As the unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to unfold, media regularly provide us with examples of the impossible task of simultaneously working and mothering during this health crisis. Current motherhood expectations have become much more visible with this media coverage. This heightened visibility presents us with an opportunity to reconsider current standards of maternal success and create more realistic, healthier expectations for motherhood in this culture.
As a professor of Counseling, I research and teach about historical and contemporary experiences of mothers. Motherhood has never been easy. Yet, even before this pandemic, being a mother in America was harder than it was 30 years ago when I was a young mother. Life in the late 1980s and early 1990s was just simpler in so many ways. The overall cost of living was lower; so the lack of paid maternity leave in this country was less impactful. I was able to stay at home for four months with my new baby and maintain a reasonable standard of living. When I did go back to work, I was able to establish a satisfactory work-life balance because I was a young working mother before the dramatic increase in work hours that professionals in many fields have experienced. And 30 years ago, there was little technology to extend my workday; the technology at the time was a phone that plugged into the wall—and it was rare to receive a phone call at home that related to work.
When my daughter was a child, mothers both interacted with our children and taught them to entertain themselves. I felt safe letting my daughter play outside and ride her bike around the neighborhood without supervising her. No one judged mothers when they let their children watch television. Strategies for balancing work and motherhood included the use of frozen dinners, prepackaged meals, and the occasional fast food. And I could still be considered a good mom even though my work schedule meant that I had to limit my daughter’s participation in extra-curricular activities.
Motherhood norms have radically changed in the past several decades. Mothers today are expected to constantly entertain their children and find structured activities that keep them busy. Children cannot play unsupervised. And mothers are warned about the potential dangers of too much television and computer usage, resulting in the parenting mandate that screen time must be severely restricted. Not surprisingly, mothers today spend more time with their children than they did in the 1960s, a time when most mothers of young children still did not work outside the home. Current cultural expectations include meeting these extreme motherhood standards and working outside of the home, and doing it all perfectly while appearing as though their balancing act is effortless.
Another current trend is the expectation that mothers breastfeed. I had a choice about how to feed my baby. I considered the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding and chose to use formula. No one ever commented on that decision. Women today are pressured by medical professionals, family, and friends to breastfeed for at least six months; and they are encouraged to breastfeed for much longer. In Courtney Jung’s book, Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy, she reported that the number of mothers who breastfeed has grown from 24% in 1971 to 79% in 2014, in spite of contradictory studies about the benefits. Even women who adopt babies are encouraged to breastfeed. And because of the lack of paid family leave in this country, women are returning to work within weeks of giving birth or adopting; and many are pumping at work, which has its own challenges as work environments are not usually designed for nursing mothers.
Mothers today also contend with protecting their babies from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a concern that I didn’t have when I was a young mother. Of course I remember checking on my baby to make sure she was breathing. But thirty years later, I checked on my infant grandson with much more frequency and much higher anxiety. And though putting babies to sleep on their backs has helped decrease the number of infants who die from SIDS, pediatricians have acknowledged that babies don’t sleep as well on their backs. This helps explain why my daughter slept through the night when she was six weeks old; and my two and a half year old grandson—well, he still doesn’t sleep through the night all the time. So though I would say I was pretty tired those first few months of motherhood, young mothers I have interviewed recently describe a level of exhaustion that I did not experience.
Another challenge that mothers today encounter is that it is hard to find childcare. When we looked for preschools for my two-year-old grandson, we were constantly confronted with waiting lists of over a year. When we did find childcare it was very expensive, exceeding the cost of my daughter’s rent, a circumstance echoed by my research participants.
Expectations related to homemaking have increased in the last thirty years as well. Sure, when I was a young mother, Julia Child and other top chefs of the time were on television providing advice if I wanted to cook a gourmet meal. And crafting shows were available if I wanted to engage in art projects. But I felt no pressure to participate in these activities, especially since I was a working mother and my time outside of work was limited. Today these opportunities have somehow become mandates.
