Mother’s Day Reflections on the Diverse Experiences of Motherhood
Mindy E. Scott, Marta Alvira-Hammond, Elizabeth Wildsmith
This Mother’s Day, the MAST Center and Child Trends have teamed up to compile some facts about the diverse (and changing) faces of motherhood, and some of the challenges that moms face. We first present information on childbearing itself and on women and mothers’1 relationships, family structures, and work experiences. We also consider some key challenges that mothers face and touch on some programs and policies that can support equitable outcomes for all mothers.
Motherhood in the United States takes many forms and has changed over time.
- Most women in the United States expect to become a mother. Recent data show that most young women ages 15 to 19 (87%) intend to have children at some point in their life. However, in the United States and many other countries, women generally end up having fewer births than they intended.
- For 2015 to 2019, 56.7 percent of women ages 15 to 49 had ever given birth to a biological child, including 84.3 percent of women ages 40 to 49. Women in this latter age group, who are closer to the end of their childbearing years, were most likely to report having ever had children: On average, they most often reported having two children (33%), followed by one (17.5%), three (22.4%), or four or more children (10.7%).
- Being a stepmom is also quite common. Among adult American women under age 50 who were living with a partner in 2017, 35 percent were in a stepfamily.
- The age at which women first become mothers has increased over the past several decades. In 2019, the median age at first birth was 30, compared to 27 in 1990. As a result, younger generations are having fewer children than older generations of women.
- Among all mothers who live with a child (biological, step, or adopted), roughly two thirds (68%) report having a child under age 18 in the house, half (50%) report having a child under age 12, and just under one third report having a child under age 6 (30%). Many other mothers live with adult children older than age 18 (32%).
- Among mothers living with any biological, step, or adopted child under age 18, 70 percent are living with a married partner, 7 percent are living with a cohabiting partner, and 23 percent are solo parents (i.e., they don’t live with a romantic partner).
- In 2021, most mothers with a child under age 18 were working (or looking for work) (71.2%). This percentage was somewhat lower for mothers with children under age 6 (65.6%) than for mothers with older children (75.5%).
Mothers face stressors that go beyond just raising their families.
It’s good to celebrate motherhood, but it’s also important to remember that moms can use our support. Parenting can be stressful and challenging—even in the best of circumstances. U.S. mothers lack many of the supports provided elsewhere in the world, which can make parenting even more difficult and negatively impact mother’s well-being. For example:
- The U.S. maternal mortality rate (defined as the rate of pregnancy-related deaths from any cause related to the pregnancy or its management, and occurring during pregnancy or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy) has been higher than that of other high-income countries for many years and has gotten worse.
- There are wide and increasing disparities in maternal mortality within the United States itself as a result of inequitable policies, practices, and treatment of mothers within the health care and other support systems, as well as uneven access to supports and services. The maternal mortality rate is roughly two to three times higher among Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women than among non-Hispanic White women. There are similar racial/ethnic disparities in infant mortality, including stillbirths.
- Many mothers experience mental health distress, including postpartum depression and anxiety. Mental health conditions are the most common pregnancy and childbirth complication in the United States, and suicide and drug overdose jointly represent the leading cause of death for new mothers. Barriers to accessing mental health screenings and treatment—such as cost and availability of services, discrimination, and stigma around mental health—contribute to disparities and leave many new mothers without adequate support.
- The United States is far behind other wealthy countries in mandated paid parental leave—and is the only country out of 41 high- and middle-income countries with no national paid parental leave. As a result, mothers who work paying jobs often face substantial stress even if their spouse or partner is earning income or sharing caregiving responsibilities.
- The high cost of child care adds another layer of stress for mothers. Most parents say they are more concerned about child care costs now than in years prior—and these high costs are a major reason why more young adults don’t want or aren’t sure about having children. Barriers to accessing high-quality child care include limited supply and capacity, affordability, and availability of child care that supports child development and meets parents’ needs.
- The COVID-19 pandemic and its enduring effects exacerbated many of these stressors and disparities, and brought new ones.
Programs, policies, and services are available to support mothers and reduce disparities in maternal and infant well-being.
As we’ve shown, mothers need our help—and they need this support to be delivered equitably, regardless of their race, language spoken, or socioeconomic status. A number of programs, policies, and services at the state and federal levels directly address mothers’ challenges and aim to improve health equity and reduce disparities to better support all mothers. For example:
- Important state and federal efforts are underway to improve the health of Black mothers and children. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Office of Health Equity has a number of initiatives to prevent pregnancy-related deaths and improve maternal health outcomes for Black women and mothers.
- A number of community-based efforts to improve maternal health outcomes and reduce disparities show promise as models that policymakers, providers, and other sectors could draw on to improve maternal health.
- The CDC’s How Right Now campaign can connect mothers and children to trusted resources, including a range of crisis response hotlines. Local crisis centers can be located through the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
- The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline for moms and their families, 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (1-833-943-5746), provides free and confidential 24/7 access to professional counselors in English and Spanish, with interpreter services in 60 languages.
- The federal Office of Child Care within the Administration for Children and Families supports working families, including those with low incomes, by improving access to affordable, high-quality early care and afterschool programs.
- The Administration for Children and Families also provides resources on parenting programs through the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program supports pregnant people and parents with young children who live in communities that face greater risks and barriers to achieving positive maternal and child health outcomes.
1We acknowledge that people other than those who identify as women can have children. For brevity, and reflecting the terminology used in the data sources cited, we refer to mothers and women throughout this resource.