Why Millions of Mothers Are Overwhelmed by Stress

New research suggests saving U.S. mothers should be a national priority.

Posted Mar 06, 2019

Canva, used with permission.
Mothers are caught between ideals of devotion to work and devotion to children.
Source: Canva, used with permission.

It's 2019, and American women have been in the workforce for decades, but a new report shows that their careers still get stuck on impossible ideals of work and home. As a result, they are drowning from stress that no woman can solve on her own.

Sociologist Caitlyn Collins spent five years studying parenthood in four wealthy western countries for Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, and she’s found that U.S. moms have it the worst.

“Across the countries where I conducted interviews, one desire remained constant among mothers. Women wanted to feel that they were able to combine paid employment and child-rearing in a way that seemed equitable and didn’t disadvantage them at home or at work.” (8)

Collins set out to study work-life balance, and instead discovered the prevalence of work-life conflict. Sweden leads in support of families with children: Mothers and fathers approach an equal share in child-rearing and bread-winning and parenthood, which is felt to be compatible with work. Yet, even in Sweden, an ideal of motherhood adds pressure for the women. Meanwhile, in East Berlin, with a history of universal employment of men and women, mothers express no conflict about working and have ample support in the form of policies and childcare. Even so, many women do not aspire to a “career.”

Yet, in Western Germany and Italy, with strong histories of maternalism (the belief that children are harmed when not raised by mothers), women feel a career is incompatible with child-rearing, and experience stigma if they pursue one. Part-time work is common for them. Nevertheless, there are many supports available to help with home and children in these countries that do not exist in the U.S.

Mothers in America

Collins has found that the U.S. is in last place in supporting families and children. “The United States is an outlier among Western Industrialized countries for its lack of support for working mothers,” she wrote. (199) American mothers stood out in their experience of crushing guilt and work-family conflict. American mothers attempt to solve this by changing jobs, becoming more efficient, or buying the right breast-pump. These are all “individual strategies that approach child-rearing as a private responsibility and work-family conflict as a personal problem.”

U.S. moms are caught between conflicting cultural schema—that of worker devotion and devotion to children. “Women who are committed to their careers but take too much time away for their family are thought to violate the work devotion schema, while those who avoid or delegate their familial commitments violate the family devotion schema.” (13) The cultural ideal of motherhood is an all-absorbing devotion to her children as the source of her life’s meaning, creativity, and fulfillment. Children are seen as fragile and only properly cared for by loving mothers. Fathers can’t help much, because they are thought to lack the right nurturing skills. (14)

The combination of impossible and incompatible ideals of work and home, with a lack of policy and social support for working families, has put mothers in a no-win situation. When I asked Collins about this, she explained, “I want American moms to stop blaming themselves. 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.”

When I asked her why not, she went on, “This is a structural problem. So it requires structural solutions. No individual solution is going to fix this. That’s the point I'm trying to drive home. We live in a culture where we highly value individualism, and we don't think about the collective. Ever. For sociologists, our entire job is to think through how structure impacts our daily life. This research has showed me that we need a collective, structural solution.”

I observed that the idea of overhauling the American social structure seems daunting. “If all these other wealthy Western industrialized nations have figured it out, why can’t we?" she replied. "Germany has 83 million people, and they figured out. There are a lot of smart people here, and we can figure it out."

What Would You Tell American Mothers?

“I want to tell mothers that this is not your fault. When I tell mothers this, they laugh and say, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ but I ask them to look me in the eyes. Then I say, ‘This is not your fault.’ And then women start crying. That's powerful. It is powerful how much women have internalized the idea that if they just tried harder, it wouldn't be this way. And I say, ‘No, this is not on you. You deserve better and that is brand new information for a lot of women to really hear that,” Collins shared. “My hope in the book is: Look what it is like elsewhere. It can be different and better here, too, but it's going to require finding a way around this very individualized way of understanding our lives in the U.S.; we have to think of ourselves more collectively that we do right now.”

The book ends with observations on how different policies tended to support different outcomes for mothers in each country. In the end, Collins concluded that policies matter and make a huge difference, but the ideal of motherhood devotion is the most persistent problem women face: “With women held to unrealistic standards in all four countries, the best solutions demand that we redefine motherhood, work, and family.”

Social change will take time, but there is something we can do for our stress now. The relief we feel from knowing it's not all on us only goes so far without making a change: "Drowning in Parenting Stress? Here's What to Do About It."

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References

Collins, Caitlyn. (2019) Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.