From the cost of care to the lack of paid parental leave, the U.S. is an especially challenging place to raise a child. American moms, in particular, have been left to figure it all out on their own for decades. This harsh reality is one that journalist and New York Times opinion writer Jessica Grose says she’s been thinking about since she became a mom a decade ago and a difficult pregnancy unexpectedly “imploded” her life.
“We’ve known for a long time that the United States just makes it so much harder for parents than it needs to be because of the lack of structural support,” she notes, adding that the issue was only exacerbated by the pandemic. In 2020, American moms, under “stress and strain,” felt deeply abandoned, says Grose. “Moms realized that the pressures they feel and all the things that we are expected to do are just not reasonable for any one human being.”
While researching her new book, “Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood,” Grose found that mothers have felt this way for “hundreds of years.” Yet, faced with the threat of being deemed a horrible parent and becoming the target of tidal waves of vitriol, they’ve struggled to share their reality. And after interviewing moms for her book, Grose noticed that the most common emotions they expressed was guilt. “Either there is actual pushback or you worry there will be pushback if you’re honest about not loving every second of motherhood,” she explains.
Here, several ways Grose recommends moms let go of guilt, push back against society’s unrealistic expectations and take time for themselves.
1. Recognize that feelings shift and change
Moms have often felt like they can’t be honest about how they truly feel. “We’re all gonna feel all sorts of ways about our kids and our lives,” says Grose.
She found that guilt around not being over-the-moon about every minute of motherhood was “particularly acute for moms who had gone a great length to have a baby, perhaps due to fertility troubles, suffered pregnancy losses and/or pouring so much of their time, energy, and assets into IVF.
“There was this idea, like, ‘I wanted this so badly, I worked so hard for this, and I finally got it. I am not allowed to feel anything negative,’” says Grose. While her heart broke for moms in this position, that line of thinking is “just not realistic,” she says.
No matter your road to parenthood, the best way to address feelings like this is to acknowledge them, and then, remember that no emotion is permanent. You can say “This is how I feel now, and I’ll feel some other type of way in an hour or tomorrow,” suggests Grose.
2. Lean on someone who’ll hold space for you
Find someone in your life — whether that’s another parent, your partner, your sister, a friend — who you can be real with and vent to. It’s a tip Grose says she picked up from a parent coach she recently did an interview with. “They don’t even have to be another mom,” she notes. “They can just be a friend who really gives you space.”
Whether you need to say, “Forget those kids!” or admit that you’re having a hard time today, ideally this person will be able to be with you in the moment and hear you without judgment, says Grose. It can be huge to “have someone who can receive your feelings and honor them with you.”
3. Ask for help (no really)
Grose admits that since her daughters are now 6 and 10, it’s easier for her to take a break than it was when they were really little. But no matter how old your kids are, it’s crucial to accept that it’s OK to ask for help.
“You have to not feel guilty about asking for help — wherever you can find the help — especially if you are really tired,” she notes, recalling an instance, when her daughters were 1 and 4, that she had no choice but to do exactly that.
“I’m so blessed that my parents live a 45-minute drive away, and there was one time where I was just like, ‘You need to come here because my husband and I are so tired. You need to watch these children for two hours, so we can just sleep,’” remembers Grose.
She continues, “I think we feel like we’re burdening people with our children. [We tell ourselves,] ‘It’s not their job.’ I think trying to get away from that framing is really helpful. And often, I’ve seen my friends and family members be delighted to spend an hour or two with my kids. It’s not the hugest ask in the world for a few hours, right? And it’s so fun for everybody involved. And it’s so important for kids to have trusted adults in their lives who are not their parents.”
4. Find moments that are your own
Fitting in self-care can feel impossible, acknowledges Grose. “You may not have people nearby who you feel comfortable asking to watch your kids, and child care is so expensive, and that’s on top of the money that it costs to do whatever you want to go do,” she says. But there might still be a way for you to find what she calls “moments that are your own.”
“One of the columns that I wrote during the pandemic that people talked about the most [and said] was helpful to them was called, ‘Crying in Your Car Counts as Self-Care,’” recalls the author. “The idea is that we cannot pretend that we have space or time or ability to do things that we don’t have time to do. But when deeply thinking about your day, [think] about moments that you can snatch for yourself and do something that is solely for you.”
For Grose, before the pandemic, that was a 20-minute walk between her kids’ school and the subway, during which she’d listen to a podcast, silence her phone and maybe buy herself a nice coffee. Although that might sound “pathetic,” notes the mom of two, she really savored that simple experience.
5. Take non-essentials off your list — and say “no” upfront
On a day you’re feeling especially overwhelmed, Grose recommends looking at your to-do list and asking yourself, “Which of these things are not essential? Do I really have to do this?” and see if there is anything at all you can take off your plate — something you absolutely don’t have to do that day. “There might not be anything, but often there is.”
It’s also worth acknowledging that one of the non-essentials may be something that you’re insistent on strong-arming into your schedule because you’re afraid of letting someone down. “I personally have a horror of ever disappointing anybody, so I will say yes to things that either I don’t want to do, or I really actually can’t do,” admits Grose.
For that reason, her 2023 resolution is to say “no” more upfront. “It’s actually better to say no upfront than to disappoint people,” she says. “People are less angry if you say ‘no’ upfront, rather than saying ‘no’ last minute because you overestimated your ability to do it.”
6. Lead with vulnerability
Whether you’re asking your partner to wrap their head around the mental load you’ve been carrying, to pitch in more or hitting up a friend or loved one for more support, Grose encourages moms to wear their hearts on their sleeves a bit more.
“Always lead with vulnerability,” she encourages. “[Be] super honest about how you’re struggling, and [avoid] coming from a place of blame.”
Sure, that may be especially challenging with your spouse, she says. “You just want to be like, ‘Step up, man — get it together,’ but they don’t know how you’re really feeling unless you tell them,” notes Grose.
You can say you’re having trouble for X, Y and Z reasons, remind them that you love them and say, “I really need your help.” She acknowledges that either you or your partner might initially default to defensiveness. “But once you get past that, it’s likely you’ll find that if they have it in their tank to help you, they’re usually happy to do so,” says Grose. “People want to feel like they’re helping other people and are compassionate to the people that they love in their lives.”
And again, remember you’re anything but “a burden” or “asking for too much.” As Grose notes, “The people who love you in your life want to see you thriving and happy. They want to help you.”
The bottom-line: There’s a case to be made for cultivating more self-acceptance, says Grose. “No one can prevent themselves from having a negative feeling — no human, no mother — and that’s life,” she points out. “What you can do is not beat yourself up. You have to just acknowledge that that is a normal part of the whole experience.”