Moms get—better than anyone—that we can’t have everything running smoothly all at once. But in the U.S., where working mothers have some of the most inadequate support systems in the world, we still feel guilty when we can’t do it all.
That’s what moms do, right? We try to kick ass at work while also carving out time to make something for the bake sale, connect with girlfriends over pinot, and have sex occasionally. While we definitely have our moments where we think that we’re barely keeping the boat afloat—incredibly, we still feel pretty optimistic that somehow, some way it will all work out. Of the more than 2,000 moms in Parents’ exclusive survey, 63 percent still believe balance is achievable.
From watching the generations of working moms before us, we understand that we might not be successful in all areas of our life at once—and as much as we want it, we know it’s a struggle to get there. “I think of work-life balance as being on a tightrope, and I’m holding a pole with family on one side and my job on the other,” says Allyson Downey, of Boulder, Colorado, a mom of two young kids and founding CEO of the start-up WeeSpring.com, an advice-sharing site for new and expecting parents. “I’ll lean to one side for a while when I’m working my tail off. Then the crazy period passes, and I’ll lean to the other, spending more late-afternoon time hanging with my kids.”
That mothers manage all that we do is remarkable, given the disgraceful lack of support we have behind us. “The United States has the most family-hostile public policy of any country in the developed world,” says Caitlyn Collins, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, who has published research comparing the challenges of working motherhood here with those in Germany, Sweden, and Italy. Only a handful of states have paid family and medical leave, including California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and, most recently, New York, and research shows we’re one of only two countries in the world without paid maternity leave.
Meanwhile, the nonpartisan think tank Economic Policy Institute published a paper last year called “High Quality Child Care Is Out of Reach for Working Families,” finding that costs can easily eat up more than a fifth of the median household income. In 33 states and the District of Columbia, infant-care costs exceed the average cost of in-state public-college tuition.
Memo to working moms: You’re freaking amazing. And it’s time you got the support you deserve.
Megan Kupfer, of Weirton, West Virginia, director of acquisitions for an oil and gas negotiation firm, wakes at 4:30 a.m. to sneak in coffee and conversation with her husband before the workday starts for both of them. After he leaves, she rouses and dresses their 2-year-old son, packs a bag for him, and is in the car at 7 a.m. for the 45-minute commute to her office, where her aunt picks him up for the day. Then, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., Kupfer’s on the phone with attorneys and bigwig landowners, but she takes a short lunch break to visit her toddler down the road. And on the commute home, they sing and play, unless Kupfer needs to take a phone call, apologizing to the caller about the babble in the background. After a family dinner and time outside, there’s bath and bed—then laundry, kitchen cleanup, and maybe some banking. “I do all my household work once my son goes to sleep for the night,” says Kupfer.
Others might marvel at all Kupfer accomplishes in a day, but she shrugs it off. “I’m always either on to the next task or feeling guilty for not being able to give a particular task or person in my life adequate attention,” she says.
Kupfer has plenty of company: 97 percent of moms—whether they work or not—feel guilty (about yelling, being distracted by their phones, not serving healthier foods, and so on), Parents found. Compared with the Europeans Dr. Collins spoke with, American mothers are far more likely to blame themselves for what falls through the cracks— when they should be basking in their awesomeness. “These women are superheroes,” says Dr. Collins. “It’s amazing what they’re able to accomplish with so few resources to support them.” The lack of federal paid leave or child-care subsidies notwithstanding, she also points to our lamentable cultural mind-set, which she sums up this way: “You’re welcome to have kids, but it’s your responsibility to care for them.” And, reality: Your usually still translates to her, even for the millions of families that no longer fit the profile of homemaker mom/ breadwinner dad. In more than 60 percent of two-parent homes, both adults are working—and in almost half, both are at it full-time, according to the Pew Research Center. What’s more, in 40 percent of all households with kids younger than 18 (including those of single mothers), mom’s the breadwinner, the primary or only source of income for her family. Among married working women, 37 percent make more than their husband.
Even for those with a partner at home, at the end of the day almost two thirds of working mothers told us they take on the lion’s share of managing child-care and domestic chores—not to mention fielding more PTA asks in a month than my own mother got in a year. “Between all the requests to volunteer or sponsor a reading team or bring compost to school or enter the science fair or bring a homemade dish to a special multicultural event, I just feel constant pressure from the school to the point that I feel like I’m always letting them down,” says Manoush Zomorodi, a mom of two kids, ages 9 and 6, and host of WNYC radio’s podcast Note to Self. “The same thing at work: Let’s volunteer for Habitat for Humanity! Join the CEO for coffee and conversation! I would love to do all of these things, but, seriously, when do we have time to actually think?”
It’s challenging enough to juggle the demands of work and home, and that’s when things are going well. Many of us are living just one crisis away from seeing the house of cards we’ve carefully constructed come tumbling down. And when that happens, mom’s career is the one that typically gives way. According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of mothers have cut their hours in order to care for a child or other family member; almost as many have taken significant time off from work to do so.
Parents of young children can’t continue to go it alone. “We need an entire infrastructure to support working families as a whole,” says Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That starts with passing federal paid family leave, not just to give a life raft to American moms, who now go back to work, lugging a breast pump, way too soon after having a baby—or who have no choice but to quit their job because they can’t afford the cost of child care. Paid family leave is also a critical tool for helping to close the infamous gender wage gap: Women who get paid leave are less likely to take extended time away from their career and more likely to see greater salary increases over time.
Dads need paid leave, too, and to feel supported, not stigmatized, when they take it, especially as it benefits them, their infants, and moms. “Research shows that fathers who take leave when their babies are young are more involved around the house and with their kids as they grow up,” says Hegewisch. It makes total sense, when you consider what happens when your partner returns to work a week or less after the baby arrives, as over half of the moms we polled reported: Food shopping, laundry, and all the domestic duties you may have split down the middle pre-kids now become largely your job. And since habits die hard, they are likely to stay in your domain, sadly, even after you return to work.
In spite of the challenges of being a working parent, there are plenty of positives. For Zomorodi, the advantages far outweigh any negatives, not to mention that she appreciates being able to sip coffee in peace. “I have fun at work,” says Zomorodi. She jokes, “People are nice, and they listen.”
She’s on to something: Research shows moms who work (particularly moms who work part-time) tend to be happier than stay-at-home moms. There are advantages for kids too.
A Harvard Business School study found that daughters of working moms are more likely to be successful in the workplace and sons of working moms are more likely to contribute to chores and spend time caring for family. Whether you like your work depends on whom you’re talking to and what your employment opportunities are. In our survey, 68 percent of Asian-American and 64 percent of white moms said “I enjoy what I do,” compared with only 44 percent of Latina and 33 percent of black moms.
For whatever occasional guilt she feels, Megan Kupfer, the mom whose day begins at 4:30 a.m., says she loves that her toddler has a working mom, for multiple reasons. “He has a set schedule every day and he has the advantage of interacting with my family members who care for him while I work,” she says. Kupfer sometimes brings her son to her job in the quiet evenings to wrap up a few things and is impressed that he’s already learning to behave in certain settings. She says: “I feel that by seeing me go to work and contribute to our family in this way, he’ll learn to be a productive, goal-oriented member of society—and appreciate what his mom did.”