Mother’s day is a good opportunity to surprise your mom with breakfast in bed, flowers, or a gift. It’s also a good opportunity to reflect on the challenges of motherhood, particularly in the United States, and consider how both individual and social change can help all mothers continue to thrive. We’ve rounded up some TSP classics, and some great scholarship on motherhood we haven’t covered, that puts contemporary motherhood in context.

Moms do More at Home

Although gender norms in the United States have changed considerably over the past half century, moms are still primarily responsible for raising children. Most moms are expected to figure out how to balance full-time work and motherhood. Moms must make it work when these responsibilities conflict, like when the covid-19 pandemic shut down public schools, leaving millions of children without daytime care. 

Although ostensibly gender norms are changing in heterosexual couples, mothers spend more time caring for children and doing housework than their male partners, even when both partners work outside of the home. The “second shift” of work that moms do at home includes the “cognitive labor” of managing and scheduling family members’ time. For instance, scheduling vacations, or doctors appointments for family members. 

Mothering Intensively and Alone

In the absence of public support for parenthood, It is particularly challenging for low-income moms to handle the responsibility of motherhood. The problem is not only that welfare support and childcare provisions are extremely limited in the United States; making matters worse, American culture tends to blame low income moms for their poverty and heavily scrutinizes the parenting decisions of poor moms put in tough positions and struggling to make ends meet for their families.

Another factor that makes parenting challenging for all moms are beliefs “ideal motherhood.”  Mothers are expected to mother “intensively,” devoting considerable time, energy, money, and emotion to their children. Although some parents wax nostalgic about their own childhoods, when they played independently with neighborhood children until the streetlights came on, or were “latch-key” kids free to play video games or watch television until their parents returned from work, they are now investing considerable amounts of time and energy in packed schedules of activities for their children and discipline through negotiation.

Diverse Moms, Different Experiences

Sociological research has also shown that “intensive mothering” and a focus on nuclear two-parent households may not accurately reflect the experiences of all mothers. For instance, Patricia Hill Collins talks about “collective mothering,” or how Black women rely on communities of caregivers and the work of “other moms” to help raise their children in a hostile society. Dawn Marie Dow also emphasizes that black motherhood is not necessarily incompatible with professional responsibilities, and black mothers have long had to balance work outside of their own home with the responsibilities of motherhood.

Sociological research also shows that for some moms, the expectations that the institutions of social life have for “good motherhood” don’t fit with their reality. They experience challenging situations that require them to, for instance, prioritize the safety of their children or make tough decisions about what expenses they can cover for their child. Some moms use “inventive mothering” to figure out how to meet their children’s basic needs for, for instance, diapers. Disabled moms and black moms are particularly vulnerable to being seen as “risky” for failing to live up to the ideals of motherhood, experiencing increased surveillance and punishment from doctors’ offices, schools, and child welfare workers. 

Black mothers, in particular, worry about the safety of their children in a world that often views black children as a threat, particularly black boys. Black mothers’ worry about their children experiencing racism can negatively impact their health. Cynthia G. Colen and colleagues found that children’s experiences of discrimination harmed black mother’s health. 

Gendered expectations of women also create challenges for women who cannot or do not want to become mothers. Women that experience infertility experience stigma, or the sense that there is something marked or discrediting about them that contributes to others’ negative perception of them. Women who are “childfree by choice” also experience stigma. 

Political and Personal Solutions?

Policy changes could ease some of the challenges mothers face. For instance, research shows that there is a smaller “happiness gap” between parents and non-parents in countries with more generous public support for raising children. Mothers also feel less guilt in countries with better social and economic support for parenthood. More generous welfare provisions could help working-class moms better meet their children’s basic needs. 

Within families, couples can work towards greater equality of responsibilities. However, studies show that most young people still expect mothers to do the majority of housework and childcare. Even when young women anticipate having more gender equality in household labor, actually implementing more egalitarian schedules proves difficult, particularly for working-class women.