Modern motherhood is a major challenge and many parents are struggling to cope

Salon spoke with a dozen moms to ask what motherhood is like today. Most said balance is “impossible to achieve"

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 12, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

A shot of a group of women sitting together with their babies in the waiting room of a baby clinic (Getty Images/SolStock)
A shot of a group of women sitting together with their babies in the waiting room of a baby clinic (Getty Images/SolStock)

Someone once told me, “parenting has a PR problem in the United States.” To which I responded: does it? 

What was once misguidedly glorified as peak happiness of the female experience has turned into a dominant depiction of something quite different. Minna Dubin’s book "Mom Rage," recently examined the “hidden crisis of rage” affecting so many American mothers today while Jessica Grose’s book “Screaming on the Inside '' investigated the unsustainability of motherhood in America. These public narratives have likely contributed to viral essays, like the one by Vox writer Rachel Cohen, who wrote “it’s genuinely difficult to find mainstream portrayals of moms who are not stressed to the brink, depressed, isolated or increasingly resentful.” 

When I was pregnant two years ago, I wondered if motherhood would be as difficult as I read about in the public discourse. When I asked experts and historians if this was the worst time in American history to be a mom, I was told it wasn’t a great time, but it wasn’t the worst time. That Americans' experience of motherhood had always, and still does, depend on factors like race and class.

"I would say that the moms are not okay."

But since 2022, the path to pregnancy and choosing to become a mother has become more dangerous in the face of strict abortion laws. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. It’s nearly impossible to unanimously distill the experience of American motherhood into one narrative, especially along the backdrop of a changing reproductive access landscape. In an attempt to assess the current state of motherhood, I asked a dozen mothers from across the country point-blank: What’s it like to be an American mom in 2024?

“I would say that the moms are not okay and I find myself saying that in a variety of contexts,” Erin Erenberg, founder of Chamber of Mothers, a nonprofit that advocates for better support for moms, with local chapters in 21 states told Salon. “There are folks who are facing motherhood and having a more difficult time of it because they're up against systemic racism and poverty.”

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Erenberg, a mom of three children, used the example of it being a privilege for an American mom to have a desk job today. 

“We have mothers in our communities who are saying 'I can't go back to work when I'm still bleeding because I work on a fulfillment floor,'” Erenberg said. “[They say] ‘Here I am standing picking and packing boxes, bleeding through my jeans, my milk is seeping through my top.' There are so many different levels of privilege and pain, but the thing that is uniting all of us right now is that we're not okay.” 

Lack of federal paid support influences major life choices 

One theme I noticed in interviewing dozens of moms from different parts of the country with kids of all different ages is how a lack of federal support — from no paid parental leave to affordable child care — affects major life decisions. According to Paid Leave U.S., 25 percent of American mothers return to work two weeks after giving birth. Meanwhile, 51 percent of people in the U.S. live in a “childcare desert,” which the Center for American Progress defines as a place that has either no child care providers or so few options.

"I think it's almost impossible to be a mother in America today because we live in an economy where most of us need to have two-income households."

In 2024, there is still no U.S. federal law that provides a right to paid family leave, leaving most women to depend on their employer to take time off after having children or if their children get sick. It’s this lack of federal paid support that’s influencing where mothers work, live and how many more children they want to have, if any.

“I've stayed in roles I'd otherwise left because I had paid leave,” Amy Sterner Nelson, a mom of four, told Salon. “It's impacted my career choices.” 

Nelson was a lawyer for a decade, but left her job after her second child was born because she didn’t have a flexible work environment. “I think it's almost impossible to be a mother in America today because we live in an economy where most of us need to have two-income households,” she said. Indeed, families are paying 25% more for groceries than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. “But we live in a culture where no one recognizes what that means.” 

Nelson pivoted to start her own business, a network of coworking spaces called The Riveter, to have more flexibility. Still, her schedule is demanding. She works between 5 and 7 in the morning, gets her kids ready for school, then works more between 8:30 am and 2:30 pm. “Then I pick my kids up and I'm mostly with them after school and that is because I can't find reliable after-school childcare, right?” she said. “We live in Ohio, now 500 yards from my parents, so they can help fill in gaps, otherwise it wouldn't be doable.” 

But starting your own business to have more flexibility later in parenthood comes with a cost when it comes to having another child. Taryn Lagonigro, also an entrepreneur, said with all four of her pregnancies, she had to make a decision about how long her maternity leave would be based on their financial situation at the time. With her third daughter, she was able to take six weeks off. 

“But since I was able to work from home, I still considered myself fortunate,” she said. “My youngest daughter required open heart surgery when she was just a few months old, so I had to take an extended leave that was fully unpaid to be able to stay home for her recovery.”

Eileen Lamb, author of "All Across The Spectrum" and a mom of two children with autism, said finding someone who's able to take care of her son's needs is certainly “difficult.” But she feels lucky to work for a company, Autism Speaks, that is understanding of her needing time off to take care of her kids. She said finding an employer who is understanding and offers flexibility when it comes to parenting children with higher needs has been key.

Carley Storm, a mom of two, said that lack of affordable childcare has influenced her decision on having another kid. She was paying $1,600 a month, totaling $19,200 annually, for childcare.

“The financial burden made it necessary for me to wait until my oldest child was in kindergarten before considering having a second child,” Storm said. “This delay was driven by the need to balance the financial strain of child care expenses with providing a stable environment for my growing family.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, childcare costs for one child take up between 8 percent to 19.3 percent of median family income.

Many moms feel "time poor"

In addition to the financial strain of childcare costs or not having paid maternity leave, there is also a feeling of being “time poor” for many American mothers. Dawn Robinette, a mom of a 13-year-old in Texas, said she thinks this feeling of not having enough time to do anything is “the reality for most moms today.”

“One priority causes another priority to fall off your plate,” Robinette said. “And most of the time, everything seems like a priority, so you must be okay with something not getting done. And then of course, you feel bad that something didn’t get done.”

Erenberg said she sees this struggle a lot among local chapters of Chamber of Mothers, too, and feels it herself. She thinks it’s in part because American motherhood is getting “bigger and bigger and bigger.” 

“It comes back again to this notion that we've misunderstood having it all with doing it all,” she said. “With the first wave of feminism, having it all was about you can have a career and you can be a mother, but I think what that's evolved to is that we have to do it all.”

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Erenberg said the month of May, for Mother’s Day, is filled with tons of activities at her children’s school, which is great. But she’s left wondering how mothers are actually supposed to attend these activities. 

Brit Jones, a full-time working mom of two, said “balance” is “impossible to achieve,” in her opinion.

“My kids are 9 and 14, and there’s never a day where I feel like, ‘yes, I have succeeded across all fronts.’” she said. “Or, ‘I’m gonna high five myself, no balls were dropped today.’” 

When asked what people misunderstand about motherhood the most, answers differed. But mostly it was that the struggles for moms vary. Some mothers said lack of affordable childcare wasn’t an issue because they had a strong support system or lived in a family. Another mom told me she and her husband moved in with their parents to have built-in childcare. 

Erenberg said while all mothers’ struggles depend on a variety of factors, they are the one thing that brings mothers together right now. “The thing that is uniting all of us right now is that we're not okay,” Erenberg said.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Childcare Mental Health Motherhood Mother's Day Paid Leave Parenting