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The American Dream is a Nightmare for Moms

Be warned: A dreamy Mother’s Day brunch in bed won’t cut it this year for the women who have almost single-handedly carried this country through a national pandemic. Mothers are nearly broken after more than a year of working without the carework infrastructure (e.g., place-based schooling and childcare) we have relied on to work.

Ultimately, without care infrastructure in place, mothers cannot access the American Dream, with a key aspect being financial independence. Ironically, the American Dream, which is supposed to ignore the station of one’s birth, does not extend to women who give birth (or adopt).

We are damn exhausted because we have to fight and pay for the supports that nearly every other industrialized nation in the world knows women need if they are going to participate in waged labor. It’s easy to say Covid has caused nearly 2 million women to leave waged work, but it’s really just the final straw.

Over the past few years, I’ve been interviewing mothers around the U.S., gleaning stories of what mothers have to do to stay afloat, financially and personally. I’ve met women who never see their spouses due to flipped work schedules that shave off a few hours of childcare; women who work two or even three jobs and still can’t afford gas to take their child to a birthday party; women who return to work days after giving birth because, while their infant is in the NICU, they don’t use up their vacation days before the baby comes home; women for whom childcare is so expensive that they have no choice but to “opt out” of their jobs; women who would love to have a second child, but must wait until the first is in kindergarten so they don’t have to pay for two kids in childcare. These are the daily nightmares that leave US mothers beyond exhausted.

Covid is not the sole culprit. Ask most moms if they want life to go back to “normal,” and you’ll hear a resounding NO. The pandemic we’ve all experienced has been horrendous, but life before Covid was just as unsustainable for moms. The primary reasons are not imaginary peas under the bed of a princess, but impossible demands without any support.

First, the U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee paid leave after childbirth. Only 15% of women have access to paid leave via their employer.

Second, quality childcare is not only incredibly expensive (outpacing housing in many parts of the U.S.), but is often hard to access due to waiting lists and commuting issues.

Third, mothers who find childcare and manage to participate in waged work face a 50% wage gap that childfree women don’t experience. The disparity is even greater for mothers of color. Meanwhile, men experience a fatherhood bonus in their careers (often 5–10%).

Fourth, 40% of U.S. households are led by a single parent — nearly all of them mothers. Less than half of mothers receive their legally mandated child-support, and nearly 30% get nothing at all, which is one of many factors leading to a sobering statistic: 60% of homeless women are mothers with kids under age 18.

We need to upend inequalities around temporal demands, gendered beliefs about carework, and financial parity. This will be hard.

Notions of rugged individualism, distrust of government, and ardent beliefs about the benefits of capitalism play outsized roles in preventing forward movement. Public sentiment about struggling mothers is laid bare via the many online comments that outright say a woman should not expect help in childrearing because she chose to have kids.

This argument ignores the fact that life circumstances can change due to illness, divorce or giving birth to a child with special needs. It also ignores the hard truth that mothers are raising tomorrow’s workers and citizens, a national and community trust. Leaving overworked, under-supported mothers to do nearly all the heavy lifting is unsustainable for them and their kids. It’s also terrible national planning.

What’s most unsettling is that dismissing critical support for mothers in an economy where one if not two or three jobs are needed to meet basic needs is essentially saying that having kids is a right only the wealthy should have access to– an idea that will get thornier with an increasingly shrinking middle-class.

Indeed, while numerous prognosticators foretold of a baby boom after many countries went into lock-down, the boom has become a bust. Covid-19 alone isn’t to blame. For years I’ve been hearing young women express extreme angst about how to manage housing costs, student loans, and a baby (let alone babies). Many of the 600 women who responded to an online survey I offered said childcare was a major factor in not having a second (or sometimes third) child. Covid-related economic insecurity is real, but it has only loosened the weave of an already shaky safety net for most mothers.

The thing with meritocracies is that we’re all supposed to have an equal chance, but women who “play by the rules” of the American Dream, i.e., going to college, marrying well, working hard enough to secure career success, often find that achieving this trifecta takes them well into their 30s or even 40s, at which point women can experience rapid decreases in fertility.

While Covid-19 has been ghastly, when it comes to the daily labor of mothering, it has only shone a light on problems that are baked into our country’s beliefs about capitalism, meritocracy, gender, and personal responsibility. Biden’s recent efforts to shore up care work support are only a start. Without public support, future initiatives are bound to fail.

If we want women to have babies, women need to know they have a fair chance to thrive. Common sense childcare infrastructure is and always will be a critical necessity to survive as a parent. Mothers also need paid leave, laws that ensure non-traditional (including part-time) and feminized labor are equitably reimbursed and supported throughout a woman’s life, racial equity in maternal health, more protected means of acquiring child support from the father of their child(ren), and revamped cultural norms around paternal involvement and intensive mothering.

Mothers want fair access to the American Dream, and we need folks to wake up to the fact that we’re not there yet.

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“If we want women to have babies, women need to know they have a fair chance to thrive.”