Smother Mother: Why Intensive Child-Rearing Hurts Parents and Kids

A new study delves into what makes extreme mothers more stressed and depressed

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Believing yourself to be the absolute center of your child’s universe, the one and only sun around which his or her happiness and well-being wax and wane, isn’t good for your mental health.

That, at least, is the message from a team of psychologists at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Stumped for years by the “parenthood paradox” – the fact that, while people generally consider parenthood to be one of the most fulfilling experiences in life, social science research often finds that it leads to negative mental health outcomes – colleagues Kathryn M. Rizzo, Holly M. Schiffrin and Miriam Liss decided to find a way to test to see whether it was particular attitudes toward child-rearing, rather than parenthood per se, that led some mothers, at least, to a markedly less happy place.

(MORE: The Mythical Choice of the Stay-At-Home Mom)

They had 181 women with young children take a survey specifically designed to test the degree of the mothers’ adherence to “intensive mothering beliefs” – i.e. the general notion that a woman should ideally devote her ideally herself heart, body and brain to her children, at each and every moment of each and every day. What they found was that the women who most strongly believed that they were their child’s “most capable parent” (in other words, had what the researchers labeled “essentialist” views of motherhood as woman’s unique calling) had higher levels of stress and lower levels of life satisfaction. Those who subscribed strongly to the belief that parenting is “difficult” or “challenging” showed higher levels of depression and stress, as well as lower levels of life satisfaction. Those who believed that parents’ lives should revolve around their children also reported lower levels of satisfaction with their own lives.

(MORE: Parents Do What’s Right For Them, Not For The Kids)

The trap that too many women today have fallen into, the authors warned at the end of their paper, is believing that, to be good mothers, they must “sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children’s cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes.” Given that decades of scientific studies have solidly established that having a stressed, depressed or otherwise unhappy mother is bad for children’s mental health, it’s quite likely, they said, that “intensive mothering” is harmful for kids, too.

“Intensive parenting may have the opposite effect on children from what parents intend,” they concluded.

Many sociologists have previously noted, however, that fealty to “hyper-involved,” “intense” parenting practices isn’t equally shared by all women of different ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic classes. 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 “non-negotiable 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.

(MORE: How Feminism Begat Intensive Mothering)

Nelson has, in recent years, focused her work on the particular pathologies of what she calls the “professional middle class.” Chief among them: the web of anxious, child-centered behavior that we’ve come to know as “helicopter parenting” and that, Nelson has said, is chiefly “designed to maintain and reproduce class status.” In other words, a great deal of what so many of today’s most assiduously devoted mothers do is designed, consciously or not, to assuage their anxiety. Is it their belief that what they’re doing is vitally and uniquely essential that leads them to be stressed and depressed, as the Mary Washington researchers suggest?  Or are their anxiety-fueled lives stressful and depressing? I would tend toward the latter explanation. And I’d suggest that, if we want to make a better world for mothers and kids alike, we start by addressing what ails the anxious and beleaguered middle class.

(MORE: Meet Dr. Bill Sears, the Man Who Remade Motherhood)

12 comments
Darcy Sautelet
Darcy Sautelet

The problem is not "intensive parenting". Reality is some parents live vicariously through their children and try to make their child into "super children" who fit the parents and societies version of their perfect little yuppy lifestyles and in essence make the child just another extension of the parent's own superficial needs. Living for your child is not a bad thing, making your child live for you

is. Expecting them to be perfect over achievers for your sake means you

had children for all the wrong reasons and this is where much of the

frustration comes from. But in a world where mothers are gluing their children's hands to walls, dropping their children off of buildings, murdering, strangling and butchering their children or, simply being so uninvolved they don't know their teenager is building pipe bombs in the bedroom...this type of hogwash is really redundant. "Smother Mother" has a whole new meaning. At least the parents guilty of intensive parenting might not murder their own offspring.

Sorry Not Worth a Cent, but you hit it on the nail without even having a clue. When kids return home from after school care, they do anything to get a reaction from parents before bed. Wow. I wonder why. How dare that child want the attention of their parent for the whole 2 hours a day they see them! Sometimes children try to get any form of confirmation that their parents actually care if they exist. There is a vicious cycle of guilt and frustration for parents, but it's not caused by "intensive parenting". It caused also by trying to parent in this current society. Mothers are condemned if they stay home and raise their child, condemned if they have a career and someone else raises their child, condemned if their child is not perfect, condemned if they over parent, condemned if they under parent.

Nothing seems to satisfy this warped society and having "lower levels of satisfaction" is a human condition now, not a parental condition. Everyone is dissatisfied because they think they should always have more...more fun, more money, more stuff, more excitement. After all, life should be like the movies right? And everywhere you look someone is telling you how you should do more for yourself and less for others. And we wonder why narcissism is the new American disease.

