“You’ve Been Set Up to Fail”: What Modern Parents Face is Nearly Impossible

Modern parenting is hard enough. The expectations society sets for parents make it nearly impossible to succeed.

Modern parenting feels like an impossible task. That’s because it is. Balancing the costs and responsibilities of raising kids alone is a struggle. Add the fact that what remains of our country’s social safety net resembles more of a neglected, moth-eaten hammock than an actual support system, and the challenge becomes all the more momentous. What’s more, as Christine Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian argue in their new book Dreams of the Overworked, the ideals to which moms and dads subscribe are so far-fetched that they run themselves ragged trying to achieve the unachievable.

“We set ourselves up to want things that are just not possible to accomplish,” says Beckman, The Price Family Chair in Social Innovation and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. She and Mazmanian highlighted three core myths — the perfect parent, perfect worker, the ideal body — that are unable to be met on their own let alone as triad, but which pervade American society nonetheless. They also followed nine different types of parents — some single, some dual working couples, some stay at home parents, some one-working parent households — over the course of several weeks to see how they navigate their lives amidst the burdens of modern parenting. Filled with illuminating anecdotes and many harsh truths about modern life (including how technology leads to a “spiral of expectations”), the book is an excellent look at how difficult modern parenting is and how many parents still strive for these ideals regardless of their impossibility or the stress they add. It also makes a strong case for reducing the additional pressures parents place on themselves as well as better policies.

There are a lot of truths in the book, all of which ring all the louder during COVID-19 when parents’ few remaining support systems have all but crumbled. Consider this sentiment on the withering effect of abiding to myth of the perfect parent. “There is no one right way to parent,” they write. “Yet the perfect parent myth directs actions and attention to only narrow conceptions of parenting. The myth does provide clear lines of action but it does not direct people to think about the end goals — what kinds of humans do parents want to raise? — nor does it highlight the multitude of alternative ways in which parents can provide the emotional support, structure opportunity, and values to help children thrive.”

They don’t fault parents for having aspirations. But they do argue that parents need to let themselves off the hook for the sake of themselves and their family. Fatherly spoke to Beckman about the burdens on modern parents, how technology makes the demands on working parents all the more stressful, life during the pandemic, and how parents can learn to let go of what they ask of themselves.

What, exactly, are the dreams of the overworked?

Well, what we observed were that the dreams were really for people to be all of these things. To be an ideal worker. To be a perfect parent. To have the ultimate body. And even though the demands were relentless and overwhelming, people didn’t strive for those things any less. I think the parents we observed liked their lives and felt good about a lot of things. They just couldn’t do everything in the way that they wanted to.

So I think the dreams are to do it all. The problem, however, is that it’s unattainable. We set ourselves up to want things that are just not possible to accomplish.

Yeah. Each one of these three ideals is impossible in its own right. But especially for parents, striving for one ideal is going to leech away from the other. Satisfaction is rare.

Yes. You get that satisfaction in the moment when something really goes well, as a parent or in your work. And we live for those moments. But each dream on its own isn’t possible. The dreams themselves are set up to be aspirational. But when you put them together, especially as far as working parents are concerned, we can’t be perfect at anything. We can just get through the day.

I think it’s important to try and dial back. It always was. But today, in some sense it’s better that we can’t even pretend that we can do it all. That gives it a chance to adjust those dreams and make them a bit more realistic.

When it comes to parenting before the pandemic, parents were already underwater. You studied these nine families. What were some telling vignettes about what life was like for them?

Well when we talk about the perfect parent myth, we get to these myths by observing the everyday lives of these nine families. I think it’s important to point out that it’s not just what we see but that people have been doing research on families and work and the body for a long time. We saw it happening and really saw what they looked like in detail in the day-to-day moments.

So, in the parenting front, there’s still a lot of guilt that people are experiencing about what they cannot do. For instance, quality time is something we value. We value it in our attempt to be perfect parents, whether that’s trying to have a family dinner or spend time playing with a younger child at the end of a long work day even though your head is sort of off and trying to think about all the things you still have to do.

Nancy was a single mom and Tim was a single dad and so they had a lot of logistics that they were managing, but they really tried very hard to create these pockets of time when they could be focused on the kids. But it took immense effort and they felt incredibly guilty when they didn’t do it. And of course they couldn’t do it all the time because they had all these other demands.

Of course not.

