The day before her son started kindergarten last year, Laura Harrison's mind was consumed by fears that she had failed to prepare him for this milestone. Her 4-year-old, Jack, had never been to preschool; he'd never stood in a line of kids before. He sometimes cried when he was separated from his mom. She decided to email his teacher.
I felt like it wouldn't be fair to anyone not to give you the head's up about our situation, she wrote.
It felt impossible not to compare herself to the other moms who seemed to navigate the back-to-school rituals with ease. Friends were posting pictures on Instagram of beautiful Bento-box lunches that they'd packed, while Harrison, who was diagnosed with a severe neurological disorder after a car accident in 2001, couldn't buy Jack's school supplies herself because she was preparing for brain surgery. A dear friend shopped instead.
"There was that little voice in the back of your head that says - 'You've already failed, because you couldn't even pick out your kid's pencils,'" she says. "I think our generation doesn't give ourselves enough credit for how incredibly hard it is to silently combat social media, and all these expectations to be a perfect parent."
For generations, mothers have shouldered the weight of an illusory ideal, the daunting societal standards that shape our perception of what motherhood should be. This pressure is particularly acute for millennial moms who arrived at parenthood in the age of social media, with a deluge of imagery and information constantly at their fingertips. There are parenting forums and TikTok stars and experts and influencers, discussing what the latest study reveals about screen time, how you should respond when your child has an emotional outburst, why the colors you choose to decorate a child's bedroom might affect their mental health. There are friends and fellow parents, posting carefully curated snapshots of their family lives.
"Millennial culture is so driven by consumption and demonstration of one's values through aesthetics," says Sara Petersen, a writer, mom of three and author of "Momfluenced: Inside The Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture." "I think we've always been performing motherhood for various audiences, but with the advent of social media, it feels as though we are onstage at all times."
Polls of millennial moms show the impact of this inescapable messaging - that they have internalized the importance of being a "perfect mom"; that they are extremely stressed, and adept at hiding that stress from even their own families. They confess that they are exhausted by this perpetual, ambient pressure, and eager to escape it.
This echoes a subtle shift that Petersen has noticed in certain corners of the digital realm: More parents, including celebrities and influencers, are sharing glimpses of their own vulnerability and imperfections; some are talking about bigger concerns that affect their children and the world they'll inhabit - like public health inequity, systemic racism, gun violence and climate change. More millennial moms are rejecting the impossible expectation that their parenting must somehow be perfect when their lives, and their world, are most certainly not.
"People have less of an appetite for these picture-perfect ideals of motherhood, and that's post-pandemic particularly," Petersen says. "Depending on your own layers of marginalization, you were already acutely aware of systemic injustices, but the pandemic made even the most privileged of us have to look at this, because we were being impacted when our care infrastructure crumbled."
The pandemic was also the reason Harrison's son was home before he started kindergarten; because of her health issues, and because Jack was born with a kidney disorder, they took added precautions to avoid covid. Keeping her family healthy felt unequivocal, until Harrison was suddenly worried about the consequences of those choices.
When Jack's teacher emailed a reply after his first day at school, Harrison braced herself as she opened it.
I did see that he did not know many of the rules. . . . However, he was eager to please and did a great job once he learned them! The teacher wrote. We truly had a great day, and your son is awesome!
It felt affirming, Harrison says, a reminder of what really mattered. "He might not have gotten all the socialization that the media and other parents will tell you is so valuable," she says, "but he has gotten a whole different perspective on the human experience."
Beyond the inherent human impulse to compare and compete, Petersen believes an aestheticized vision of motherhood holds a certain escapist allure; it's a way to distract from a deeper sense of existential instability. We can't individually determine the fate of our country or our climate, or guarantee our children's safety - but we can cook a wholesome dinner, or respond to a tantrum according to the guidance of a parenting expert, or craft whimsical birthday party decor.
"The hold that this stuff has on us is due to a desire for control, the illusion of control, especially within the realm of parenting," she says. "If there's anything uncontrollable, it's parenting."
Tara Grier is among the millennial moms choosing to embrace this truth. When Grier, a 40-year-old business-owner and mother of two boys in Maryland, was first pregnant, she had a vision of how life would look: "My house would still be the same way, and I would still be skinny, and I would still be fine working 8 to 5," she says. "Then I realized, after the fact, that I don't care about any of that stuff. I just want my kids to have an authentic childhood."
What that means for her, she says, is that she doesn't care if her boys come home covered in mud after tromping through the creek. Their house is often strewn with toys and art supplies. Her sons aren't enrolled in a ton of extracurricular activities, and she isn't particularly worried about how often they eat chicken nuggets for dinner.
"Once I realized my elder son had ADHD, the idea of everything going perfectly was completely and totally out of the question," she says. A civilized, sit-down dinner every night, together, as a family? Not going to happen.
