In the months after giving birth to my son, I felt a deep rage.
I experienced many other emotions too. I moved through the complicated joy and exhaustion that comes with nabbing three hours of sleep at a time and willing my body to produce enough milk to keep a tiny new person alive. But anytime I felt the gaping lack of resources available to new moms in our society — which was often — this simmering anger caught me by surprise.
One day, I found myself catching up on work at the kitchen counter, keeping an eye on the rice cooker, holding my son against one hip, and struggling to keep the phone out of his reach as I dialed one day care I could not afford after the next, pleading to put me on the waitlist. During these moments big and small that made up the chaos of new motherhood, the same maddening thought crossed my mind: “Why does our society pretend to center families but deprive us of any real support?” There’s no sensible answer, and it weighs heavily on parents like me at a time when we’re already stretched incredibly thin.
When I was pregnant, I read my share of parenting books. First my sister gave me The Danish Way of Parenting. Then another friend told me the French way of parenting was all the rage, so I read Bringing Up Bébé. These books painted rosy pictures of parenting in Denmark, which according to the author has the “happiest, most well-adjusted kids in the world,” and France, where parents reportedly live balanced lives with children who do not wage power struggles over food at dinner time. They go on to offer parenting strategies that supposedly make these parents successful, like how to focus on play instead of achievement.
But they also illuminated the myriad ways that these societies provide institutional and material support for parents and families that we lack in the United States.
These discoveries included things like subsidized day care centers and free preschools. I learned, for example, that in the Danish health care system, midwives connect new mothers in the area after they give birth so they have a support network from the very start.
In the end, these books seemed to convince me less about the right way to parent, and more that I was doing it in the wrong country. They made me wonder: Do we really need these upbeat parenting principles from abroad, or do we just need other countries’ family policies?
Parenting in the US Is an Uphill Battle?
I experience this sense of rage despite the fact that, comparatively, I am navigating parenthood with some of the best circumstances in our country: a two-income household with two involved parents plus extended family, a supportive workplace, and a union contract with high standards for paid leave and medical care. I welcomed many of the challenges that came with the territory: adjusting to an evolving sleep schedule, childproofing on the fly, and learning how the hell to use a breast pump.
But what angered me were all of the gaps in our society that made the basics of child-rearing feel not just difficult but actually impossible, like our unaffordable, patchwork systems for day care, health care, and any meaningful time off work to actually spend with family. I lost extra sleep worrying about my son’s medical coverage when I was between jobs and having yet another grocery bill on my credit card because all of our funds for the month went to childcare.
What is worse is how normalized it is for parents — and usually mothers — to throw their lives into upheaval to make those early and costly parenting years work.
During my pregnancy, I questioned whether I could keep my job at the time that required me to travel every other week. I asked other moms how they juggled new parenthood and work. One friend told me she returned to work just weeks after giving birth and had to knock on doors for a campaign, logging ten-hour days on her feet while her body was still recovering from childbirth.
I also heard stories of pumping breast milk in custodial closets next to dirty mops, in rush-hour traffic while driving, and in bathroom stalls. One friend who was teaching and finishing graduate school would tuck her son into bed at night, head to campus to catch up on schoolwork, and sleep in her office before teaching an early morning class.
Then there were many, many moms who simply told me they don’t remember how they got through it, they just did. And many of these new mothers were, like me, in relatively strong positions compared to millions of other new moms that give birth each year. Parents in this country, especially single parents, working-class parents, and parents of color are simply not set up to succeed.
During my early weeks of motherhood, when I wore my son wrapped close against my chest, I felt a deep warmth toward him. But followed by a visceral anger toward our system that tears women away from their babies and forces them to return to work before they are ready. When it comes to family policies like paid parental leave, the United States pales in comparison to other nations.
Across Europe, parents have on average fourteen months of paid leave. Germany offers a parental allowance for supplemental paid leave that both parents can take for up to two years any time before their child turns eight. Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, Austria, Slovakia, Latvia, Norway, and Slovenia all offer over a year of paid leave, and Estonia offers more than a year and a half of paid leave to new parents. The United States remains the only country among our socioeconomic peers that provides no national paid parental leave.
People told me I was lucky to take six months of parental leave, which was partially unpaid. It was not luck, though: I had a union contract that my coworkers before me fought for.
This is not the norm in our country. Workers are entitled to just twelve weeks of federal unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Then there are many who are ineligible for FMLA altogether, like workers in the growing gig economy.
Those union members like me fare better and can also lift the standard for others around them. In a growing number of cities and states, people have fought for and won greater protections. In Massachusetts, families last year won twenty-six weeks of paid family leave. Still, for most of us, our society falls short of meaningful paid leave for parents — along with affordable childcare, as I quickly discovered.
How Do Other Countries Handle Childcare? Much Better.
