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Motherhood. Marriage. Career. Friendship. Self.
You can have it all.
Or so we’ve been told. It’s an ideal embedded within the American dream, the promise of all things women are brought up to believe they can achieve-- if they just work hard enough.
Of course, the pursuit of happiness for women is rife with challenges far beyond simply working hard. We must, at the same time, overcome obstacles presented by an imperfect society -- everything from systemic discrimination and sexual objectification to socioeconomic disadvantages.
Taking on those hurdles as they come doesn’t often leave time to ponder what happens after you actually get everything you aspire to have. Once you actually get your perfect partner, job, home, and life-- then what?
The reality is, having it all really is more than one person can and should handle. Yet, women carry the load anyway, because that’s the way it’s always been.
In her book, Making Motherhood Work, sociologist Caitlyn Collins claims that the work-family conflict mothers experience today is a national crisis. American women struggle to balance breadwinning with the bulk of parenting, and stress is constant.
According to The American Institute of Stress, 77% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, and 73% experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.
Collins spent over five years studying middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. Her research indicates that, of all Western industrialized countries, the United States ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies.
The contrast is stark.
In the United States, parents of newborn or newly adopted children are eligible for job-protected parental leave (aka family leave) of just 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually–and only if they work for a company with 50 or more employees.
A country like Denmark offers new parents 52 weeks of family leave, subsidized child care, and free prenatal care.
Yet Denmark is 228x smaller than the United States and makes 66x less GDP as a country - how can this be?
Even though the U.S. is the only developed country without a paid parental leave policy, parental leave is still popular among American opinions. In 2016, Pew Research polled 6,000 Americans and found that 82% of respondents said mothers should have paid leave following birth or adoption, and 69% said fathers should have the same benefit.
California Governor, Gavin Newsom, grabbed national attention when news of his plans to introduce six months of paid parental leave for all Californians went public in 2019. Progress stalled following the pandemic, but if Newsom ever delivers on his plan, it will be the most generous policy in the country.
Why A Collective, Structural Solution is Needed
Collins suggests the USA is an outlier when it comes to its shortcomings that contribute to overly stressed mothers, across several layers. These include poor social policies, lack of federal paid parental leave, the highest gender wage gap, no minimum standard for vacation and sick days, and the highest maternal and child poverty rates.
Changing jobs or attempting to become more efficient to try and reduce stress and guilt from work-family conflict are not the answer, she says. Those are “individual strategies that approach child-rearing as a private responsibility and work-family conflict as a personal problem.”
Instead, it’s the cultural ideal of motherhood that is the biggest problem that needs to be fixed -- as a collective.
Expectation of all-absorbing devotion to children as the source of a mother’s life meaning, creativity and fulfillment, puts U.S. moms in a conflicted position of having to choose between their worker devotion and devotion to children. The cultural ideal also discounts fathers as not being able to help much with properly caring for children because they lack the right nurturing skills, adding more pressure on moms.
Collins believes that policies matter and make a huge difference, but the ideal of motherhood devotion is the most persistent problem. “With women held to unrealistic standards in all four countries, the best solutions demand that we redefine motherhood, work, and family.”
Can we, as a collective, redefine the cultural ideal of motherhood? Only time will tell.