Millennial Moms Have Been Driven To Their Breaking Point

For nearly a year, they've been quietly trying an impossible juggle. And they need help sooner than they're likely to get it.
Millennial moms have been under significant stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, with no clear end in sight. 
Millennial moms have been under significant stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, with no clear end in sight. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, Shannon, a 28-year-old single mom, says her life was thrown into chaos. Shannon is a psychiatric nurse who, prior to the pandemic, worked the night shift. She slept during the day while her second-grader went to school, and lived with a roommate who was around if her son woke up at night.

When the first cases of the virus surfaced in her home state of Wisconsin, Shannon was immediately transferred to her hospital’s COVID-19 wing, which terrified her. No one knew then how deadly the virus might be for children. She dreaded bringing it home and making her son sick.

(All of the moms interviewed for this piece asked to use their first names so they could candidly discuss personal details about work and family members’ health.)

And then schools closed for in-person learning. Shannon had to cut back her hours almost completely, from 40 to 60 hours per week to 16 per month. Her son is on the autism spectrum and requires constant, hands-on attention throughout his remote schoolwork. Once Shannon cut back her hours, she could no longer afford her $1,600 monthly rent. So she and her son moved back in with Shannon’s mother, where they have been living ever since.

“Before the pandemic, I was fully capable of taking care of my child. I was financially responsible. I had a 401K, I had investments. But when the pandemic hit, what were single parents supposed to do? With young children?!” Shannon asked. “I felt like I was screwed.”

No group or demographic has been spared the pain or stress of the pandemic, but millennial mothers (women born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s) have been hit particularly hard for a wide range of reasons, from the unique demands of caring for young children to the specific toll it has taken on their careers.

Month after month, the stress has piled on top of those women who have stoically endured the relentlessness of pandemic parenting — to the point where mental health experts worry it could become chronic.

And while the vaccine is here, we are months away from it being widely available enough to make meaningful changes in how millennial parents navigate their days. After 10 long months, and with no immediate relief in sight, millennial mothers are at a worrisome tipping point.

Working millennial moms are struggling to balance it all.

On the whole, parents have been more stressed than non-parents over the past year. And millennial moms, who are currently in their 20s and 30s, tend to have younger children who require the most hands-on care as schools around the country have gone (and stayed) remote and thousands of child care centers have closed or hiked their rates to stay afloat.

Even before the pandemic hit, women tended to take on a greater share of parenting and household responsibilities than men. They have been doing even more during the pandemic. Estimates suggest that because of the pandemic, the average woman now spends the hourly equivalent of a full-time job on unpaid child care.

So it makes perfect sense that the pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on working moms — more than 2 million of whom have left the workforce from the winter of 2019 through this fall.

And for millennial women, who generally hit their peak earning years in their mid-40s and are smack-dab in the middle of when they’re supposed to be making their biggest career gains, there simply may be no bouncing back.

“The coronavirus pandemic is stretching millennial parents to the breaking point,” warned an August report by the progressive Center For American Progress, “and may set maternal labor force participation back decades.”

Of course, busy millennial moms don’t spend their days contemplating these larger trends; they are too busy trying to get themselves and their families through their days.

“You work hard to have a career and an identity outside of just being a mom, and everything was taken away.”

- Kim, 35

Kim, a 35-year-old mother with a 5-year-old and 2-year-old at home, worked in early intervention prior to the pandemic, helping children with medical complexities navigate their days. When the virus hit, all home visits stopped immediately. Kim tried to maintain telehealth appointments, but it was impossible to do with any kind of professionalism while watching her own young kids.

“We had to make the really hard decision to have me request a furlough,” said Kim, who said many of the young mothers she worked with had to do the same. Then, several months later, she was let go.

“It was devastating,” Kim said. “You work hard to have a career and an identity outside of just being a mom, and everything was taken away.”

Financially, the change has been “terrifying” for her family, but her husband is still employed and they have been able to cut their expenses back to the bare minimum and make ends meet so far.

