Is this the worst time in American history to be a mom?

Earlier this year, while attending one of my first prenatal appointments, my doctor explained to me how pregnancy care had changed during the pandemic. Under the new care plan, my husband would not be able to attend most of my prenatal appointments; in fact, many would be virtual. I could have two support people during labor and delivery, no visitors (although that may change soon). I was given this spiel in a cold, dark office, as news notifications popped up on my phone: another depressing report on climate change, an investigation into how parents have never been so stressed as they are today.

At the grocery store, older women ask me where I am. Is this your first? “Motherhood is just the best,” I am assured. “You’re going to love this.” And I want to answer: Have you read anything about parenthood lately?

The following months, my pregnancy would take place in an even more disturbing context. A war was ravaging Ukraine, raising fears of a nuclear war. A shortage of infant formula emerged, and then the US Senate refused to pass the PUMP ACT that would have given 9 million working women breastfeeding protections at work. Surprise, I’m having a girl! — but, oh no, she will now grow up in a country with no guaranteed reproductive rights.

At night, before I go to sleep, I scroll through the parenting forums on Reddit to see what new parents are saying about what it’s like to have a child right now. Many messages have depressing titles: “Stressed”, “I got lost” or “Logistically, how can I get back to work? »

Early in my pregnancy, a friend warned me to prepare for a chorus of voices emphasizing all the worst parts of being a mom: the sleepless nights, how my world will completely change, how difficult it is of being a working mother and the unaffordability of child care. However, at the grocery store, older women ask me where I am. Is this your first? “Motherhood is just the best,” I am assured. “You’re going to love this.” And I want to answer: Have you read anything about parenting lately?

Throughout my pregnancy, I found my mind wandering with thoughts of what motherhood must have been like for previous generations of Americans — when it seemed easier, or at least was described that way. Certainly, my mother, and my mother’s mother, raised children at a time when income inequality was less marked, when the middle class still existed, when our planet was less polluted – even if gender equality was in a less developed state than it is now.

Perhaps there is some toxic positivity in this line of thinking. But it seems millions of moms — and moms-to-be — are feeling something similar: a collective feeling that this might be the worst time in American history to be a mom. Is there any truth in that?

“There is no simple answer,” Sarah Knott, author of “Mother Is A Verb: An Unconventional History,” and professor at Indiana University, tells me over email. “It depends on who we’re talking about: Americans’ experience of motherhood has always depended on factors like race and class.”

Knott gives some examples. As before the Civil War, “enslaved mothers were exploited for both reproductive and productive labor by white overseers and masters.” Babies were forced to be separated from their mothers at slave auctions. The children of native women were forced to attend boarding schools established to “civilize the savages”. Obviously, these were pretty awful times for mothers in America.

“I think the hardest time was in the 19th century when people had this culture that valued their individual attachment to individual children so highly, but children were dying at a high rate,” Plant said. In 1800, the infant mortality rate in the United States for children under five was 462.9 deaths per 1,000 births.

“So there’s a very ugly American history in which the power of mothers over their own lives and the lives of their children has been shockingly limited,” Knott said. “During this time, white mothers often benefited from the work of black and indigenous women, and they shaped a sentimental idea of ​​motherhood as natural, fulfilling, and frictionless.”

Rebecca Jo Plant, associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, agreed that there have been historically more difficult times.

“I think the hardest time was in the 19th century when people had this culture that valued their individual attachment to individual children so highly, but children were dying at a high rate,” Plant said. In 1800, the infant mortality rate in the United States for children under five was 462.9 deaths per 1,000 births. “I wouldn’t say there is never been a worst time to be a mother, i wouldn’t go that far – but it’s hard [right now].”

Plant explains how, despite remarkable medical advances, black women in America face a maternal health crisis. Researchers estimate that black women are up to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Overall, the United States has a much higher maternal mortality rate than other developed countries. In 2017, 41% of mothers were the sole or primary breadwinner in their family, but many women have been forced out of the workforce to care for their children during the pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges American mothers already faced: an unstable education system, lack of accessible child care, no guarantee of paid time off for new parents.


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“We have virtually no social support for families and motherhood, we have perhaps the second highest rate of child poverty among so-called industrialized or wealthy countries…you are more likely to be poor if you you’re a kid only if you’re an old person,” Plant said, noting that Social Security exists for older Americans, but not for dependents like children, showing how much American society values ​​people. “producers”.

“Downward mobility, the assumption that you’re one generation is going to do better than the next, has really taken a hit – if you have kids, you need so much more today.”

Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, told Salon he views motherhood today as the introduction to Charles Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” which begins with “”C’ was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Medical advances are saving more children’s lives; hunger in America is lower than it was in earlier eras. Yet, as Karp puts it, “there are very serious underlying concerns.”

Karp says the further people move away from where they grew up, the more support they lose from their extended family.

“I see a lot of people who have a kid and then they realize how much they yearn for a childhood that they had in Iowa or Indiana or Minnesota or Louisiana and the things that were part of what it really meant being a kid – being surrounded by family, having cousins ​​around.”

Those serious concerns include “anxiety in children and depression in young mothers — and one of the things from my perspective that’s a critical issue is the loss of extended family,” Karp said. “Parents have this terrible misconception today, and mothers in particular, that they are supposed to be everything, do everything and provide everything for their babies – that’s what a good mother does – but a good mother has always had a network, and actually when you had a baby, you were a baby as much as you were rocking the baby.”

Karp says the further people move away from where they grew up, the more support they lose from their extended family.

“It’s interesting for me to have been a pediatrician in Los Angeles where there are so many transplants there,” Karp said. “I see a lot of people who have a kid and then they realize how much they yearn for a childhood that they had in Iowa or Indiana or Minnesota or Louisiana and the things that were part of what it really meant being a kid – being surrounded by family, having cousins ​​around.”

So maybe it’s not the worst time in history to be a mom, even if the situation isn’t great. But why is everyone so negative about motherhood?

Knott noted that we are aware of a lot of visible difficulties that surround motherhood due to “twentieth-century feminist commentaries.” In other words, it’s the “dismantling of sentimentality,” which Knott says is “good news.”

“This is due to the predicament of American women today, especially compared to their peers in other wealthy countries: the loss of reproductive rights that allow people to determine if and when they want to have children; lack of a welfare state that provides cradle-to-grave health care, and the now notorious racialization of maternal and child health; poor maternity leave; expensive childcare; underfunding public school system; and so on,” Knott said.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes have thoughts like “am I crazy to have a kid in America?” It’s certainly intimidating, scary and really difficult. Unlike many women in America, I have childcare and family resources nearby to support me.

On a nightly social media scroll, I ask a parent forum: is this going to be as hard as everyone claims?

“Honestly, yeah, sometimes it can definitely be as bad as everyone makes it out to be,” one parent replied. “But seeing them experience everything for the first time really helps you appreciate all the things in life that we take for granted. I always say our children destroyed our lives, but in the most awesome way.”

The movement of life in me slips like a snake through water. Her feet bump into my swollen uterus, shifting the symmetry of my belly minute by minute. Each tap and kick ticks like the hand of a clock, a countdown to the end of our intertwined time. In a way, pregnancy was a microcosm of life itself – a lot of pain, a lot of joy, a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. I suspect motherhood will be more or less the same.

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