Parents in my neighborhood encouraged me to start looking for day care as soon as we found out we were expecting. They were not wrong. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, there are entire online communities dedicated to insider hacks to finagle your way into a day care spot, along with communal commiserating when they fail to work. I was hit with sticker shock at day care prices, many of which exceeded $2,000 per month.
I instantly understood why millions of women left the paid workforce to care for their children during COVID-19. Even before childcare costs increased 41 percent during the pandemic, parents faced tough choices. I remember the excitement of my coworker years ago when she pulled me into the hallway at work to tell me she was pregnant with twins. We stood in the same spot months later when she delivered the news that she would have to quit because the cost of childcare for two kids was higher than her paycheck.
I found out firsthand that our childcare system works exactly the way you would expect a service left to the profit-driven private sector to function. The costs are becoming wildly unaffordable, yet working people are squeezed, making sacrifices to foot the bill because they must.
In 2021, the average annual cost of day care for an infant was over $10,600. For a single parent, that comes to 35 percent of their household income. In some parts of the country, childcare can cost parents over $26,000 per year, and in many states, it exceeds the cost of both housing and college tuition.
And despite the absurdly high costs parents are paying for this care, childcare providers are underpaid and exploited as they perform this essential work. Domestic workers, who are over 90 percent women and over half people of color, make on average $12 an hour. They are also three times as likely to be living in poverty as other workers.
Childcare is simultaneously unaffordable and undervalued. But it doesn’t have to be.
When Senator Bernie Sanders interviewed US Finland ambassador Mikko Hautala recently, he asked how childcare works in Finland. To every American parent’s envy, Hautala reported that childcare costs range from $30 per month to $300 per month for “high-income earners.” Sanders quickly calculated that would come to $3,600 per year, compared to the $15,000 average cost of childcare in his home state Vermont.
While most parents in the United States foot the bill for care up until kindergarten, in Europe parents have access to free public education starting around age three. Before that, many governments still pay either a significant proportion or the entire cost of childcare. In some countries like Finland, South Korea, and Denmark, these include payments for stay-at-home parents. While these systems are not flawless, any of these policies would serve as a welcome life raft to the childcare crisis we are drowning in today.
We might also ask if our society can ever provide parents the security they need while most of these decisions are still tied to individual employers. Unlike many European countries, US workers do not receive their health care, pensions, and social safety net through the government. In our country, workers must rely almost exclusively on their employers — and employers are not actually required to provide them. Union workers often have such benefits, but unions have been under assault for decades. That means a declining percentage of American workers have access to those benefits.
Parents and Caregivers Have Had Enough
Like every other systemic injustice in our society, the interlocking crises of the pandemic have amplified this care crisis, and people are organizing like hell to change it. We see mothers taking direct action, forcing our society to put resources behind parents and caretakers who are doing it against the odds. During the pandemic, black working mothers occupied a house in West Oakland for two months to protest the housing crisis. Their organization Moms 4 Housing turned the house into transitional housing and continued to inspire and win housing policy changes across California.
Demands from both parents who need essential care, and those providing it have spurred creative campaigns across the country. We saw greater protections and caregiving investments won by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a “Day Without Childcare” actions across the country that included hundreds of day care closures in protest, and childcare demands from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000 in the Pacific Northwest and student workers at Washington University in St Louis. Union members fought for demands ranging from full childcare subsidization to more feeding rooms and refrigerators for milk storage.
Becoming a new parent also opened my eyes to a world of mutual aid I could have only imagined possible. Parents, grandparents, caretakers, and countless others have stopped me on the street with my son in tow to ask how I was sleeping. They offered toys, clothes, and other hand-me-downs, including big-ticket items like strollers and cribs. A Korean-American grandmother I met once in passing asked me my favorite Korean dish and brought me homemade soondubu-jjigae when I was healing from childbirth. Coworkers I only swapped a handful of conversations with over the years suddenly wanted to bond over nap schedules and breastfeeding. They insisted on watching my baby so I could have a date night with my partner.
I found other moms who had similar stories of neighborhood support groups they built organically. They provided everything from childcare to emotional support for each other. Like all other failures of our institutions, everyday people make up for them and fill in the gaps.
The other thing I found along my journey is that while it is hard to describe the rage of new motherhood, it is also impossible to describe the joy. Hearing my son laugh or climb into my lap to plant a wet kiss on my face reminds me what it means to be human during such a complicated time. He makes me believe a better world is possible and worth fighting for.
It is this deep love for him that fills me with a new kind of rage at our system that fails families every day. When I see policymakers and business elites destroying family policies, public schools, and the planet, I know they are putting profits over my son’s well-being.
But there is no silver bullet to the care crisis in our country. Like everything else we have — from the weekend to our imperfect FMLA — we will have to wage a big enough fight to win it. And mothers like me will have to play key roles in that fight. Usually I hear the notion that “mothers can do it all” as a neoliberal excuse to deprive mothers of any material or institutional support, but I am coming to believe that mothers really are capable of unimaginable things, particularly when we’re enraged. At least I know I’m in good company.