The other element that people spent a lot of time worrying about was enrichment activities, which are how we give opportunities to our kids. Cello lessons. Piano lessons. Gymnastics lessons. Soccer practice. Math tutoring. So, the families we followed had kids enrolled in the elementary and junior high school age which is sort of the focus here — everyone had at least one kid in that age range — and three or four different activities. These involved not only a lot of money but also time. Getting kids to these activities. All the logistics of organizing them. That was a pretty overwhelming thing. And if you have multiple kids? Those practices always overlap and it often requires more than one person to get kids to those activities. And of course, we’re getting to hold down our jobs and manage a household, too.

Yeah, just those two little things on top of it all.

Right? Just little things. One mother we followed, Rebecca, has four kids and she was one of the few parents who stayed at home. But with four kids, even without a job, she couldn’t manage four kids in all of those different activities. She was one of the more frenetic people in the book and I think it’s partly because she so subscribed to this perfect parent myth and what she thought she needed to do as a parent in order to give her kids the opportunities they deserved.

But then there was Cory, who’s a stay-at-home dad. He didn’t attend to those as much. His kids had an activity, but they weren’t trying to do three or four and their life was just a little less crazy and they were a little happier with things because they had ratcheted back on those expectations.

The idea that kids need all of these activities to succeed and parents must provide them really works to hamstring parents. They’re expensive and require a lot of time and coordination. There’s no feasible way to do everything.

And it leaves a lot of people out. People can’t do these things, whether it’s because of time or money. I think it’s because we sometimes don’t know exactly what it takes to raise kids. There’s no template to follow. There’s no if you do this, then you will raise a kid who’s going to be happy and accomplished and all of those things. So, we rely on all of these ideas and these enrichment activities that are going to get us there. But they’re not. It’s important for parents to let go of that and admit that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what works and what doesn’t. The myths give us this sense of certainty, but I think it’s an illusion.

I love the idea you raise that the myth of the perfect parent distracts from the the idea of what kind of humans you want to raise. That’s such an important distinction that gets lost in all this striving for ideals.

There’s a lot of anxiety. Another thing to mention on the parenting side technology and the monitoring and tracking and attending to everything that kids are doing on it. There’s a lot of parenting anxiety about that. There’s a time problem that we don’t have enough of time to keep track of all of it. But there’s also the problem of we don’t know exactly what we should be monitoring and what should be okay and what needs to change over time.

In terms of technology and kids, I think it’s important to note what it is we’re trying to accomplish at the end. It’s not a parent saying, “It’s driving me crazy to see you watching the TV right now and so I’m going to turn it off and you’re going to go outside.” People are saying “Oh you’ve hit your two-hour mark today.” It’s really that a lot of our monitoring is about the tipping points, like the things that trigger us in the moment. But our goal is to teach kids to be, depending on their age, self-reflective or self-regulating so they can manage technology on their own.

Technology and the demand it creates plays a big role in the book. You have an example of a divorced dad who was trying to manage various pickups and playdates. Despite having these scheduling apps and calendars, he would regularly defer to in-the-moment texts because plans are constantly changing. I think that’s very telling.

Yes. That was Tim Andrews, a single dad and he was trying to coordinate with his ex-wife about who was going to pick up the kids when and he has parents who can help sometimes and he has a girlfriend who can help sometimes and I think anyone who has young kids can say that often the schedule changes frequently. So even if you have a plan for the day, it’s getting undone and redone and even something as simple as google calendar they decided was too complicated. It was just easier to have a text every day about who’s doing what.

There’s an entire industry of apps built on the promise of making things easier, but in practice, many of them sort of sit on our phones as glaring reminders of what didn’t work the way we planned. Or they make us so crazy that we feel the need to respond in real time to emails and texts. You and Melissa write that technology creates a “spiral of expectations.”

The thing about technology is we love it and we rely on it. It’s hard to imagine doing many of the things that we need to do without having it at our disposal. And as devices become more available, we start using them more. We can respond to an email from our boss, we can coordinate a carpool at the last minute. That helps us in the moment.

But, since everyone uses technology, it becomes less about feeling in control and more about feeling obligated. And using our devices becomes a signal that we’re dedicated to whom we’re interacting with and if we don’t respond in the moment it’s a signal that we don’t care.

That set of expectations is overwhelming. We feel the need to be always accessible as parents and as workers and as friends. Technology has made us feel like we need to do and be more, even though it started off helping us in the moment. It expanded what was expected of us and so we end up feeling more overwhelmed in the end.

Inevitably the inability to not meet all these expectations for work or parenting results in guilt or, worse, shame.

The more that people buy into the dream and these ideals as things they need to accomplish, the more likely they are to feel that guilt.