She notices other parents around her struggling to achieve a goal of who they should be and how their children should perform. "Everybody is really obsessed with academics in this area, and I understand that, but I don't feel the same way that a lot of people do about it. And, oh my God, they have their kids in 65 activities, they're doing travel baseball at age 5, and it's costing $10,000 a year," Grier says. Some of those same moms will then confess to how depleted and overbooked they feel, she says. "A lot of it is 'Keeping Up with the Joneses,' and not owning your authentic self."
Some moms are finding a way out from under the more superficial pressures by focusing their attention on larger concerns. Elizabeth Bechard, a mom of 7-year-old twins in Vermont and a senior policy analyst with Moms Clean Air Force, says she finds catharsis and purpose in addressing her climate anxiety through her work.
She still feels guilty when she can't parent the way she wants to, she says, but she is also cognizant of the way that our complex, changing world impacts her ability to do so: This summer, when her children were trapped inside due to wildfire smoke in the air or extreme flooding that kept them from attending their outdoor nature camp, they spent a lot of time in front of screens. She couldn't occupy them herself; she had to work.
"Millennial moms have so much advice about how to parent available to us, it is coming in from everywhere. We have data on why screen time is bad for our kids," she says. "Knowing that screen time is really bad for your kids, it is a painful knowledge to carry when it's really the only option that you have to keep them safe and do your job if you're a mom who works outside the home."
One morning when the air quality was code red, Bechard left her twins and ducked into another room to attend a meeting online. When she emerged, she found her son hiding under a blanket in his bed, eating caffeinated coffee beans. Then she noticed that he'd found a hot glue gun and used it to cement a pile of sticks together in the living room.
It felt like a parenting fail, she says, but it also felt like a reminder of what it means to live with the repercussions of unsafe air pollution. "Being a 'good,' present mother to my kids now competes, daily, with being the mother who's fighting for their chance at a livable future," she says. "What else matters other than just connecting with your kids? The moments of joy that I do have with my kids are so much more precious, because it all feels so fleeting."
Layo George, a nurse and entrepreneur who created an online community that helps women of color navigate their maternal and perinatal health care, has found a similar sense of clarity through her work. Black women and Black mothers face a complex set of societal expectations, she says.
"When we're talking about motherhood, there is this general idea that Black women specifically are 'super women,'" she says. "I remember in the last election, everyone was like, 'Black women saved democracy!' We are just called upon to be more, to everyone."
That pressure is oppressive and unrealistic, she says, and she has noticed more women in her community resisting it by choosing not to become mothers at all. "I hear a lot of, 'Oh, Black women are dying in childbirth, and I don't want to be a mom' - like that's one way that Black women are rejecting this idea of 'I can do it all.'"
George now has a 5-year-old son and a four-year-old tech company. "I wanted to have more than one kid," she says, "But, how? Like, how do I do that, and balance the tech company, too? I know you have to get up and do it, but just doing it, that's what's breaking us and getting us to the point of, 'I can't, I just have to choose.'"
She is learning to feel less guilty about the things she can't always do for her son, she says, and pours her attention into the moments that feel most important. Like the time her son's preschool classmate asked him where he was really from, and she realized her child had encountered racism for the first time at age 3.
"I cried," she says. "I didn't want that to happen to him yet. It was so early." But she guided him through it - you are from Savannah, Georgia, she told him, just because you are Black does not mean you are less American - and that is the most essential work of her parenthood, as she sees it. "I want him to be safe, and I want him to have a skill set to thrive in the world," she says. "I have picked my battles, and I'm not doing the other stuff."
Freeing oneself from the pressure of perfect requires some measure of letting go. Like most of life's biggest commitments, it's a choice that isn't made only once, but every day. These course-corrections can feel easier to make alongside like-minded fellow parents, Petersen says.
"I really do think that even having a few friends who say, 'I'm opting out of this, are you going to do that, too?' - it feels like someone has given you permission when you're doing it in community," she says. "Even if it's just you and another friend saying, 'I'm not doing Christmas cards this year.' That's it! And it's kind of shocking when you opt out of some of the more unnecessary pressures, you do it, and it's like, 'Oh, that's actually really easy. You can just say no.'"
A few things George doesn't do: Read aloud to her child every night. Give him a bath every day. Prepare a perfect sandwich for his lunchbox. "I'm tired, too," she says. "And I'm better at accepting those things because now I have five years under my belt of, 'Okay, I'm going to fail at that, and that's fine.'"
What Bechard doesn't do: Fret over her children's grades. Keep her house looking immaculate. Maintain every adult friendship the way she wishes she could. "I try to accept my limits with grace and humor," she says. "Some days are better than others."
Harrison has let go of certain pressures, too - like worrying about how her child will fit in at school, and feeling guilty every time she can't do something that an able-bodied mom could do. Her son will start first grade this fall, and Harrison is excited this time.
"There are going to be times when I can't pick him up at the bus stop, and my husband has to do it, but those times are not as often as the times when I can get there myself," she says. "Making sure that my son is loved, and that he knows he is loved - that is ultimately the best that I can do for him."