The Duchess opened up about feeling isolated and struggling with new motherhood. Research suggests as many as 85% of millennial moms feel the same.

By Ashley Abramson
Oct 22, 2019 @ 11:00 am
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Since giving birth to her son, Archie, in May, Meghan Markle has been subject to non-stop scrutiny by the media — and, in general, a lack of support from the public in her new roles as wife and mother. Visibly tender, Markle opens up about her difficult pregnancy and postpartum period in a now-viral clip from an upcoming documentary about her tour of Africa with her husband, Prince Harry.

“You add this on top of being a new mom or trying to be a newlywed,” Markle says, then trails off. “Thank you for asking if I’m okay. Not many people have asked if I’m okay.” Then the ITV reporter clarifies if that means the Duchess, in fact, is not okay, to which she admits that yes — pregnancy and new motherhood have been a struggle for her.

This clip is heart-wrenching to watch, not just because it’s hard to watch a woman tearfully share her struggles with new motherhood — but because it paints so clearly just how isolating and difficult new-motherhood can be for some, Duchess or not.

Like Markle, the majority of American mothers feels neglected: In a 2019 survey conducted by the parenting site Motherly, 85 percent of millennial moms said they don’t feel supported or understood by society, even as they themselves feel more personally defined by motherhood than ever. An isolating status quo actress Natalie Portman recently called out on Instagram.

Under the right conditions, motherhood can be a catalyst of psychological growth and an opportunity for women to contribute to both their families and society in meaningful ways; a growing body of research shows that the act of mothering can expand women’s identities and equip them with skills that can transfer to other relationships and even the workplace. But this growth doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It requires support — which, thanks to a society that simultaneously idealizes families and continues not to meet their most basic needs, most mothers will never experience. There’s an important caveat: To experience the transformation of motherhood, a woman must not carry the burden of mothering alone.

The evolutionary biologist Sarah Hrdy found that early human mothers only become nurturing to their young under the condition that they had external support, or “other” mothers — which included fathers, close relatives, and other community members committed to protecting and providing for the baby. Our modes of foraging and feeding may have changed since then, but the central need for a little help has not.

While the visceral parts of mothering — growing and birthing a baby — are solitary tasks, taking care of a child is a collective one. In fact, research has shown that parents’ success in nurturing their children depends on the breadth and depth of the community around them.

In her 2015 research, Dr. Liz Hall, professor of psychology at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, found that motherhood forces women to restructure their identities and lives, which means it can also expand their identities and broaden their perspectives. Hall’s earlier research found motherhood allows women to develop new personal qualities, increase relational capacity and concern for others, create a sense of lasting influence for younger generations, and even enhance their engagement with their careers. Indeed, Meghan Markle has taken up mental health advocacy work this year, shortly after returning from maternity leave.

But Hall says these paths of growth are contingent on self reflection and social engagement, which are hard to come by for the multitude of moms who don’t have the time, money, or even the physical space to spend on themselves. Currently, according to Pew Data, nearly a quarter of U.S. moms live with a child without a spouse or partner. A third of these mothers live below the poverty line, making childcare a near impossible expense, especially when childcare subsidies only cover the average cost of care for infants in three states.

Hall’s work shows that when reflective opportunities like friendships, therapy, and self care are present — when a woman isn’t isolated — motherhood can cause a woman to be more self aware, compassionate, empathetic, and creative, skills that not only contribute to a sense of personal satisfaction but can also profoundly benefit her other relationships and her career. A woman’s growth in motherhood, then, is a benefit to the world around her.

But society will only benefit from mothers as much as it provides for them. Are they offered parental leave, flexible work environments, and opportunities for promotion? Is there a partner or other involved caregiver “leaning in” at home, so the mother can do so at work or in her other areas of interest? The U.S. is currently the only developed country where full-time employees aren’t federally guaranteed paid maternity leave; subsequently, nearly half of employers opt out of providing it at all. Significantly fewer offer paid leave for dads and non-birthing parents, who are a crucial part of the support moms say they are missing.

Amy Henderson, founding CEO of Tendlab, a consultancy that works inside companies to make the workplace better for parents, says a woman’s contributions to her place of work correspond directly to the level of support she perceives in her work environment. Markle, for example, has said that the itinerary for her royal tour of Africa was planned around her son’s feeding schedule; what a simple and yet nearly-unheard-of benefit for a working parent.

“My research shows motherhood can have a very positive impact on a woman’s career, but in the absence of deep support, these capacities actually degrade and devolve,” Henderson says.

The same principle holds true for mothers in general, Henderson says: “A woman’s ability to meet the transformation that motherhood offers is dependent on her being resourced in all areas of her life. That a woman feels deeply supported — that she’s not all alone — is really important.”

Perhaps the most gripping part of the Meghan Markle interview wasn’t her admitting that she isn’t “okay,” but that she seemed profoundly touched, and even surprised, to have even been asked in the first place. That the subject of such extreme public fascination feels forgotten should tell us all we need to know about how the everyday mothers in our midst feel.

The artist Sarah Walker said becoming a mother is like discovering a new room in a house where you already live. Imagine tackling something so disorienting all alone. Now, what if we were able to sit in those new rooms together? When we prioritize hearing and seeing mothers, and being with them no matter their station in life or needs, only then will we all experience the benefits of their monumental period of growth.

As Markle said in her interview, “It's not enough to just survive something, right? That's not the point of life. You've got to thrive, you've got to feel happy.”

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