Take Cory, the single dad we observed. He didn’t feel a lot of guilt. But he didn’t’ expect as much of himself. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. It was a positive. The kids were healthy, they were safe. Did they watch more TV than Rebecca’s kids? Yes. But she was always feeling like she needed to do more. Those with expectations like Rebecca are the people who experience the most guilt. Because it’s impossible to meet those expectations. You’re always falling short and that’s where the guilt plays in.

That’s why I think it’s important to label these ideals and call them out as impossible because it takes the responsibility away from the individual. It’s not you, it’s not that you’re doing enough. It’s that these aspirations are ridiculous and it’s not your fault that you’re not doing that much. It’s that you’re being told that you should be doing things that are impossible to do. You’ve been set up to fail.

Parents have certainly been set up to fail. In the book you use the term “scaffolding” to refer to the support systems that parents have in place to get through it. Grandparents. Friends. Sitters. Now, during the pandemic, the scaffolding has fallen and the facade is crumbling.

We went from having these systems of support that allowed us to get through the day to them evaporating overnight. Working parents are experiencing a lot of desperation, exhaustion, anxiety, and emotions. We’ve been trying to create scaffolding from nothing.

We went back and talked to our nine families at the beginning of the pandemic to see how it was going and to see how everything had changed. But between the anxiety around job security, the pandemic itself, and this loss of scaffolding, they were incredibly overwhelmed. I asked Theresa and Chip Davies, the two working parents, how they were doing. She said, “Well, we’re not doing it.”

There was nothing that she could even say. She described their household and how they’re now both working at home, they have three kids — a 3-year-old, a 6-year-old, and a freshman in high school. They have no office space. They have their laptops on the dining room table. And the kids are milling about. They used to rely on her mother but her mother isn’t there anymore. You know, she could go to the car to do important meetings because there was no quiet space. It was overwhelming and I really worry for these parents moving into the fall.

For many working parents, one of the small positives here, is that coworkers are seeing their lives through Zoom. It’s opened a lot of people’s eyes.

Yes. I think you’re raising an incredibly important point. For people who don’t have kids, it’s been a real eye opener for how complicated it actually is. My co-author Melissa has a five-year-old, and he shows up every time that we’re on a Zoom call. Her husband is an essential worker and he’s out every day; her mom is a person she relies on. So she’s been doing it on her own. It gives us more empathy for her, more understanding. But doesn’t help anything actually get done, right?

This goes back to the ideal. We need to rethink what it’s possible for people to actually do. Melissa can’t do as much as she did before; Theresa Davies is not doing as much work as she was able to do before. The downside of Zoom is that children can be disruptive through it. And it’s also time and place specific. So even though we’re home, we need to embrace flexible work more and have less of the you-need-to-be-here-at-this-time-and-this-time because chunks of time are so variable and so hard to predict.

What do you think companies can do to help the parents on staff a bit more?

I think organizations are going to have to know more about what’s happening and work around people’s schedules. I also think they should pick up some of the costs of things parents need, whether that’s grocery delivery, in-home child care, or cleaning services. If people aren’t going to the office and if that continues and organizations don’t have rents and utility payments in the office spaces they have, some of that money needs to be redeployed to support people at home. We need more than just a laptop and internet. Companies need to step up and think about supporting remote workers more than just providing technology.

That would certainly be nice.

Wouldn’t it? The other thing that’s important to remember, and this goes back to technology, is [that we need to be] deliberate about how we use technology. We have that spiral of expectations that hasn’t gone away during the pandemic and organizations need to do to more intentionally ratchet those down. For example, batching messages so that emails or Slacks don’t go out late at night or early in the morning. We have to be really deliberate.

All of these discussions of family and social safety net come down to policies that support parents. What do parents need?

Paid family leave and sick leave, for both men and women. The cost of child care is enormous. So policies that help with that like Universal Pre-K and child care. One of the ideas that I like a lot is called Universal Family Care, or this idea of a social insurance fund that Caring Across Generations has talked about. The idea there is that people have a resource to meet whatever needs they need. So they can use that money to pay for child care, or household help, and if we have policies from the government that will no support what is now paid and invisible work in the child care and household work, that will go a long way for creating stability and creating space for families.

Aside from policy, what do parents need to remember?

We definitely need to let ourselves off the hook and let ourselves understand that we can’t do this alone. I was talking to a nurse who was saying that in her hospital the ingestion of foreign objects is up. Kids are eating things they shouldn’t be eating. So in that sense, if your kid doesn’t eat a battery today? That’s a win.