Family Matters

Mother Is Best? Why ‘Intensive Parenting’ Makes Moms More Depressed

In some circles, mothering has become as intense as an Olympic sport. Now researchers show that such zealous moms are less happy and more stressed than those who chill out

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In today’s parenting climate, having kids is not for the faint of heart. Parents, especially moms, are pelted with advice and recommendations: a “good” mom stimulates her children constantly, taking them to museums and signing them up for character-broadening extracurricular activities. She reads all the current literature on parenting. And she takes primary responsibility for the care and feeding of said children because, as psychology professor Holly Schiffrin notes, “we are the most qualified and you can’t trust anyone else, even husbands, because they won’t do it as well as we do.”

It should go without saying that Schiffrin doesn’t necessarily believe that; she’s just summing up some women’s attitudes. But with the never-ending debate over how best to raise our children, it may be time to ask whether all this emphasis on “intense mothering” is making moms unhappy.

That’s exactly what Schiffrin and colleagues at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Va., did, looking at whether women who endorse what they call “intensive parenting” beliefs — namely that women parent better than men and that children, viewed as sacred and fulfilling, should rightly be the center of a woman’s world — struggle more with mental health.

Their conclusion? Women who insist “mother is best” are less satisfied with their lives.

There’s even a term for when intensive parenting results in amped-up stress and guilt: the parenthood paradox. And, undoubtedly, you’ve seen the much-scrutinized piece in the Atlantic musing about women “having it all.” All of it “is saying the way we’re parenting today is taking a toll on women,” says Schiffrin, a study co-author. “We need to find that happy medium — all things in moderation. Yes, you need to be involved with your kids, but the standard we’re holding ourselves to is probably unachievable.”

(MORE: In Defense of Motherhood: Why We Keep Having Kids When They’re So Clearly Bad for Us)

For their study, published recently in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, the researchers relied on a measure of intense mothering, which they developed. It included five categories: stimulation of the kids; the view that mother is best, which the researchers called “essentialism”; the belief that child-centered parenting is really different from two generations ago when children were to be seen and not heard; the idea that children are sacred and should bring joy and love to their parents; the premise that parenting is challenging and exhausting.

The researchers looked at 181 moms of kids age 5 and under, and asked them to fill out an Internet questionnaire measuring their opinions about intensive mothering. Even after controlling for social support — help from Grandma, for example — researchers found that intensive mothers were not as happy. Moms who believe parenting is challenging and requires expert knowledge and skills were more stressed and more depressed than moms who didn’t think an arsenal of expertise was mandatory.

Moms who think stimulation is necessary and that children are sacred did not show differences from other moms, which surprised Schiffrin. It could be because the “challenging” measure “tended to gobble up the other explanations,” she said.

(MORE: Marissa Mayer: Is the Yahoo! CEO’s Pregnancy Good for Working Moms?)

It’s important to note that intensive mothering is not necessarily the province of stay-at-home moms. Whereas the stay-at-home contingent buys into the belief that they have to be hands-on, working moms tend to think that stimulation is paramount. “It’s quantity vs. quality,” says Schiffrin.

Truth be told, there’s likely some intensive mothering going on within all of us, at least to some degree. We talk about the importance of having downtime, yet we feel obliged to sign our kids up for a merry-go-round of basketball training–dance classes–piano lessons–chess club–sewing instruction because we’re convinced it’s good for them. And, quite possibly, because their friends are doing it and we don’t want our kids to miss out.

Yet, as author Judith Warner observed on Healthland’s partner blog Ideas, this concept of parenting as a competitive sport doesn’t apply to all socioeconomic brackets:

As Middlebury sociologist Margaret Nelson has written, parents of “lower educational and professional status” tend to have a very different style of interacting with their children — setting more “nonnegotiable limits” for example, investing a whole lot less in the cultivation of their children’s potentially limitless emotional and intellectual unfolding. This is not (just) because the lower-status women have different sorts of life demands pressing upon their time and other resources; it’s because they have a different idea of good motherhood, one that appears, perhaps, to offer some protection against the perfectionist misery of so many middle- or upper-middle-class moms.

It’s also worth reiterating that women who subscribe to this exhausting parenting philosophy — and their numbers are not few — do so because they believe it benefits their children. Next year, Schiffrin hopes to look at whether intensive mothering actually conveys advantages to kids. “A lot of research says children of depressed mothers don’t fare as well,” she says. “If this ideology is making us depressed, it may not benefit kids in the long run.”

After so much effort, wouldn’t that outcome be ironic?

MORE: Parents — Especially Dads — Are Happier than Their Childless Pals

17 comments
Juju Costa
Juju Costa

i think responsability leads to independency and sense of control of their lives

and its good

and it need to exist early on

no matter how much the kid have

otherwise, its gonna be bad

Juju Costa
Juju Costa

i think space for creativity, peace, and responsability hehehe very important

Nine Naturals Mom
Nine Naturals Mom

It does sounds exhausting. Perhaps, because many new moms are inundated with so much literature in child rearing, they get lost with the material?

