There’s no getting around the fact that having children creates all kinds of different pressures for parents. However, it seems that mothers feel the stresses of childrearing much more acutely. And nowhere does that ring more true than in the United States, where moms are reportedly “drowning” under the weight of their various responsibilities.
No matter where you come from, motherhood can be one of life’s most stressful experiences. From the moment many women become a mom, the new challenges that come with a rearing children can be quite overwhelming. And as their kids grow up, there’s a whole host of other things to worry about.
For mothers of newborn babies, stresses can be found in a real lack of sleep. They may then find that their exhausted state is exacerbated by a little being whose seemingly non-stop crying demands their undivided attention. And what’s more, being responsible for a tiny life can leave women feeling resentful, having lost a sense of their own identity.
Add to that the external pressure some new moms feel to get back into shape after giving birth, and the situation becomes even more taxing. And that’s without taking into account the seismic changes having a baby can make to your home, social life, and relationship. But while some of these issues get easier with time, it’s likely that they’re simply swapped for new stresses that come as your baby grows up.
Take, for instance, the worry that a mom may feel when dropping off her precious child at kindergarten for the very first time. And starting regular daycare and school is just the start of a youngster’s social development. Before long, they’ll likely have more engagements to attend than both their parents combined.
As kids grow more independent, many moms feel like they’re simply a personal chauffeur service for their offspring. In fact, according to a 2014 study by tire company Goodyear, parents clock up 26,741 miles ferrying their kids around by the time they’re 20. So as well as caring for their children, busy moms have to find the time to also taxi them around.
But as kids get older, one of the biggest causes of stress for parents has got to be money. Financial worries go hand-in-hand with raising children for many families, which isn’t surprising when you learn that the average price of rearing a kid in the United States is around $233,610. And that’s without taking the cost of college into account.
But while all these factors undoubtedly add to the stress of child rearing, parents may take some comfort in the fact they are practically universal. Because no matter where you live in the world, there will be families who are worried about money, moms and dads rushed off their feet and overwhelmed new parents struggling to adjust. With that in mind, you’d think that all parents would experience the same level of stress. But that’s simply not the case.
Caitlyn Collins is an Assistant Sociology Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. She has a PhD in sociology from The University of Texas and a BA from Whitman College. Her area of expertise is social inequality, and she is particularly interested in gender inequality within the workplace and the home.
With that in mind, Collins decided to investigate the work-life balance that so many mothers strive for and how women in different countries across the western world seek to achieve this. And it’s fair to say that her findings were shocking, particularly in what they revealed about American moms.
Collins interviewed 135 working mothers in Germany, Italy, Sweden and the U.S. She picked those countries because of their distinct differences in parental policy. And it was Collins’ aim to explore how these unique approaches affected the lives of the middle class moms taking part in her study.
Each nation’s policies, according to Collins, reflected different ideals in employment, gender and motherhood. As a result, they had varying impacts on the women in her study. However she found that the stress moms felt when it came to balancing employment with the majority of the parental work was universal.
Going into the study, Collins was aware that the U.S. was ranked bottom in the industrialized Western world when it came to policies that support work-family balance. This is evident in the country’s lack of paid parental leave and the fact that it has the worst gender pay gap. American workers also have no guaranteed sick or vacation days, and the country has the highest rates of poverty among mothers and children.
With that in mind, Collins thought that perhaps the U.S. could learn something from the European nations in her study. But what exactly did she discover about the work-life balance of moms in Germany, Italy and Sweden? Well, for a start, she found that each of the mothers she spoke to had a unique set of worries.
Collins found that the moms she spoke to in Sweden felt the most supported in her study. The country is well known for its progressive parental policies, which include one of the most generous parental leave models in the world. That’s because Swedish moms and dads receive 480 leave days per child. Furthermore, this can be divided up between parents as they see fit.
Furthermore, Swedish parents receive 80 percent of their usual salary for the first 390 days of their leave. After that, they are transferred to a flat rate. Moreover, if they decided not to take all of the time off they’re entitled to just after their baby is born, they can take it at any time until their child reaches eight years of age.
With policies like this, it’s little wonder that Sweden scores in the top two countries for parental leave in the world. Nor is it surprising that the Swedish mothers Collins spoke to expected to have their work-life decisions supported by their bosses, partners and government. However, they still felt pressure to be “perfect” moms.
In Germany, Collins discovered a difference in attitudes between the East and West, which was surely a hangover from the time that the so-called iron curtain separated the country into two. In the East, which sat on the communist side of the old divide, Collins found that the tradition of mandatory employment in the former Soviet Bloc meant that women felt empowered to work, but many of them cut their hours or lowered their ambitions after having children.
In both West Germany and Italy, Collins found strong maternal values. These were so ingrained that some people believed children not raised by their moms could be damaged. As a result, many women felt that working was incompatible with motherhood, and therefore felt stigma for pursuing a career. With that in mind, part-time work was a popular option among West German and Italian moms.
