Without the Public Infrastructure Needed to Support Families, Moms Will Continue to Feel Like Failures

Motherhood is hard—but it doesn’t have to be lonely. Yet moms’ mental health remains a public health epidemic.

(Ben Bloom / Getty Images)

Before I became a parent, I thought I’d be the kind of mom to tell my kids that I didn’t need anything for Mother’s Day. I’d get weepy over macaroni necklaces, and tell my babies, “Making me a mom was the best gift you could ever give me.”

These days, I still get choked up over preschool art. But the truth is, this Mother’s Day, I need something more than the gift of motherhood. All moms do.

To be clear: I love being a mom to my two sweet boys. I see motherhood as one of the most meaningful facets of my life. In fact, I founded an organization dedicated to putting Moms First, in a country that always seems to put them last.

But motherhood doesn’t always feel like a gift. It can be messy and maddening and, far too often, isolating. And when we minimize those challenges, or try to go at it alone, we only make the experience even lonelier— both for other mothers and for ourselves.

Let’s call it what it is: Moms are in a mental health crisis. Even before COVID, one study found that more than 90 percent of moms reported feeling lonely after having kids, over one-third said they cried regularly, and more than half suffered from anxiety. After the pandemic hit, fully half of American moms with young kids reported feeling “serious loneliness”; the same number noted a marked mental health decline since the pandemic’s onset.

Though the World Health Organization ended the COVID emergency, moms’ mental health remains a public health epidemic. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, has been sounding the alarm about increasing rates of loneliness and isolation—and health implications for all Americans. Social disconnection, the surgeon general warns, can be as bad for our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In other words, loneliness is literally killing us.

We need the public and private sector to do their jobs—to support parents’ well-being so we can support our families and ourselves.

For many moms who once found community in their coworkers, isolation is the new norm. During COVID, millions of women were forced from their careers, largely to care for kids at home. In 2020, moms were three times more likely than dads to lose their jobs.

Now, women have returned to work at pre-pandemic rates—driving the recovery and earning more money—and yet, we’re still the ones picking up slack at home. It’s no wonder that, more than three years after the pandemic’s onset, women continue to be more burnt out than men.

And the way we work—sending off emails while packing lunches, trying to focus on Zoom when a sick kid is in the next room—can be stressful and isolating, too. Let’s be clear: The options for remote and flexible work are critical for moms if we want to succeed (or even survive) in the modern workplace. But without companies orienting their culture around flexible work, and creating other opportunities for connection besides bros congregating around the office water coolers, working from home can give moms a lot of FOMO—not to mention, stunt our professional progress thanks to a stubborn “Zoom ceiling.”

To combat this loneliness, all moms—especially single moms—are given the same, tired advice: Work on yourself. We’re told to go on “errand dates” to the grocery store, make a profile on Bumble BFFscream at the top of our lungs and then “smile at every mum we meet” (because that’s exactly what women need: to be told to smile more). We turn to virtual community on Instagram and TikTok, only to feel like a bad parent compared to every person on our feed. In reality, these individualized solutions don’t work, but instead make us feel even worse.

The way we work—sending off emails while packing lunches, trying to focus on Zoom when a sick kid is in the next room—can be stressful and isolating, too.

It’s a shame cycle we know all too well: We are made to feel inadequate, we mask our insecurities by feigning perfection and pretending we have it all—We’re not lonely! We don’t need help!—and then we burn out and feel inadequate all over again.

So if the constant stress of motherhood makes us lonelier, and combatting that loneliness on our own doesn’t work, what’s left to do?

We can stop trying to fix ourselves, and start tearing down the system that got us here.

Part of that is changing the culture and conversation around motherhood. More moms—including high-profile parents—are refusing to perpetuate the “perfect mom” persona, and are bonding over parenthood’s challenges instead. And Americans are getting more comfortable speaking about their mental health in general—with their doctors, their coworkers and in the case of leaders like Jacinda Ardern, their constituents.

But openly talking about these topics is only the beginning. Researchers have found that without the public infrastructure needed to support families, moms will continue to feel like failures when, in fact, we’re just subject to systemic neglect.

To address the loneliness epidemic in this country, we need better mental healthcare—and to get it, we need our healthcare system to actually work. We also need more providers to meet increasing demand and ensure accessible, affordable care for anyone who seeks it.

For parents in particular, we need the public and private sector to do their jobs—to support our well-being so we can support our families and ourselves. That means quality childcare for every family, so working moms don’t burn out from the ‘double shift’ of care and career. It means paid family leave, and men taking advantage of it—to improve their partner’s postpartum health and to minimize the motherhood penalty. It means laws that protect us from guns and violence, allowing us to sleep through the night knowing our families are safe—and laws that protect our reproductive rights, so we can choose whether or not we become mothers in the first place.

As we celebrate moms, this week and always, we should make them a more supportive, less isolating society. That’s how we can all, finally, appreciate motherhood for the gift it should be. 

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Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology while teaching girls confidence and bravery through coding, and the founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms movement.