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Is Motherhood Harder for Millennial Moms?

May 20, 2024
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here was dog urine on the carpet, vomit on her blouse and a queasy 7-year-old to look after, but Dr. Whitney Casares had just a few spare moments to clean up and change so she could resume the keynote presentation she had been giving when the school nurse called.

Dr. Casares, 42, a pediatrician in Portland, Ore., tried to clean up both messes and race back to her computer. “But I was completely unnerved and underperformed,” she said. “When my husband” — who hadn’t picked up when the school called — “and younger daughter came home a few hours later, the first words out of their mouths were ‘Didn’t you get anything for dinner?’ and ‘Why does it smell so bad in here?’”

In that moment, said Dr. Casares, the author of “Doing It All: Stop Over-Functioning and Become the Mom and Person You’re Meant to Be,” she related to a Taylor Swift lyric: “I did all the extra credit, then got graded on a curve.”

It has always been exhausting to be a mother, but each generation has had its particular pressures and ways of coping. Boomer moms didn’t expect motherhood to be anything but difficult, though the lack of social awareness around anxiety and depression meant most would never openly discuss it. Generation X moms had to prove that they could do everything men could do — and then come home and work a second shift. Some Gen Xers were children of divorce, manifested an ironic detachment from their troubles and were prescribed Prozac to deal.

And then came millennial moms, the women raised on “You go, girl!” in the 1980s and ’90s and who today are in their 30s and early 40s. On average, they enrolled in college in higher numbers than men, married later and delayed having children, sometimes to prioritize careers and other times because — with student debt and less wealth than previous generations — it felt impossible not to.

Still, it seemed like some things had worked out in their favor. Perhaps they could juggle work and motherhood more successfully. Maybe their male partners, if they had them, would be more attuned to gender imbalances at home.

“No one had these hard conversations with us about just how difficult it is to be a parent, have a career and a partner,” said Brandale Mills Cox, 38, the mother to a 4-year-old and a 15-month-old in Silver Spring, Md. “No one really talked about the burden social media plays, where a huge part of what we see of other people’s experiences makes us feel we are lacking as mothers. And no one talks about the real day-to-day, such as the friction between you and your partner regarding how you raise your children.”

Dr. Mills Cox, a professor of communications at Howard University, said she wished that her boomer mother had sat her down for a frank conversation about the moments when “you’ll just want to go into a room and cry.”

Lately, some millennial mothers — particularly those who are middle- to upper-middle class — are finding themselves at a crisis point. While many Gen X moms confronted the middle of their lives as children were leaving for college, millennial moms are doing so with much younger children, many more years of mothering ahead of them. Some are struggling to reconcile the vision they had of motherhood with a harsher reality they didn’t feel totally prepared for.

Call it the millennial mother midlife crisis, or M.M.M.C. The hallmark of an M.M.M.C. isn’t going off the grid, à la Rachel Fleishman, the strung-out mother in the novel (and hit streaming TV series) “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” or meeting up with other moms to release primal screams.

After all, rage and angst are out, and wellness, equanimity and mental health are in. For lots of moms, the M.M.M.C. is about maintaining a chipper facade, the appearance of having it together while quietly imploding. If the M.M.M.C. had a mascot, it would be a swan, an animal gliding easily on the surface while paddling furiously beneath the water.

Jean M. Twenge, the author of “Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents — and What They Mean for America’s Future,” said there was more of a bait-and-switch for millennial mothers than for Gen X mothers.

“Women are graduating at much higher rates, young women are accomplishing so many things, and then who is the one who still has to work when they aren’t feeling well during their first trimester?” said Dr. Twenge, 52, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the mother of three preteen and teenage children. “There is still this gender expectation.”

This is just one of the stinging realizations that can plant the seeds for an M.M.M.C. While millennial women might have expected a more equitable home life, they still, in most cases, do a larger share of the domestic work and household worrying — What camp will the kids go to this summer? Do we need dish soap? — than men.

The expectations for modern parenting have grown alongside the pressure on women to have careers, Dr. Twenge said, making the standards for achievement in every arena feel stratospheric for millennial moms.

Gen X moms were expected to do better, too, but millennials were the first to step into parenthood with social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, which made it easier than ever to compare just how well they stacked up against other mothers.

