Mothers in the U.S. are faced with a lack of federally-mandated maternity leave, inflexible workplaces, and worse, a feeling like they have to work harder than others to show their strength as employees.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
September 04, 2020
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When Olympic sprinter, seven-time U.S. outdoor track champion, and mom of three Alysia Montaño started her nonprofit &Mother earlier this year, she had a simple goal: make it easier for a woman to choose motherhood and a career.

She had a hard time doing it. No matter your profession—professional athlete, work-from-home consultant, teacher—many moms do.

See, when you go back to work after having a baby in this country, something strange and elusive happens: You become a "working mother."

It's a term that in and of itself says a lot about the barriers new moms in America face at work.

"The notions of what moral values are attached to parenting and working in this country are very gendered," explains Kathleen Gerson, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at New York University. "We don't talk about 'working fathers.'"

It's true.

And that's just the beginning of the story.

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A Balancing Act For Moms

Before you ever log back into work after a baby joins the family, you face big challenges head-on. You've experienced the sore lack of policy that the United States has regarding paid family leave (read: nonexistent federally-mandated, paid maternity leave).

Tried to work flexibility into your hours? You've witnessed the lack of support for moms.

Breastfeeding? While The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to provide break time for you to pump, the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law doesn't require it's paid. And sure, workplaces have to provide moms places other than a bathroom to pump, but talk to any new mom and you'll find out that pumping in bathrooms—or not being able to figure out pumping at work at all—aren't rarities.

"The U.S. has the most family-hostile public policy of any country in the western industrialized world," explains Caitlyn Collins, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.

When American mothers ramp back to work, it's usually to a full-time job—and it's within days or weeks or months of the physical demands of childbirth.

In other countries, flexibility is a legal right. Take Germany and Sweden: After having a baby, you can reduce working hours until your child is 8, says Dr. Collins. Want to ease back into it three days a week? Fine by the government.

Think, for a moment, about how different your transition back to work might be if you had these options (a federally-mandated, paid leave included). This mom is calmer just imagining it.

Not in America, though.

"The transformation to motherhood, commonly known as matrescence, is one of the most enormous changes that a woman goes through and impacts her on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level," says Sarah Oreck, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist based in Los Angeles.

Yet, despite this—despite the fact that research suggests a minimum of six months leave is ideal for both mom and baby; despite the fact that 86 percent of women (who make up more than half of the workforce in this country) will be mothers by the time they reach 44 years old; despite the fact that two-thirds of families rely on a mother's earnings—moms return to work feeling as if they have to prove themselves more than ever.

"The expectation that you come back and just act like you don't have a kid at home and you didn't wake up 15 times during the night is very real," says Dr. Collins.

Why? For one, the working world was built for men by men and, as Dr. Collins puts it, the U.S. still holds deeply internalized beliefs about who can and should be caring for kids. "As far back as we can go, we have assumed that it is primarily a woman's responsibility," she says. "If we, as a society, think that this responsibility falls primarily on women's shoulders and women also have to work outside the home, we stereotype women as categorically less committed and less capable on the job."

So you're left to give 100 percent of your attention to your kid(s) and 100 percent to your employer. The math doesn't add up, of course—and the consequences go far beyond an incorrect equation.

For one, when you hide motherhood, workers aren't able to see what it looks like to work and mother, says Montaño. "It's like we're always hiding who we are when we are moms in the workplace or we're not becoming a mom—even if we wanted to—because we didn't see it."

Furthermore, the pressure to perform combined with feelings of inadequacy, self-esteem issues, frustration, worry, cynicism adds up to significant stress and can increase the risk of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) in new moms, says Dr. Oreck.

Telling moms not to sweat it all so much isn't the answer either. After all, American women's fears—about being judged, about losing their jobs, about being seen as less able at work—are all well-founded.

The Motherhood Penalty suggests moms make 70 cents for every dollar fathers do (a drop that, sometimes, you never catch up from), while dads tend to be rewarded, generally finding their pay increase when they become fathers.

Worse, having a family and a career isn't just quick-hide-your-kids-on-the-Zoom-call, it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't game of political push-and-pull ping pong you didn't know you signed up for. "Mothers are both dealing with the pressures of proving themselves as a committed worker and the pressures of proving themselves as a responsible caretaker," explains Dr. Gerson.

