Mothers are wonders! Or so said a Mother’s Day card I recently saw. One of many in the how-does-she-do-it? vein, this number featured a drawing of a rose with “For All You Do” scrawled in loopy red script. You get it: the recipient does a lot. In exchange, she gets this solemn acknowledgment and maybe a gift.

More than anything else, the hushed awe that gets trotted out at Mother’s Day each year makes me remember how completely unmoored our fantasies about mothers have become. Take the ridiculous though widely embraced notion, implicit in this card, that mothers give and give simply because they’re generous and kind. Ask most mothers and I think they’ll tell you that they’d prefer not to be giving quite so much.

The absurd corollary is that this “generosity” is never tapped out. We’re wrong there, too. Even the Giving Tree eventually just became a stump. American mothers are going to run out of gas at some point. In fact, recent data tracking the progress of women suggest that we already are. 

Signs of sputtering were first spotted as far back as 2003, when sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman made a startling discovery. Sifting through huge national surveys to determine how women were faring in the economy, politics and public opinion, they found that, in the mid-nineties, for the first time in three decades, the lines plotting women’s progress in areas such as annual earnings, hourly wages, occupational integration and public office holding weren’t headed upward anymore. Gender gaps in each realm had been steadily closing for much of the last quarter of the twentieth century, nearing though never reaching parity. But everywhere the trio of researchers looked, what had recently been hopeful inclines were inexplicably leveling off or even pointing down.

When Cotter and crew were digging through their data, Oprah was already the top earner on television. Madeleine Albright had already served as the first female secretary of state. A majority of college and medical school graduates were female. And countless women had muscled their way into the once gated professional communities of business, politics and the military. It’s not surprising that Americans expected a continuation of the rapid-fire series of achievements for women in almost every aspect of public life.

Yet, across racial, economic and ethnic categories, American women were apparently no longer catapulting forward. Progress hadn’t ceased all at once or even in the same way. But in every measure Cotter studied, including occupational segregation, participation in politics, the gender wage gap and overall participation in the workforce, the trajectory had been changing for women. Cotter mapped out the full, startling array of parallel trends in a 2006 paper he called “The End of the U.S. Gender Revolution.” Depending on where it was printed, the title was sometimes followed by a question mark, at other times a period, and any fate—a nosedive, a leveling off or a return to their previous ascent—still seems possible for American women.

There are plenty of reasonable theories as to why women’s progress might be stalling, but my personal favorite is—ahem—my own. I call it the bursting of the gender-equity bubble, for lack of a better term. By this I mean that women, in aggregate, are running up against the limits of what they can achieve given the lack of institutional and public support for families. Whether we are experiencing a major collective hiccup in our march toward gender equality or are headed for an inglorious mass landing, the shift in our trajectory has to be seen as a reflection of a lack of policies that would make the combination of work and caretaking feasible. It should skewer the fantasy that we’re a nation that truly enables women to be equal to men. Pop.

You could also refer to this as the boiling of the (female) frog theory, since it borrows from the famous story of the poor frog that’s immersed in water, which is then gradually heated to a boil. Generally, I think the point of the story is that the frog doesn’t even notice what’s going on until it’s too late, though maybe a better lesson for our purposes would be that she winds up dead.

Anyway, to properly understand the frog theory, you need to know that the United States has one of the highest fertility rates of any developed nation—around 2.1 children per woman—and that American women also have one of the highest rates of full-time employment in the world. At the same time (and here’s where the water starts to heat up), we have very little support for working parents. We’re one of a small handful of countries worldwide that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. We have few flexible work options, and no national system of decent, affordable childcare. So compared to women in other nations, Americans are having lots of kids, while working a lot in fairly inflexible jobs, with little help.

International data suggest that no population can sustain such double duty, i.e., high levels of both fertility and women’s employment, for long without infrastructure to support working women. That helps explain why the fertility rates have been dropping in so many countries as women enter the workforce en masse—and why so many of these countries have tried to combat the problem by increasing the availability of things like childcare and flextime work.

So how do we do it? Partly the answer lies in the fact that working mothers in the U.S. sleep a mere six hours a night on average. Our depression rates are high, our free time almost nonexistent. That is to say, we’re doing it, but we’re miserable. The other part of the answer takes us back to Cotter’s mysteriously flattening and falling trend lines. Without a drop in family size or any major accommodations from the government and employers, something else had to give. So perhaps what he was seeing was women pulling back slightly from public life because they simply could not continue doing all that they were doing.

Like the frog’s water, the combined burden of work and family had been bearable up to a point and then simply wasn’t anymore. It’s not unlike the housing bubble—or the bursting of it. Just as more and more families became unable to pay their mortgages, more and more women began to reckon with their own untenable work-life realities. If the housing bubble formed around our fantasy that everyone could afford his or her own home, economic reality be damned, women’s progress itself was a bubble, based on the fantasy that women could sign themselves up for demanding jobs with insufficient help on the domestic front, no social safety net and no cost to their families—or to themselves.

We like to think of ourselves as an enlightened country, having come such a long way, baby. We pat ourselves on the back for having so many women in the workplace—and we do. In terms of sheer numbers, women’s workforce participation relative to men’s is at a record high. But this is a crude measure of gender equality in the workplace, and largely reflects the fact that men have been harder hit by the recession than women. The problem is we haven’t instituted the laws and the policies—paid parental leave, flex-time work and a national system of good, affordable childcare, to name just three—that would make those women’s lives livable. Without them, Americans have become international exceptions not just in terms of fertility and work hours, but also in the duress of our daily lives.

So instead of a heartfelt card and some chocolates, or maybe in addition to them, I have a feeling most mothers would like some of the supports that would make it possible to keep on our upward trajectory without boiling over. I know I would.