This week I posted a quote I came across to my company Dear Sunday’s Instagram account: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.”
From the hundreds of likes and shares that it got, I know it resonated. As a “working mom” (I’ve never liked that term; all moms work) the sentiment does ring true. In a country such as the U.S.—one of only a few in the world with no national paid leave for new parents—it’s only natural to feel that if you choose motherhood and a career, the odds are stacked against you.
They arguably are. Look no further than “the motherhood penalty” (a sociological term that finds moms make 70 cents for every dollar paid to dads), discrimination of pregnant people and mothers in the workplace, and a rigid system that doesn’t accommodate for the needs of families (with a lack of paid leave being just one example) and you’ll quickly realize you’re not alone in feeling… overwhelmed. Some 70 percent of women in the American workforce have a child under the age of 18.
But even (especially) in 2020, there are few accommodations for working parents, mothers in particular. In September alone, the Labor Department reported that women left the workforce at four times the rate that men did (with an alarming total of 865,000 females being forced out). The childcare crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it fell disproportionately on the backs of moms (for what it’s worth, the child care industry as a whole also received less federal funding from the CARES Act than Delta Airlines alone did).
And one in four women who reported unemployment over the pandemic? It was because of a lack of child care (double the rate of men).
In short, in the current climate, working moms are being forced to leave their jobs to watch their kids or work at unthinkable hours in strange, hybrid work-from-home-while-teaching-on-Zoom settings while trying to make ends meet. It’s shattering the working mom world as we know it, staggeringly altering the American workforce in more than unfair ways that experts argue will set women back decades.
But if this is your day-to-day, you don’t need statistics to know how real it is. You feel it every day. You feel it when you stress about being out of work, when you work unusual hours, when you’re stretched thin trying to be two things—or everything—at once, serving (too) many masters.
It’s important to remember that issues related to working and mothering are systemic. They’re cultural. They’re universal. They’re big-picture. And that means that in order to see true, lasting changes we must also see larger, societal big-picture policy shifts.
In the meantime, as a journalist, a health coach, and a mom, here are some of my takeaways to keep in mind when the days feel impossible.
Oher people are going through what you’re going through—and not only can knowing that and talking about that be cathartic, it can also be powerful. While change can start with one person, groups of people can help change gain traction.
Whether in the workplace, in your mom group, or among your friends, talk about the issues you’re facing and brainstorm ways to present them to change-makers in your life (your boss, a local senator) in numbers.
Get others on board.
It’s easy to feel dismayed, exhausted, and outraged by the burden that you are facing. But others—especially men and fathers, particularly in the workplace—play an important role in the puzzle, too.
The more all parents can ask questions about paternity or maternity leave, expose parenthood in the workplace, and normalize conversations about flexible work schedules, for example, the better. If you’re in a position of power at work, which not everyone is, be open to these conversations and push for change.
At home? Perinatal therapists and professionals often point to a phenomenon called “maternal gatekeeping”—when a mom, in some ways, “controls” or limits a partner’s interactions (you always pack the diaper bag, for example, because you want it packed your way).
Even if it’s unintentional, not allowing others to be fully involved (and, say, pack the diaper bag), can wind up backfiring, leaving you with more work. To free yourself up from some of the unwanted, oh-so-overwhelming mental load, try to let go—even a little bit. Let a partner make the baby breakfast in their own way every now and then. This will help them be better able to help in the future.
Accept a “good enough” mentality.
We can’t be perfect mothers—nor should we strive to be. In the 1950s, pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the term “good enough” mother. Babies are born into an imperfect world, he said. As they grow, they need to learn to self-soothe, adapt, and be comfortable in their skin to thrive. In part, that’s done via “good enough” mothering. Sometimes, “good enough” can feel like you’re not doing enough.
Meeting your child’s needs and loving them is important. It helps them feel secure and confident. But loving yourself (and taking time for the things you love; the things that help you feel like you—the ‘you’ you’ve always been, the ‘you’ you’re still discovering, the ‘you’ your baby loves) is important, too. And finding (even small!) ways to be ‘you’ and put yourself first is one step on the path to “good enough” mothering. An important reminder: Often, this involves asking for help—whether from a partner, loved one, trusted friend, or paid help.
Know the resources available to you.
It’s true: The United States has no federal paid maternity leave. But there could be options available to you that you’re not aware of, such as The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides certain employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year. It’s not ideal, but it exists. Nine states in the country also offer paid family leave. There could also be local resources around childcare that you might not be aware of. In short: Do research, ask questions, present issues, and offer solutions. The more we learn and talk, the more we can problem-solve.