Furthermore, even when both parents work full-time, women still perform significantly more childcare and housework than their partners. In 1989, Arlie Hochschild called this phenomenon the “second shift” and concluded that second shift activities resulted in a stalled gender revolution. In the past several decades, fathers have engaged in more childcare and household work, but they often participate in more of the fun activities with children and less of the daily household work. Researchers have also found that even when men participate in second shift activities, women still perform the invisible labor of managing the household and childcare. And women are judged by the appearance of their homes and their children’s well-being whereas men are not.
Not only are mothers expected to meet current caregiving and homemaking ideals with little support, they are supposed to live up to the current societal definition of beauty—an ideal that emphasizes being thin and looking youthful. I regularly read in the newspaper that plastic surgeons are offering “mommy makeovers.” So even though a woman has just given life to a human being and is most likely using her body to nourish her child, she is told that her post-baby body is unacceptable and encouraged to spend significant amounts of time and money—and even undergo surgery—to meet unrealistic contemporary beauty standards.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges for mothers in America. At the onset of this crisis, childcare was eliminated as daycare centers and schools closed. Parents, often mothers, experienced an immediate shift to full-time parenting. They were also tasked with overseeing their children’s distance learning activities. And mothers, who generally provide more support for children’s emotional needs, have the added role of helping their children contend with the anxiety resulting from the far-reaching consequences of a worldwide health pandemic.
For the 72.3% of mothers with young children who work outside of the home, work-life integration has taken on new meaning, becoming less of a description about balancing work and home lives and more of an illustration of working from home and parenting simultaneously. Attempting to focus on work projects and contribute to meetings with colleagues is difficult with the distraction of children playing in the background or interrupting because they need something. Mothers are constantly switching between worker and caregiver roles, a situation not conducive to effectiveness in either role. Essential employee mothers experience the added burden of having to report to work and with severely limited childcare options. Many mothers are providing support to their older relatives as well. And women are managing this all while also dealing with the emotional impact of knowing that family and friends remain at risk from this invisible, highly contagious, and often deadly disease.
Contemporary standards of motherhood, not realistic before this crisis, are certainly not achievable under current circumstances. Thus, this crisis has once again highlighted the need to establish more realistic cultural motherhood norms. Mothers deserve a culture in which they can live by their authentic values and priorities. So even though they may have easy access to information on how to cook dishes from scratch, create homemade decor, and participate in multiple creative activities with their children, they don’t have to engage in all of these activities. Meals requiring little preparation can be healthy. Store-bought home decor can be lovely. And children benefit from learning to be more self-sufficient. In fact, as motherhood expectations increased in the past few decades, so did the rate of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. Thus current cultural norms are not benefiting mothers or their children.
This crisis presents us with the opportunity to establish a new kind of motherhood, what I would call “thriving motherhood.” This version of motherhood is defined by mothers’ authentic values and unique circumstances, not based on likes from digitally-altered social media posts. We can create a culture in which we support each other in joyful as well as in challenging motherhood experiences, instead of judging how other people parent. We especially need to support mothers in their decisions about how they are going to feed their babies. Furthermore, we need to move beyond women’s socialization to be primary caregivers and homemakers and renegotiate the second shift. Part of this restructuring involves changing our language. Fathers do not “babysit”—they parent. And we need to stop asking men to “help” around the house and instead negotiate how they can become co-participants and co-managers of the second shift.
We must to continue to advocate for family-friendly policies, including the provision of paid family leave for mothers and fathers. If we don’t provide family leave for men, we are perpetuating the myth that childcare is women’s work. And, we need to ensure accessibility to quality, affordable childcare. In fact, we can’t fully re-open the economy without providing childcare support.
It is time to recapture some of the more balanced motherhood norms from past decades and quit holding mothers to impossible standards. Accordingly, we need to stop celebrating self-sacrificing, all-consuming, superwomen ideals and redefine motherhood based on the consideration of the well-being of children and their mothers. Both mothers and children will be happier and healthier.