There is no blue print on parenting and only one real rule. Love. Everything you do with or for your children should be done because you love them, not because of social appearances, social preferences, or social stigmas. Do what is right for your own child and leave everyone else alone.

Jen Kuhn
Jen Kuhn

Keeping up with the Jones is what ails the 'anxious and beleagered' middle class. Maybe if they didn't have such an obsession with fitting in, with the McMansions, the new SUVs, the sports and activities year round so kids need a personal assistant, the latest styles and shopping as a pasttime, they would find that most of the stress is self imposed. I have a hard time believing these women are victims when they set the bar too high themselves. Of course IMO thinking this stuff matters is setting the bar pretty low as a human being.

adam285
adam285

Thank you for this article. I'm childless (by choice) but I'm surrounded by women in my social circles and at work who are in the throes of child-rearing. They all appear to be miserable, but also seem to revel in their misery and almost take pride in it while trying to one-up each other in their tales of parenting woe. It's like suffering as a parent is some kind of badge of honor and being a sacrificial martyr for your kids is essentially what makes one a good mother among the women I know. When these women get together (and when I'm trapped and subjected to bearing witness to their conversations), they get into some weird trance with each other by constantly complaining about how busy they are, how they're so, SO tired, they have NO time to themselves, and their lives are just nuts. Ad infinitum. Honestly, these women talk of almost nothing else and it's quite boring and self-indulgent. It's also infuriating because everything these women complain about is self-imposed and -- although they would never admit it -- their suffering due to their ridiculously kid-centric lives has become a core part of their identity that they cling to for dear life. It's really a competition for the title of Most Put-Upon.

Aside: This article is a complement to the recent NYT article  about self-imposed busy people: http://opinionator.blogs.nytim.... A recommended read.

Bottom line: these people are more insufferable than suffering.

worth_every_cent
worth_every_cent

I suggest that a major source of parental anxiety is fatigue, which results from self-centric child rearing, in which excessive interaction with a child occurs simply because the parent enjoys intense one-on-one interaction. Quality time is absurd. Trying to inject additional interaction only tires the parent, and raises expectations in the child that when a parent is near, said parent must revolve around the child. When I was a child we probably spent more time avoiding our mother than hovering around her, I see many kids today who have almost a compulsive need to get a reaction from a parent to everything they do from the time they return from after-school care to the time they go to bed. Their parents eat this up as quality time, setting an unsustainable behavioral pattern, then collapse at 8:30 pm.

If I dare ask, everyone thinks the problem is external. Thinkers and planners are no different than these parents, they think the answer in some way involves money. Do more and spend money on it, hopefully other people's money. No one looks inward, realizes that as a parent, sometimes depriving oneself of the pleasure of constant close interaction with a child is necessary to manage expectations, conserve energy, and foster maturity in the child.

European parents understand this (sorry, I can't resist bringing that up).

Jeepjeep1
Jeepjeep1

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 “non-negotiable 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"  T0 a Type A personality you just said why they are helecopter parents.  They want their children to succeed.  My wife, the doctor/surgeon, has a Mom like that.  Always saying to her that if you do work the hardest out of everyone then you are a worthless poor person.  I think my wife still believes that to some extent.  Her career success has not proven her wrong yet.  The is the mom that breast fed her until 4 and she co-sleep until 10.   

yo
yo

oh...so intensive military training will hurt trainees....ok.

Talendria
Talendria

Teachers and parents often quash joy in the name of success.  Achievement is important, but so is happiness.  You need to spend at least an hour each day simply enjoying your family, not nagging or nitpicking.

I read an inspiring quote from Jamie Lee Curtis several years ago.  She decided to replace the thought "I have to" with "I get to," and it revolutionized her outlook.  Whenever mundane responsibilities start to depress me, I remember those words.

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divorceemeet

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Timothy J. Sherrange
Timothy J. Sherrange

Please correct the mistakes in this article.  My Alma  Mater is not "Martha Washington."  It is MARY Washington.  Thank you.  Also, you need to have some one professionally edit the content of this article.  You would have earned a failing grade at Mary Wash for this writing.

Oneill
Oneill

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lokiii
lokiii

You can raise your kids any way you want just be sensible and practical about it.  Should one family member get all the perks and the rest the shaft, absolutely not.  This fad done wrong could lead you right to the courthouse filling out divorce papers.  The best gift any parent can give their kids is a loving, happy family.  This path won't lead you there if you sacrifice every one of your wants and needs and your spouse's as well for the kid.