Opinion | Why Do So Many Mothers Feel Like Failures Right Now?

Parents have suffered during this pandemic, moms especially. This we know — from social and traditional media, from polls, from studies that have survived the scrutiny of peer review. Levels of maternal depression and anxiety may vary (by socioeconomic status, marital status, the ages and needs of their kids), but the consistent theme seems to be: They are elevated.

Why? Mothers have disproportionately lost their jobs and financial security during this pandemic, and those who do work find that the burdens of family life fall disproportionately on them. The state has failed them utterly.

But here is my question, and I do not ask it idly, as the author of a book about parenthood and the mother of a teenager myself: Why is it that so many moms I know feel like failures at this moment?

Obviously, the problems that we are contending with are not of our own wretched making. We didn’t set loose a novel, zoonotic disease onto a defenseless human population of billions. We didn’t shut down our schools, end play dates and suspend adult socializing as we knew it. We didn’t create a global recession. So why are we all so busily blaming ourselves for the inevitably messy consequences of historic mayhem?

Can it be explained simply by the mom-propensity toward casual self-recrimination?

Maybe partly. But I also have a modest hypothesis: What this pandemic has done — not to all of us, but to many — is make us feel more insecure about aspects of our parenting we were already most insecure about.

Take, for instance, the not-insignificant matter of our tempers. More than 20 years ago, Ellen Galinsky, the president of the Families and Work Institute, had the rather inspired idea to survey more than 1,000 children, ranging from ages 8 to 18, about how they viewed their working parents. The results were very encouraging, actually, from a guilt-ridden working mother’s point of view: Only 10 percent of the kids wished their mothers had more time for them.

But the one area where mothers had a lot of room for improvement?

Where we scored rock-bottom?

Controlling our tempers.

Just 28 percent of us earned an A. Forty-one percent of us were given a C, D or F. Many of us yell a good deal more than our children would like, even under the best of circumstances.

We know it, too, in our heart of hearts. As the novelist Fay Weldon told The Independent in 1991, “It’s only when you have children that you realize you’re not a nice person at all.”

Now we’re in the midst of a global crisis that seems almost perfectly engineered to make us meaner. We’re cooped up. We’re isolated. And as I wrote late last spring, we can’t find flow — not while working, caregiving, cooking, cleaning or even watching reruns of bad TV — because the demands of the kids, the house, the job (if we’re fortunate enough to still have one) collide with one another, subdividing our days into staccato pulses of two-minute activities before we switch to something else. It’s all disruption all the time.

Such an arrangement is guaranteed to create short fuses. And that’s exactly what we’re hearing about as the pandemic reaches its anniversary: Mothers are losing it.

It stands to reason, given our increased levels of distress — wouldn’t some of it manifest in yelling? As one mother of young children wrote to me: “I have never been a patient person, but I have yelled at or scolded my kids this year with a frequency that has shocked and frightened me (straight into therapy).”

Back in December, The New York Times opened a hotline for mothers to privately uncork their fury. “Hundreds of folks called in,” Jessica Grose, The Times’s parenting columnist, said in a recent interview. “Many of them screaming; guttural yells; a lot of expletives.”

It’s perverse. The pandemic has made a thing that was already a source of shame for many of us all the more acute.

Failures of self-regulation aren’t the only thing I’ve heard about recently. Speak to a large sample of mothers, and a goodly portion will tell you that they’re convinced they’re not doing enough for their children.

Yeah yeah yeah, they know, on some abstract level, that our government didn’t do its job and hasn’t been doing so for years. Our public schools are underfunded and poorly ventilated and overburdened by bureaucratic hurdles, which means many of them haven’t been able to rise to the challenge of sustained, in-person learning; we never had affordable child care in this country and we certainly don’t have it now.

But that doesn’t stop mothers from berating themselves. For failing to stay on top of the remote curriculum. For insufficient nagging about homework. For outsourcing child care to the computer, even though that’s where most of these kids’ friends can be found these days — loitering in the mists of cyberspace.

Most globally, they blame themselves for not finding interesting ways to make this unprecedented time seem meaningful. As one mother of two teenagers wrote to me:

This whole thing is reshaping my kids’ lives and worldview and I’m not doing much to help that shaping. We don’t have new family traditions. We’re not volunteering. We haven’t expanded our community. We watch way more TV, oftentimes alone. We fight over puzzles and board games. And our extended family hates Zoom.

Yet once again, I can’t help but notice that we are fretting about the very things that made us feel incompetent before the pandemic began. In Galinsky’s study, seventh through 12th graders were asked slightly different questions about their parents than the younger children were. We mothers still scored worst on controlling our tempers. But we scored almost as badly on “knowing what is really going on” in our children’s lives (35 percent of us got As) and “establishing family routines and traditions” (38 percent).

Lots of us, it seems, were born with limited patience and an only average imagination for making family fun. (Myself included. My idea of pandemic variety is finding ever more obscure Paul Rudd movies to watch.) Yet here we are, contending with a Category 5 disaster that forces us back on the meager resources of the nuclear family and our extremely ordinary — and at this point overextended — brains to come up with ways to cope.

It’s hard to know how to console ourselves at this particular moment. But here, personally, is what I have found most useful.

With regard to our failures of self-regulation: As Galinsky likes to say, it’s impossible to grow without conflict. If we feel we’re having more moments of tension and anger these days, that means there’s also more opportunities for repair.

As for our so-called failures of engagement: We have to remember that the nuclear family has never, ever been enough to raise kids. Even in 1962, a peak mom-and-apple-pie time in American life, no less an authority than Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote:

The woman who chafes at the monotony of child rearing (and I’m assuming that most mothers do at times) is really beset from two directions: the separation from adult companions, and being bottled up with the continual demands of the children. I don’t think Nature ever intended the association to be quite so exclusive.

“We’re so individualistic that we think of ourselves as responsible for our successes and failures,” Galinsky told me when I reached her this past week by phone. “Whereas I’ve watched the child care system teeter near collapse. I’ve watched schools go back and forth about what’s safe. And we shouldn’t be expected to be teachers! We aren’t teachers. Teachers are teachers. And now we can appreciate how good the good ones are.”

Indeed. “In a good situation,” she added, “we can be the parents we want to be. It’s much harder in bad ones.”

But the most reassuring thing Galinsky told me? That parents and children seldom view situations the same way. That’s what years of research have taught her.We judge ourselves based on the big things,” she said. “But it’s the simple things — like taking a walk — that make a difference to a child. To a child, the small things are the big things.”

Before the pandemic, Galinsky, now also chief science officer of the Bezos Family Foundation, started collecting data for a new book, and when the coronavirus began whipping through the United States, she decided to do another round. Her most interesting finding, from my point of view: Kids felt more supported by their parents in her second wave of research, not less.

Our lapses and missteps may be to us what small pimples are to a teenager: not nearly so terrible as they seem. If we keep that top of mind, we may be able to cut ourselves some slack — and muddle our way across the finish line, perhaps even with some grace intact.

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