Moms with young children are feeling a lot of pressure. In a new poll, 8 in 10 say it’s important to be “perfect” in their parenting role. But when you break it down, there’s a generational divide: Gen Z moms and millennials moms are very different on some key measures. And their goals aren’t the same, either.

A new What to Expect poll finds that 83% of Gen Z moms, who are ages 18 to 26, strive for their view of perfection. And 77% of millennial moms — who are 27 to 41 — think they need to be perfect, too, though how they define that varies.

Gen Z moms put the most pressure on themselves and fewer of them are confident in themselves as mothers (70%), compared to millennial moms (77%), according to the new report.

The poll included 3,232 U.S. women ages 18-54 who were either pregnant or who have at least one child age 8 or younger.

The poll was conducted by Everyday Health Group, the parent company of What to Expect, an online pregnancy and parenting resource. The mobile app and website are produced by Heidi Murkoff, author of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” along with medical and other experts. Company media relations manager Matthew Orsini said the content is continuously updated and reviewed by a medical review board and pregnancy and parenting health experts.

The poll asked the women about 26 different parenting ideals and how they define the perfect mom.

Gen Z moms were more intent on accomplishing 11 goals, compared to the older group of mothers. Those included keeping kids busy with activities, ensuring tech-free time, being open to letting kids explore their own identity and putting family first ahead of their own needs or wants, among others. Seven in 10 of them say they want to teach their offspring to be “accepting of all.”

The report quotes Dr. Shari Lusskin, a perinatal psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Medical Center and member of the What to Expect medical review board, on why that might be true. Lusskin said it’s possible that Gen Z puts extra pressure on themselves because of their childhood environment. “Younger parents who have grown up in the age of social media are used to having their every move discussed and critiqued, and that’s no different for parenting,” she said.

Millennial moms rated just two parenting ideals higher than did Gen Z: modeling a strong work ethic (50% compared to 45% of Gen Z) and having a successful partnership/marriage (72% vs. 68% of Gen Z).

“As a millennial mom myself, I was surprised at the sheer number of parenting aspirations Gen Z moms place a higher importance on, compared to millennial moms,” Dominique De Lope, What to Expect’s senior manager of trade insights, told the Deseret News. “I initially thought it would be more balanced, but a close look at the data does reveal that younger parents have placed a higher importance on many core ideals.”

The two generations were the same on making sure the food their children eat is healthy and on staying physically well themselves.

The trends did change somewhat depending on whether a woman was a mom for the first time or had more than one child. The report noted, for example, that a mother “might grow more willing to ease up on screen time limits as their children grow bigger (and older) compared to how they initially felt when expecting or caring for a newborn.”

De Lope said she hopes the report will help parents feel seen and know that other parents feel many of the same pressures they feel.

Gen Z vs. millennial moms

Gen Z moms think they’re better at:

  • Keeping kids busy with lots of activities.
  • Staying open to children exploring their own identity.
  • Focusing on children’s mental and emotional well-being.

Millennial moms think they’re better at:

  • Adapting easily to setbacks and failures.
  • Modeling a strong work ethic.
  • Earning an income.

Age and experience count

Millennial moms in greater numbers feel confidence in their parenting role, 76% vs. 70% of Gen Z. Lusskin said part of that could be the isolating effects of the pandemic shutdown. “The younger and less experienced you are as a parent, the more you need experienced people to help show you the ropes,” she said in the report.

The report noted a list of barriers during COVID-19, including “social distancing, child care challenges, virtual school and less access to support systems like grandparents.”

The older moms also feel like they’re able to model a strong work ethic and adapt easily to setbacks.

Peer pressure

One survey respondent wrote that she felt pressured to be perfect at motherhood in part because while she was on maternity leave, she had time for more social media than usual. “You see them all being perfect and I barely had my life together even though it wasn’t realistic since I just had my son,” she said in the survey.

That didn’t surprise De Lope. “The unrealistic expectations set largely by social media for both generations of moms was eye-opening,” she said. “It suggests that constant scrutiny and highlight reels have subtly resulted in parenting ideals that just aren’t attainable.”

What children need is pretty basic, according to Cynthia Osborne, a professor of early childhood education and policy at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved in the study. “From a developmental perspective, children are actually pretty simple. They don’t need fancy toys or expensive camps or full schedules. What they need are safe, stable, stimulating, loving environments,” she said.

Obsorne called parenting “simultaneously the most rewarding and challenging job there is. We want to do what is best for our children, and sometimes that means pushing ourselves to the brink of what is possible.”

The things that are truly important?

“Spending time with your child; responding to their babbles and questions; singing songs, reading together, asking them about their day —  these are the parenting practices that promote optimal brain and body development, and bring joy to our children and ourselves,” said Osborne, who is also executive director of the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center at Vanderbilt.

De Lope said the survey responses showed, though, that while aspirations were high, the women who were polled hadn’t lost sight of reality. Even with their own high expectations of perfection for themselves, both millennial and Gen Z moms realize the perfect mom is no more real than a unicorn.

“While the majority of parents, regardless of age, feel it’s important to be the perfect mom, very few believe the perfect mom actually exists. I hope that number (71%) is a reminder to moms to give themselves grace. Being a mom is difficult, and we’re all just trying to do our best,” she said by email.

Anxious parenting?

Parental anxiety is nothing new, but the survey findings suggest it seemed to increase “as the world held its breath for two to three years” in the pandemic, De Lope said, noting that “Gen Z has been experiencing higher rates of anxiety overall,” compared to millennial moms.

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She said that’s true even though yet-to-be-released data suggests anxiety “may be waning some.” Still, she added, “parents today are dealing with many challenges, including managing ongoing concerns over their child’s development, the need for constant vigilance and financial concerns.”

Nor is worry something that only new moms or moms of young kids feel. In October, the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy released the eighth annual American Family Survey, which asked parents if they were “extremely concerned” about certain issues for one of their children.

Overall, more than 1 in 5 in the nationally representative poll said they worried a lot about their children’s physical health, while around a quarter worried about social health, mental health and academic achievement.

That survey also found a lot of families doing things together at least weekly, including eating dinner (76%), watching television or playing games together (73%), as well as doing chores as a family (59%). Those are patterns that typically start — or don’t — when children are young.