Even more, Kim worries for her children, particularly her 5-year-old, who has had to deal with the ups and downs of school closures, family illness (Kim’s father had COVID-19) and the total loss of her routines.

“I have not slept, wracking my brain, like, ‘How can I make this better for her? Now this is my job, to try and make this better for her, for them, and I can’t,’” Kim said.

After months of stress and isolation, stay-at-home moms are struggling, too.

Nearly every study or survey from the past year that has offered a real-time glimpse at mothers’ mental load during the pandemic shows that the stressors they face — loss of work, loss of routine and support, fears over how to keep children safe and how to support them emotionally — have hurt moms’ mental health.

In one survey of new moms, 80% said they’d experienced a surge in stress.

In another, mothers were far more likely than fathers to say coronavirus stress had taken a toll on their mental health — which, again, makes sense, since women in heterosexual households tend to take on significantly more caregiving.

“All families are struggling right now in their own ways. I don’t think I know a single family that is having an amazing time during this pandemic,” said Christina Mondi-Rago, a researcher affiliated with American University in Washington, D.C. and an investigator with COVID-Forward, a national survey study that seeks to explore how parents and families are coping during the pandemic. (It is open for parents to join through the end of January.)

And after 10-plus months of stress and social distancing, millennial moms who were already staying home with their children before COVID-19 are burned out, too.

“I did take off work for four to five years to stay home with them. I had this dream, and it feels like a little bit of it was plucked away.”

- Julia, 37

Julia, 37, a stay-at-home parent who used to relish her days taking her children to the library and on playdates, said she feels like her world has closed in around her. She finds herself half-dreading: What am I going to do with them tomorrow?!

Julia feels a sense of grief that this short window of time she gets with her children while they’re young has been consumed by the pandemic, and she worries about how isolated they have become. She and her husband decided to use their recent stimulus check to enroll their children in preschool several hours a week later this winter — which they had not planned on before — because they are worried about their development.

“I do get emotional about it,” admitted Julia. “I did take off work for four to five years to stay home with them. I had this dream, and it feels like a little bit of it was plucked away.”

A Growing Mental Health Crisis

Through it all, millennial moms aren’t complaining. All of the moms in this story stopped several times while being interviewed to emphasize how fortunate they feel that their children have been healthy and that they have managed so far. They called themselves “selfish” for talking about the stress they’ve been under, and noted how lucky they have been to hold on and to have various family members to lean on. Each of them has managed to eke out new routines and grown used to the ever-changing demands of parenting during a global pandemic.

Nationally, there have been small blips of relief. Many school districts and child care centers have reopened, at least to some extent, and a second round of stimulus checks recently came through.

But there is a certain level of resignation among many women at this point in the pandemic that mental health professionals are worried about. After months of living under significant stress, millennial mothers have become emotionally numbed to the pressure of parenting under extraordinary circumstances.

“A lot of parents are feeling very burnt out right now, and there certainly are concerns among mental health clinicians about increased rates of mental health issues over time, especially during the pandemic,” said Mondi-Rago. She added that certain groups of millennial moms are at particularly high risk of developing significant levels of stress, including women who are pregnant or newly postpartum, women who are facing financial pressure, single moms and women of color.

“But certainly, many parents are at risk for becoming even more stressed, and more burnt out, over time,” she added. When stress becomes chronic, as it has for many mothers at this point, it substantially increases risk for clinical anxiety, depression and various physical health concerns.

There is, of course, hope that things could soon change — but perhaps not fast enough.

We are still months away from widespread vaccination. Many schools and day cares remain closed. So many parents are under huge pressure just trying to make it all work, and there is no social safety net to catch them.

No one is thriving,” said Mariclaire, a 38-year-old mom of two who works full-time in-person as a teacher, while her eldest follows a hybrid schedule and her youngest is in day care. At various points in the pandemic, she has felt as though she was “drowning” under the pressure of juggling her work with watching her young children.

“Life has been completely turned upside down ... and it feels like the expectation is just: ‘You can do this,’” she said.

“Thank you for your confidence, I guess?”