pictures and updates sent to their phones. That's what we at Motherly have termed "continuous parenting," and the risk is it not only sets parents up for fatigue, but also sends children unhealthy messages about their own boundaries.

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The answer isn't to erase our kids from our minds every so often—because that simply isn't possible. But we can benefit from making the effort to step back from actively "parenting" every now and then.

Parents spend more time than ever with their kids

According to a recent study from The Economist, American moms now spend twice as much time with their children compared with women 50 years ago. That works out to be an average of 125 minutes per day of devoted mom-child time. (Kudos to dads, too: Since 1965, they have tripled the time spent with their kids. It's now up to an average of 59 minutes daily.)

Experts credit this to increasingly flexible work schedules and options to punch in from home. Likely also at play is the fact that the newest generation of moms and dads are embracing the duty like few before, with 99% of millennial parents reporting they truly love parenting.

We're leaning into parenting—but are we overdoing it?

It's one thing to identify first and foremost as a parent and take pride in that role. It's another thing, however, to confuse our sense of worth with our children's accomplishments, which is something former Stanford University dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims says was commonplace among the parents she encountered.

"When I ask parents why they participate in the overprotection, overdirection, hand-holding frenzy, they respond, 'So my kid can be happy and successful,'" she writes in How to Raise an Adult. "When I ask them how it feels, they respond, 'Way too stressful.'"

This constant investment in children's lives can take a toll on the parent-child relationship when the parent doesn't take time for him or herself, too. "The parents feel that they 'sacrificed' their own time for the benefit of the child, even though during much of that time there was no direct engagement with the child," Obejas says of those hours spent shuttling kids around town or waiting outside the doctor's office. "The parents' own emotional and mental cup becomes empty, and when the child asks for more attention, the parents feel like they have already given enough."

The expectation of constant contact 'is draining for the brain'

Even outside the category of helicopter parents, the expectation that we should constantly know what our children are doing is problematic. "'Always on alert' didn't start with children," says Obejas. "It started with devices and apps designed to be addictive. It overtaxes our fight or flight response and leads to toxic stress when levels of cortisol and adrenaline don't ever subside."

Compared with the days when it was the norm for kids to roam free until the streetlights came on, it's commonplace today for parents to expect regular updates of their kids' exact whereabouts either by texts or GPS tracking tools.

"While this can be a safety backup, it increases the type of hypervigilance we know is draining for the brain," says Urszula Klich, licensed clinical psychologist and president of the Southeast Biofeedback and Clinical Neuroscience Association. "[This] can also cause incredible anxiety as parents hear and read things they wouldn't normally be subject to, that is, let's face it, a normal part of kids growing up."

Roles have reversed

Not so long ago, parents would go to the store or out on a date only with the faith that everything was fine at home. Now? That's almost unthinkable—as we've instead shifted to the mentality that our children or their responsible caregivers should be able to contact us at any given moment. Despite the good intentions at play here, this comes at an expense.

"In what other job do you never get a break? It is truly exhausting to never get to turn off the parent brain," says LMHC Jasmin Terrany, author of Extraordinary Mommy: A Loving Guide to Mastering Life's Most Important Job.

Driving this is the trend toward maternal gatekeeping, which describes the subconscious desire to micromanage child care even when someone else is perfectly capable of holding down the fort. As uncomfortable as this may feel, it's healthiest for everyone when parents can hand over the reigns on occasion.

"We must have regular practices to refuel," Terrany tells Motherly. "We don't need to feel guilty about taking this time for ourselves—our kids will not only learn that self-care is essential, but when we are good, they will be good."

This is also how we let our children know another adult can attend to their needs, which is an important step in fostering their sense of independence and confidence. As Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, previously told Motherly, "Let your partner actually figure it out on their own and know that the system survives even when you are not there."

Being 'always on' can degrade quality time, too

Much of being "always on" is a two-way street: Not only do we bring our children into our work days and social lives, but we also bring other obligations home with us in the form of emails sent to our smartphones and mid-playtime breaks to check social media.

"Our children need us, the parents to be 'there,'" says Tom Kersting, licensed psychotherapist and author of Disconnected: How To Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids. "They need us to talk to them, play with them and be present with them. This is literally impossible if we are multitasking between the iPhone and our interactions with them."

As expert as we may consider ourselves at multitasking, there is also something to be said for setting boundaries. "In today's world it's become difficult not to carry that phone around you all the time, even more so when your job is tied to it," says Klich. "Set boundaries for yourself for when you will check, even if it's once an hour, and stick to that making it clear to the kids what you are doing and why."

And when we're away from the kids, remember this hack: Calls from favorite contacts can still come through when you're on do not disturb mode. So tell your partner or your babysitter or your kids to call if it's a true emergency—and then allow yourself to go off the clock. You'll be better for it.

[This post was first published June 25, 2018.]

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