It's High Time to Build a Life Raft for U.S. Moms

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According to a recent Psychology Today article, an in-depth 5 year study of work and motherhood confirms that mothers are drowning in stress, particularly in the U.S. 

This isn't exactly front page news to parents, but the article makes a point that's easy to forget when you're just trying like hell to get through your day without any major calamities:

It's not our fault it's so hard.

When researcher Dr. Caitlyn Collins shares her work with other mothers, they react a lot like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. They say "Yeah, I know" a few times. And then when it actually sinks in, they start to cry.

Because really, it's not our fault.

It's so easy to fall prey to the idea that if we were just a little bit more organized, just woke up a little bit earlier, if we were only in the right job or bought the right stuff or read the right parenting books that everything will fall into place, and it won't feel like such a struggle every day.

We sincerely believe we can beat the house if we just try hard enough and play our cards exactly right. Nevermind that all the games are stacked against us.

According to Dr. Collins, who spent 5 years studying work and motherhood in the U.S., Sweden, Germany and Italy:

“This is a structural problem. 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 showed me that we need a collective, structural solution.”

It wasn't easy for me to acknowledge my own struggles with the transition to motherhood as part of a structural problem. I have always prided myself on working hard, tackling big challenges and generally being able to handle stuff on my own. 20-something me would nod emptily at the phrase "it takes a village", but I didn't even come close to getting what that really meant.

So when I finally became a mom and realized how much I was going to need that proverbial village, it rocked my world. I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of asking for help, so I just worked harder and harder to keep up. "Blaming society" was not an option; that was just a punchline in a Monty Python bit. But I never felt like I was getting it right. It took me two kids and several years to really accept that maybe, just maybe, this problem was bigger than just me.

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Here I am "making it work" with my little buddies

My first attempt at making it work was to switch from full time work at a fast-paced tech startup to doing independent consulting. That was fun, but I missed the feeling of building something with a team, and plus that darn structural problem was still nagging at me. What did it matter if I could find a way make it work for myself if there were still millions of families out there struggling separately with the same issues?

Basically I had come to the same conclusion that Dr. Collins did in her research:

“With women held to unrealistic standards in all four countries, the best solutions demand that we redefine motherhood, work, and family.”

When I realized that the problems I was facing as a mom were really part of a much larger set of structural problems, I did a very American thing: I started a company to create better work options for mothers.

I teamed up with Sharon Kan to start Pepperlane because we saw all around us that mothers are struggling with these issues now. We felt we didn't have time to wait for the slow wheels of social progress to turn. 

But I share Dr. Collins' optimism that we can work towards broader policies and programs to help us address. Imagine what would it look like if, rather than beating ourselves up with working mom guilt, we put that precious energy toward finding solutions together?

Here are a few ideas we can try:

Idea #1: Become a part of the mom economy

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Photo: Listening to some awesome ladies drop knowledge at a Pepperlane Boost 

Turns out there are actually millions of moms out there who turn to entrepreneurship to deal with the no-win situation we often face as parents when making decisions about career and family. At Pepperlane, we provide a supportive community, online and in-person events, step-by-step training and online tools to help moms build independent businesses that fit their lives.

For me, this is very exciting and rewarding work; I have had the privilege of seeing some pretty amazing women blossom into confident business-owners with the support they get from Pepperlane. And as a full time working mom, I've been able to hire Pepperlane members to help me run my household.

(If this idea of building the mom economy appeals to you, let's stay in touch.)

Idea #2: Talk ideas instead of politics

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Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

In our polarized U.S. political climate, it has become the norm for every idea for change to be embraced by one party and vilified by the other. But we all know that there's common ground to be found. If we want to make progress on issues that cut across party lines, like better support for working families, we need to relax our partisan reflexes, gather experimental data, and evaluate ideas on their merits. We need to be willing to hear different perspectives and work together to find solutions. 

I believe this can start with our private conversations and extend to the conversations we have in the public sphere. (Try giving someone you normally don't agree with the benefit of the doubt and see what happens.) 

Idea #3: Channel the Notorious RBG

Notorious RBG Photo courtesy of HarperCollins/Dey St.

 

Experiencing first hand the structural challenges we face as mothers in the U.S. has made me sad, angry, frustrated, even desperate at times. I've wanted to cry, lash out, or just shut myself away in a closet where nobody could judge me or hurt me.

It's easy to get attention by lashing out, but it's really hard to be heard. And of course nobody hears you if you decide you're going to play it safe and keep your mouth shut.   

This is when I try to channel the patience, poise and persistence of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

“I became a lawyer when women were not wanted by the legal profession. I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.”

Like RBG, we can take the position that most of the people in our lives don't have bad intentions, but they may not understand our experiences. We can educate others about what it's like to be a working parent in the quiet, honest conversations we have with our families, friends and coworkers every day. And we can support each other in having the courage to start those conversations.

Real change takes time, patience, and empathy, but it will be so worth it. Let's get started building our life raft together so that by the time our kids become parents, it will be the size of a cruise ship. 🛳  

two cute kiddos

Photo: Two cute buddies who inspire me to build a better world for working families

If you know someone who needs to read this today, please share it. (Double bonus points if it helps you start a conversation about your experience with people you care about!)   

Header photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

Jess Petersen

Written by Jess Petersen

Jess is a mom of two, an avid runner, and a tech nerd. She's spent her career building products at Boston startups like Carbonite (NASDAQ: CARB) and Hopper from the very earliest stages into successful companies with millions of users. Sharon talked her into starting Pepperlane when she was 6 months pregnant with her second baby. What could possibly go wrong?

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