“It’s hard not to internalize, even though I know it’s all curated, that you could be doing it better,” said Sophie Brickman, a 40-year-old mother of three, whose forthcoming novel, “Plays Well With Others,” follows a frazzled New York City mother, Annie, navigating the competitive landscape of 21st-century parenting.

Recently, Dr. Twenge was looking at a picture on social media of an influencer who had just had a baby and was posing with perfect makeup.

“I feel bad for millennial women who have to look at this,” she said. “I had my first child in 2006, and now it has become this whole thing that you have to have these glamorous pictures right after you’ve given birth, which is crazy.”

With the internet at their fingertips, millennial moms can also fall down a rabbit hole of searching for the perfect stroller and endless — and often contradictory — advice about breastfeeding or sleep training. Rinse and repeat for every other parenting quandary.

“When we had questions about parenting, we went to a book or called the doctor,” said Margie E. Lachman, a baby boomer with millennial children and a professor of psychology at Brandeis University. “We got an answer, and that was it. Millennial parents have immediate access to unlimited information.”

Millennials are more likely than previous generations to think about these mounting pressures in terms of therapy speak and to seek actual therapy to try to cope with them. But the drive to become a more mindful, less reactive, more positive parent — a kind of mantra among many millennial moms — can create its own kind of pressure cooker.

Natasha Jung, a 37-year-old founder of a digital media company in Vancouver, British Columbia, said that while her immigrant parents worked very hard to put food on the table and give their children a better life, “there wasn’t enough of an opportunity to support me on the emotional side.”

Ms. Jung said she tries to focus on her 3-year-old son’s emotional development and accommodate his sensitivities.

“Through therapy, journaling and working with a life coach, I’ve learned how to re-parent myself so I can be a better parent and have patience,” she added.

In many ways, this introspection has been worthwhile, Ms. Jung said, but the self-improvement treadmill can be exhausting. She recalled times when she had “adult breakdowns” and “spent days and weeks ultra-depressed” because she found it difficult to cultivate the more thoughtful, emotionally evolved parenting style she expects of herself.

“It’s so much easier to default to yelling and threats,” she said.

One of the crushing realizations of the M.M.M.C. is that there is little choice but to forge ahead.

I found myself in the midst of my own mothering crisis a few months ago, after my 6-year-old daughter lashed out at me and my 4-year-old son had a meltdown because he didn’t like that “water is wet.” It was in many ways a mundane scene that many mothers would recognize, regardless of their generation. There were emails to send to school, play dates to arrange, empty weeks of the summer to be filled with enriching activities I needed to research, and lingering work tasks to complete.

(When I talked to my husband for this article, he said: “I’m trying to be helpful, but I’m having my own midlife crisis, largely precipitated by the financial and career imperatives of raising kids in New York City.”)

All of this was compounded by millennial-tinged circumstances: Like many in my generation, I was also taking care of an elderly parent. My second child was born just a few days before the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, and my career hadn’t bounced back the way I thought it would. I haven’t even touched the soaring costs of child care, which counterintuitively makes working expensive.

For the most part, millennial moms aren’t blowing up their lives. The divorce rate is lower for this generation, and the stereotypical trappings of a midlife crisis — like buying a flashy car — are more closely associated with men, anyway. Rather, millennials are testing what is possible at a moment when more is demanded of them and they are demanding more of themselves.

The M.M.M.C. is about grappling with the notion that for all the strides made by previous generations of mothers, motherhood is just as difficult as — and perhaps even more conflicted than — before.

“I think the core question for the current 30- and 40-something mothers is whether they are going to do anything about a society that continues to overburden them,” said Leslie Bennetts, the author of “The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?” Otherwise, she added, more and more women are going to “feel like they are going to explode.”

Maybe, in typical millennial fashion, we are all too deep in our own heads and too fixated on the particularities of our own situations.

“Millennials are very much about the self and the mentality that, ‘If I have problems, it’s up to me to solve them,’ as opposed to looking at it from a more societal point of view,” said Barbara J. Risman, the author of “Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles With the Gender Structure” and a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago.

There is no Instagram parenting hack or self-care practice that can lift my generation out of the M.M.M.C. — and our culture has some serious work to do to be more accommodating to mothers. But right now I need to pick my daughter up from the bus and nudge an elderly parent about taking a walk.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by The Kashmir Monitor staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)


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