Parenting is, without a doubt, an intense endeavour—especially for mothers, who still tend to take on the lion’s share of parental duties in most households. As any young mother will tell you, the overwhelming love that follows the birth of a child is invariably followed by crippling feelings of worry, doubt, and even helplessness. Left unaddressed, these emotions can slowly progress toward a state of depression that diminishes the joy of parenting.
Evidence for the cycle of highs and lows associated with parenting is more than simply anecdotal; in recent years, scientific studies have confirmed that parenting can take a toll on the mental health of both sexes and revealed that this toll does indeed often affect mothers particularly severely. At the same time, however, studies have also shown that some parents—mothers included—manage to rise above the initial difficulties posed by parenting, eventually becoming emotionally healthier (and happier) than their non-parent counterparts. What, asked researchers, could account for this discrepancy?
While mental health is a highly individual and complex picture, scientists have begun to discern a central “theme” that may explain why some mothers are so much happier and more fulfilled than others. According to a recent study that analyzed how women’s attitudes toward parenting shape their emotional experience as mothers, the more “intense” you are about parenting, the more likely you are to become anxious and depressed.
Intense parenting, which is based on the (misguided) belief that every little thing you do—or don’t do—as a parent can profoundly affect your child in a lasting way, is best understood through an analysis of its contributing factors:
1. Essentialism: Essentialism is the belief that mothers are the more “essential” parent (that they are more necessary for a child’s mental health than fathers and are more capable of providing care). Among the mothers surveyed, those who reported having strongly Essentialist beliefs were found to have high levels of stress and lower-than-average overall rates of satisfaction with their lives; they were, however, not the most depressed group of mothers represented in the study.
2. Fulfilment: Fulfilment-based parenting is parenting with the belief that having a child can, and should, fulfil you as a person. Mothers who operate under this belief system feel that their happiness should derive primarily from motherhood.
3. Stimulation: Stimulation is idea that parents, mothers in particular, ought to constantly provide their children with stimulating activities, rather than letting their children pursue such activities on their own (i.e., mothers should always be “entertaining” their children in an endlessly attentive way).
4. Challenge: Challenge-oriented mothers see parenting as something that is, and must be, one of the most difficult and important “jobs” in existence. The study found that mothers who view parenting as being as challenging as working in a CEO role were among the most depressed out of all the women surveyed; they were also stressed and generally dissatisfied with their lives.
5. Child-centric thinking: Child-centric thinking places the child’s wants and needs foremost at all times. According to this belief system, the well-being of children is more “important” than that of their mothers. Mothers who consistently put their children “first” in this way were found to have the lowest overall levels of life satisfaction, though they were not more stressed or depressed than the other groups of women surveyed.
According to the study, the higher mothers scored on the five “intensity factors” above, the more likely they were to be unhappy parents, even when external social support was taken into account. It is, in short, the way we parent that defines whether parenting is an enjoyable experience or not; parenting itself is neither a reliable predictor of poor mental health nor a guaranteed provider of emotional fulfilment. Only intense parenting is a reliable predictor of depression, with 23% of the mothers in the study reporting feeling depressed—a far higher rate than the 6.7% found amongst the general public.
Why Do Mothers Tend To “Over-Parent”?
Researchers are not sure why, exactly, so many mothers parent intensely in spite of its negative consequences where mental health and family harmony are concerned. In general, the women surveyed seemed to think that “over-parenting” would make them better mothers. This belief system may stem from guilt (a desire to “do it all” and optimally balance motherhood with a career) or it may simply arise as a result of mothers being exposed to an abundance of online information regarding all of the habits and practices that “can” potentially damage a developing child. Busy schedules, too, may factor into intense parenting: Many intense parents were found to operate within tight routines, filling their children’s every waking moment with planned activities.
Ironically, intense parenting—more so than any of the potential “mistakes” over-parenting mothers wish to avoid—has been found to have a substantial negative impact on the mental health of children (as well as their mothers). Not only do children pick up on parental stress and unhappiness and internalize it (often blaming themselves for it), children who are kept on needlessly strict schedules and over-attentively engaged in activities, rather than being left to play freely, tend to be less happy than their peers.
According to psychologist Dr. Tali Shenfield, the secret to happy and effective parenting lies in striking a balance: It’s true that we should engage in proactive parenting and try to avoid carelessly harming our children, but at the same time, it’s patently untrue that every little thing we do or don’t do might either make or break our offspring. Mothers who take care of themselves so that they might take better care of their children, and who know how to relax and simply have fun being a parent, often raise the healthiest, most well-rounded children.