However, despite the burden that moms across Germany, Italy and Sweden feel, they at least had some support from their respective governments in the form of policy. This was not the case, however, for American mothers. As a result, they were found to be the most worried and guilt-ridden moms in Collins’ study. In fact, as Collins put it, they were “drowning in stress.”
Collins documented her findings in her book Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, which was released in February 2019. And in it she concluded that all the women in her study were seeking a perfect work-life balance. But this wasn’t always possible to achieve.
In her book, Collins wrote, “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.”
However, Collins did concede that American mothers appeared to have it worse off when it came to achieving that desired work-life balance. She wrote, “The United States is an outlier among Western Industrialized countries for its lack of support for working mothers.” And she added that this manifested itself in feelings of inner conflict and guilt.
In an attempt to achieve a better work-life balance, Collins found that many American mothers try to change jobs. They may also attempt to become more efficient and may use a breastpump to facilitate feeding their babies when they’re not around. These measures, Collins wrote, were “individual strategies that approach child-rearing as a private responsibility and work-family conflict as a personal problem.”
According to Collins, it was particularly hard for American mothers to find the perfect balance between their children and their work. “Women who are committed to their careers but take too much time away for their family are thought to violate the work devotion schema,” she wrote, “while those who avoid or delegate their familial commitments violate the family devotion schema.”
Across the board, Collins found that an idealistic motherhood meant an all-encompassing devotion to her offspring. They in turn are thought of as her sole purpose for existing and the source of her fulfilment and creativity. Children, on the other hand, were seen as delicate and in need of a loving mom. According to the ideal, fathers simply cannot compare, as they just do not have the same skills in nurturing.
However, while all countries were found to have unrealistic expectations of mothers, with their country’s lack of parental policy, American mothers were in a particularly impossible situation. And what’s worse, they felt responsible for the difficult circumstances they found themselves in, much to Collins’ horror.
Speaking to Psychology Today in March 2019, Collins said, “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.”
Explaining why she felt that way, Collins added, “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.”
The collective solution Collins spoke about could, in part, come from a change in U.S. parental policy. However, according to the sociologist, that wouldn’t go far enough. What is required, according to Collins’ website, is “a deeper understanding of cultural beliefs about gender equality, employment, and motherhood.”
However, if that sounds like too much of a daunting task to the average American, it shouldn’t do. “If all these other wealthy Western industrialized nations have figured it out, why can’t we?” Collins asked Psychology Today. “Germany has 83 million people, and they figured out. There are a lot of smart people here and we can figure it out.”
Until things have changed though, Collins wanted American moms to understand they are not to blame for their situation. “I want to tell mothers that this is not your fault,” she told Psychology Today. “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.”
Commenting on the visceral reaction her words of encouragement got from American moms, Collins told Psychology Today, “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.”
With that in mind, Collins expressed her wish that her study would allow American moms to dare to dream. “My hope in the book is: Look what it is like elsewhere, it can be different and better here, too,” she told Psychology Today. “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.”
Soon after the interview with Collins appeared on the Psychology Today website, it went viral. And even Alison Escalante, the pediatrician and parenting advocate who wrote the article, found Collins’ words had resonated with her experience of motherhood. “By the end of our talk, I was tearing up as she talked. Suddenly I was a vulnerable mother being told it wasn’t my fault after all,” she wrote on her website.
And she wasn’t the only American mother who found herself relating to the findings of Collins’ study. On her website, Escalante revealed some of the comments her article had received since going live. And many of them were incredibly moving and gave an invaluable insight into what motherhood really looks like in the U.S.
According to Escalante’s website, one mom wrote, “Hitting a little close to home here. This has been a constant struggle, trying to balance it all and feeling like I am failing. Having a kid home sick for example… If I stay home with the sick child, I am not fulfilling obligations at work, but if I go to work while someone else (probably dad) stays home I am a bad mom.”
Meanwhile another commenter wrote, “Love this! Moms these days have WAY too much on their plates, and it’s just not right. We are overworked, and were not designed to bear such a heavy load. Corporate America has turned women into robots, causing us to feel like we have to choose between our family and work… It has begun a vicious cycle of stress and has broken down the family unit.”
However, while the findings of Collins’ study did cause some moms to despair, one commenter refused to be ground down. “It sucks! It’s a double edged sword. So this is what you do,” she wrote. “Look in the mirror and tell yourself you are awesome! Then tell yourself that it IS OK TO ASK FOR HELP. It took me YEARS to figure it out.”
Revealing her own struggle, the commenter added, “Believe me, I’m so bummed (anxiety, depression) lately that I can’t move. I don’t have a smile. I lost myself. And all of my best friends don’t have kids. So they NEVER understand how hard it is. If you need a break message me and you can come over for coffee, wine, whatever. Remember, POWER IN NUMBERS!”