The more you try to prove yourself at work, the more likely you are to have others question your mothering abilities. The more you devote time and energy to your children, the more that calls into question your commitment as a worker.

Don't become a mother? You're bombarded with questions about why you don't have kids.

Become a mother? Co-workers and supervisors tend to stereotype mothers in the workplace and research demonstrates discrimination starts the moment you announce you're pregnant.

That's all the while, as Dr. Oreck explains, that brain studies reveal that mothers who have recently given birth have new strengths, including increased empathy and social cognition, helping a mom pick up on cues and communicate more effectively.

"As a mom, you get shit done," says Montaño. "But people are not always hearing or seeing how we are getting everything done, so in turn, we are handed more work and tighter deadlines. The work we are doing might be great, but [it begs the question]: Whose back did you have to break to get the result?"

The Struggle for Paid Leave

Ultimately, it's frustrating when the conversation is centered around paid leave policies that don't exist in this country and big-picture support systems that are lacking when, every morning, you're off to work as both an employee and a parent.

To this extent, as far as solutions are concerned, experts urge parents to think bigger. "We tend to think that families are private and personal responsibility. We talk about kids like they are pets: You shouldn't have them if you can't care for them by yourself," says Dr. Collins. "But pets don't become our future taxpayers, workers, and citizens. It's in our collective best interest for kids to be raised well." (Collective, for what it's worth, includes companies, too: Paid parental leave improves worker retention, increases productivity, improves morale, and the list goes on.)

"Moms are doing a Herculean job as it is," adds Dr. Collins. "Telling women that the goal is work-family balance suggests that this is a highly-individual problem with highly-individual solutions; if you are imbalanced, just learn how to get better at juggling."

In short? It's not your fault that you're stressed and overwhelmed as a mother and a worker—and it's not your job alone to resolve said stress and overwhelm.

That's why both Dr. Gerson and Dr. Collins encourage parents to band together in the workplace—women and men alike—to find out about policies, ask about flexibility, and talk openly about being a parent; to form a collective voice on topics.

Visibility can slowly shift culture. "We fetishize work in the United States," says Dr. Collins. "But the reality is that all of us have interests and commitments outside of work that deserve time—for a lot of people, that's kids. For a lot of people, it's other things."

And with the right voices and visibility, work can be reimagined. "Work does not have to be in the structure that has allowed for single males to do work," says Montaño. "It can be totally reworked and rethought with some communication and resources allocated toward things."

And moving as a group matters. "Parents just need to know that not only are they not alone, but they are the majority," says Dr. Gerson. (Remember that two-thirds stat?) "The very reasons that people hide their dilemmas is the fear that they will be penalized for having them. But that plays into maintaining the status quo."

Of course, speaking up is something most relevant for parents in positions of power at work who are more likely to have more job security and a bit more leverage to create change, says Dr. Collins.

But remember: It's important that men participate in any change that's made. By making it clear that being a devoted father is part of their responsibility, for example, men can make it their employer's responsibility to make that possible, adds Dr. Gerson.

One thing moms can look at to facilitate this? While every family structure is different, upping dad's involvement sometimes involves letting go of the phenomenon of "maternal gatekeeping"—the sense of control or implicit ownership that many moms feel over their children and how things get done, explains Dr. Collins. Easier said than done, yes, but, as she puts it: "The only way that dads are going to have an equal knowledge base about what needs to go in the diaper bag is by having the opportunity to pack the bag and learn what happens when you don't."

Today, the pandemic has certainly reopened wounds in the way the U.S. has been treating working parents for years, revealing issues far deeper than diaper bags and uneven work expectations. It's given (more) voice to the cries for help from parents across the nation (look no further than The New York Times essay "In the COVID-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can't Have Both"). It created urgency.

And to this, Dr. Gerson offers up a silver lining: "Crises create opportunities."

After all, the issues surrounding parenting and work in this country aren't new. But having them so deeply exposed provides, perhaps, an opening. "When people can't solve their problems as individuals, the only option left is to address them collectively," says Dr. Gerson. "I certainly hope that that is one result of the crisis we're already in."

Read more of Parents.com’s special report on the mental load of parenthood here.

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