Working mothers are often pushed to the point of exhaustion nowadays. They find it hard to fit in time just for themselves, and when they do, they may feel guilty about not doing something work- or child-related instead.
Practicing self-care, including taking the occasional day off from both work and childcare responsibilities, is vital in helping working mothers fight those worn-out feelings and see themselves as people with needs and wants beyond their careers and kids.
In addition, American culture needs to evolve to enable working mothers to discard unreasonable expectations of achieving a perfect work-home balance and ideally bring about structural social changes so that all the responsibility for working mothers' health and happiness isn't placed on individual moms.
More Time Working, More Time Raising Children
Not only are working mothers spending more time working than their counterparts in the '60s did, they're also spending more time at being mothers. According to the Pew Research Center (PRC), working mothers spent about 25 hours a week at their job in 2016, compared with nine hours in 1965. They spent 14 hours a week on child care, compared with 10 hours a week 51 years earlier.
Women face economic and societal pressures to do it all: Seventy percent of mothers with at least one child younger than 18 worked outside the home in 2015, compared with 47 percent in 1975, according to the PRC. And in 40 percent of U.S. families, mothers were the primary breadwinners.
Despite that last statistic, 77 percent of those polled by the PRC said women face a lot of pressure to be an involved parent, while only 56 percent said the same is true of men.
Working mothers are also spending less time at home with newborns. Because only 17 percent of workers are offered paid parental leave through their job, almost half of women take less than two months of maternity leave and almost one in four take less than two weeks off after giving birth.
Self-Care and Child Care
Parent educator Janet Lansbury told USA Today that working mothers need to see self-care as a necessary thing separate from child care.
"If we're feeling like we have to keep our child happy and fulfill their every desire and ride the waves of their emotions, all of those things are not going to allow us to have self-care," Lansbury said. "So my focus with parents is helping them to see their child as a whole person, so you can be in an actual relationship with them where it's not you just servicing them all the time."
Working moms need to take time out for themselves on occasion, without shame, whether it's spending a few hours in the park with a book or a day or weekend away with a bestie. They shouldn't be afraid to ask for help from family members and friends—or afraid of being perceived as not committed or caring enough—when they have hit a wall.
A Cultural Issue
Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University, studied how women balanced their work and home lives in the U.S., Germany, Italy, and Sweden. Moms in the U.S. had the most difficult time achieving some semblance of balance.
“Across the countries where I conducted interviews, one desire remained constant among mothers," Collins wrote in her book "Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving," as reported by "Psychology Today." "Women wanted to feel that they were able to combine paid employment and child-rearing in a way that seemed equitable and didn’t disadvantage them at home or at work.”
Collins reported U.S. mothers were least able to fulfill that desire because they lack cultural and institutional support. “The United States is an outlier among Western Industrialized countries for its lack of support for working mothers,” she wrote.
Working mothers dealt with more guilt and conflicts between their career and home lives than their European counterparts. “Women who are committed to their careers but take too much time away for their family are thought to violate the work devotion schema, while those who avoid or delegate their familial commitments violate the family devotion schema,” Collins wrote.
She told Psychology Today that women need to stop trying to live up to the unrealistic goal of perfectly combining work and childcare.
“I want American moms to stop blaming themselves," she said. "I want American mothers to stop thinking that somehow their conflict is their own fault and that if they tried a little harder, got a new schedule, woke up a little earlier every morning, using the right planner or the right app, that they could somehow figure out the key to managing their stress. That’s just not the case.”
A Collective Solution
Collins said American society has to collectively make it easier for working mothers to live without guilt and with a healthy helping of self-care.
“This is a structural problem," she said. "So it requires structural solutions. No individual solution is going to fix this. That’s the point I'm trying to drive home. We live in a culture where we highly value individualism, and we don't think about the collective. Ever. For sociologists, our entire job is to think through how structure impacts our daily life. This research has shown me that we need a collective, structural solution.”