I often tell the overwhelmed and teary new moms who I work with through my company Dear Sunday Motherhood that it’s not supposed to be this way; mothering, that is.
I tell them mothers deserve support—whether it comes in the form of a grandmother holding a baby while they sleep, a federal paid leave policy that protects and holds moms during the fragile and monumental first few months of life, or in some other way.
I tell news moms they were never meant to parent alone, especially throughout a global pandemic—and it’s a true and validating message. But more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also a hard message to continue to push—mainly because, right now, this is the way things are. This is the new normal.
How the pandemic has affected moms’ sleep
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensely impacted the health, finances, and well-being of many. It has also quietly impacted sleep, mothers’ sleep included. A recent Saatva survey of 2,000 Americans, for example, found that 41% of people reported being awake all night because of “next day anxiety“—essentially a fear of tomorrow’s uncertainty.
You could say this type of uncertainty is chronic right now. It especially keeps moms to young children—who are already less likely than others to get the recommended amount of sleep—up at night.
Right now, research finds mothers are losing more sleep than ever. About 40% of moms with children under 4 years old have trouble sleeping now, a figure that’s up from 19.5% pre-pandemic. For moms with children ages 5 to 18, rates of sleep issues float around 38%, versus 21.7% pre-pandemic.
If you’re a mother, you’re nodding; this all comes as no surprise. How can you sleep well when—just before you almost drift off—you wonder, Is daycare going to be open tomorrow? Or, will I have to cancel my presentation at work if I have to manage remote learning and do my paid job? And then: If I have to cancel my presentation, what does that mean for my job? Or: If I do send my childcare to daycare, will they get sick? Will we all get sick?
Current keep-us-awake worries like these are just as common as they are justified. Moms experience what sociologists refer to as “the motherhood penalty” at work: Hiring managers are often less likely to hire moms than women without kids; mothers regularly receive lower salaries than non-mothers.
Two years before the birth of a first child through the baby’s first birthday, Census Bureau research finds the earnings gap between mom and dad doubles—and grows until the child is 10. It never goes away.
Reasons moms can’t sleep
But the reasons moms can’t sleep amidst the pandemic are as many as they are unique to each and every mother. Is a fear of catching or spreading COVID-19 the reason she can’t rest? Is it the blue light from the computer screen glaring in her eyes all night as she makes up for a day’s worth of lost work after the kids are asleep? Is it the constant stress of it all? The sheer exhaustion that leaves her too tired to exercise or eat well? Is it the lack of support?
Add together all of this with all of the factors we know impact sleep and you find the result is a fairly accurate representation of a typical American mother’s day.
One of my co-founders at The Chamber of Mothers—a new coalition that enlists mothers to create the kind of America they want to live in and bestow upon future generations—Pooja Lakshmin, MD, wrote in The New York Times recently that this isn’t moms being burnt out, it’s moms being betrayed.
So when I think about tired moms, myself included, I come back to my initial message: It isn’t supposed to be like this, but it’s like this.
How to support moms so they can finally get some rest
So what do we do? It’s a big question. Often, big questions have big answers. Those answers involve governments and policies (a federal paid leave policy in the United States; affordable childcare). They involve corporations (flexibility policies for parents; a deeper understanding of their employees’ needs as people). They involve larger societal messaging from media and leaders. But I think that big change can be small too.
There’s a viral Reel or TikTok or meme (I can’t remember, I’m too tired) floating around out there about moms screaming for help—saying they’re at their wit’s end and they can’t do it anymore. In the Reel/TikTok/meme, society responds by saying, “we don’t know how you do it!” or “you’re a supermom!”
Right there is where I think we can start making small changes—in the way we help and support and communicate with moms and families every day in whatever way we can. That might look like letting an employee work from home a few days a week so she can sleep a little bit easier knowing she doesn’t have to get up and commute.
It might look like offering to hold a new mom friend’s baby for a few hours so she can finally sleep herself. It might be offering to host a playdate for a mom who you know needs a rest. It might be simply listening—and asking how you can help.
The nights we sleep the best tend to be after days when we feel a good, natural, satisfying kind of tiredness—not a relentless, constant feeling of overwhelm.
The onus is too often on moms to figure out how to make things better for themselves. And I think, right now especially, we’re beyond sleep tips for moms. Right now, the onus needs to be on others to help moms in their waking hours so they can finally get some rest at night.