Sudhir Sajwan
Sudhir Sajwan

Mother is next to God,in my eyes better than God as we have not seen God but web see the sacrifice of mother for us, how she neglects everything for her Child.

Mom Corps
Mom Corps

Very important information here. It's always a worth the discussion that being truly content means you find alignment between all aspects of your life: parenting, career, friends, community, etc.--Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO of Mom Corps 

LaidbackLady
LaidbackLady

I'm glad this topic was discussed. As a stay at home mom I have seen these mothers in action. They don't allow anyone, including their husbands, to do anything for or with their children. It is really difficult being around them because they are so intense, they make simple things stressful. And they want constant adulation for their supreme parenting skills, which I just can't bring myself to give. It is really frustrating when attachment parenting and this intense type of parenting are confused and considered one and the same.

Mandi Santiago
Mandi Santiago

Being a mother is hard work.  Hard work is tiring and can be -even when deeply satisfying, draining.  This doesn't mean don't work hard.  We do our best to give our kids every advantage we possibly can.  I'm not going to bring affirmative action into my parenting style and lower my standards simply because someone else has lower standards and claims 'happiness' as justification.  It ain't always gonna be ribbons and roses.  If you weren't willing to sacrifice for your kids you shouldn't have had them.  We're preparing our kids to compete in the job market.  Work ethic is not inborn.  Children live what they learn.  I would take any article encouraging parents to give their kids anything less than their best with a size extra large grain of salt.  

Killroy71
Killroy71

Good grief - we need to start asking whether "intensive mothering" is good for children! 

Like at tribal situations - those mothers are busy doing the stuff that keeps their families alive, and the mothering occurs on a group - and multi-generational - basis. And as soon as possible, they start teaching the kids to do little chores that help out.  

Mothering wasn't meant to be a solo activity. These moms need to learn how to share!

jacs14
jacs14

I see this in part as a control issue. This type of "over parenting" is a nice thought perhaps but in the real world you will not be with your 24/7 children to nuture/nourish/protect them. That type of bubble these "intensive" parents create for their children is unrealistic and doesn't set them up for true sucess. If you can teach you kids tobe good people, be independent and make good choices...then that is the best kind of parenting. As they say, the kids will be alright.

Kimsbenn
Kimsbenn

I think I was somewhat like that, always taking my son to events and learning opportunities. While he experienced I lot it may not have made a great influence on his decisions. My husband "couldn't do it right" having emotional issues himself from childhood. My son has little respect for him now and I believe that was from me not trusting his him to make good parental decisions. I didn't have to say it out loud. As most parents do I would have done some things differently but overall my intense parenting gave him great experiences but probably little changed the effect of the community culture expectations we live in. My theory: teach them to love who they are and find satisfaction in their own success first and to never be tired of doing good to others. That will take anyone a long way to be happy.

daftheduck
daftheduck

"You can’t trust anyone else, even husbands, because they won’t do it as well as", if that's the attitude then why in the world should women get married, and how sexist too. The most likely reason for women to stress over raising children is because they want full ability or control of their children's livelihood. Children weren't meant to be controlled by one parent and it's a two team job between a husband and a wife; if not so there is no excuse for stress nor should having the presence of your child stress you. 

Talendria
Talendria

Here's the problem in a nutshell:  I was discussing local public schools with another mother recently, and she informed me that a 4.2 GPA isn't high enough to get your child into college. She went on to say that she'd been told several years ago that a child's academic fate is sealed by their first set of standardized test scores in 2nd grade.

I'm not saying that either of these assertions is true, but the fact that so many women apparently subscribe to them is making us all crazy.  If you allow yourself to believe that any one event is going to make or break your child's future, your whole family is going to be miserable.  

I personally believe that the best thing you can teach a child is how to achieve happiness.  If you examine all the rich, successful people in the world, how many of them are happy versus drugged up and dysfunctional?  How many of them can't stay married, and how many of them feel like strangers to their own children?  

Every parent wants to raise a successful child in the material sense (money, awards, fame), but they should also want to raise a spiritually satisfied human being.  I'm not talking about spirituality in a religious sense, at least not necessarily, but a person who can assess his own needs (as well as those of his family and friends) and find creative ways to address them.  You can't learn that kind of self-awareness and empathy when the hustle and bustle of life prohibits contemplation.

RobertSF
RobertSF

People intense at anything are often unhappy. The intensity itself is a symptom of their unhappiness.

ElsiecmqCahill
ElsiecmqCahill

Louise implied I am blown away that people can get paid $5185 in a few weeks on the network. did you look this(Click on menu Home)

Heather Harrison
Heather Harrison

As a child psychologist and a mom, I've

spent lots of time discussing what I think is "wrong" with our

generation of parents (myself included). Here's one of the biggest differences

that I think exists and that is that we are the generation who have all been to

therapy and blame our parents for our mistakes. So, when the table is turned

and we have children of our own, we are terrified of "damaging" them

in the way we feel our parents "damaged" us. I talk more about it here: 

 http://www.themommypsychologis...