Parenting to the Limit: Why Are Some Mothers Happier Than Others?

Written By John Richards on Thursday, July 19, 2012 | 6:00 PM

What's Intense Parenting and Why Are Unhappy? If you're a mom, a new study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies may explain why. 
Intense parenting makes mothers miserable.

According to
Science Daily, researchers found that mothers who have an intense parenting philosophy are more likely to be unhappy than those who don't. What is intense parenting? If you're a mom who thinks nothing is more important - not your time or your health or your needs - than your child, you may be in for some serious problems.

More specifically, the study's authors defined intense parenting as those who believe:

  • mothers, not fathers, are the most necessary and capable parent
  • parents' happiness is derived primarily from their children
  • parents should always provide their children with stimulating activities that aid in their development
  • parenting is more difficult than working
  • a parent should always sacrifice their needs for the needs of the child
Moms who felt this way were more likely to suffer from depression and to have overall dissatisfaction with their lives.

Are you an intense mom? I'm not. At least, not any more. I love intensely. I care intensely about what happens to my children. That they are well-educated. Well-rested. Kind. I am not, however, interested in parenting so intensely that I lose my mind. I've actually lost my mind before, as in being
put in a psych ward. I have no intentions of ever going back.

Let's take a look at each of the beliefs that mothers who parent intensely have bought into:

Mothers, not fathers, are the most necessary and capable parent

I pray every day that nothing ever happens to my husband. I can't begin to imagine how negatively it would affect my children if he wasn't in their lives. I have the expectation that he be a 50/50 parent, and I've never had to express that expectation because he's been that way without my having to ask. He shares in everything - cooking and cleaning, bathing, entertaining, reading, disciplining. EVERYTHING. While I do think I'm necessary, he is too, and while I may be more capable at some things, he's better at others.

I realize that I am lucky to be married to my highly evolved and involved husband. Not everyone has that kind of partner. But there are other people who can help and be involved in a child's life. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Neighbors. Church, temple or mosque members. No mother has to go it alone, nor should she, and I would agree that anyone who believes she must is likely to suffer a much higher stress level. Enlist help, ladies. You deserve it.

Related post: Five Ways to Become a Calmer Parent 
Parents' happiness is derived primarily from their children
I'm always shocked by those news stories that report that parents are less happy than their non-parent counterparts. It makes me wonder how people in the study defined happiness. Was it freedom? Less responsibility? A life without backtalk? This study finds that it isn't necessarily the fact that people have kids that leads them to have less satisfaction in life, but the way in which they parent and the expectations they have that their children will fulfill their lives completely that leads them to be unhappier.

A large chunk of my bliss comes from seeing the shiny faces of my two children every single day. They bring me joy in bucketfuls. At the same time I can see how any parent who puts all of their happiness eggs into their children's basket might be disappointed. Eventually kids grow up. They do things you don't like. They leave. I've found that I have to have my own accomplishments, like my blog and my advocacy work, aside from being a parent or a wife, to feel fulfilled. If I don't have those things I become pretty miserable no matter how wonderful my kids are. What interests are you dabbling in that bring you contentment outside of your parenting duties?

Parents should always provide their children with stimulating activities that aid in their development
I fell prey to this one. Hard. Early in parenting my firstborn, I was convinced I needed to entertain him every minute of the day with educational, enriching and loving activities. I'm quite sure this belief had something to do with the crippling bout of postpartum anxiety that descended upon me. How on earth can anyone fill endless minutes with learning activities for a 3-month-old?

Let's read Pat the Bunny. Five times. (20 minutes later) Okay, now we're on the activity mat looking at the various hanging thingies. Aren't they colorful? And dangly? (30 minutes later) Let's sing songs. Old McDonald had a cow … (20 minutes later) … Old McDonald had an aardvark… Now I've run out of things to do and we're only an hour or so into the day. I've failed. I'm the worst mother ever. He's sure to
grow up destitute.

You might think I'm kidding but that's exactly what I was thinking. Now? Not so much. I remind myself that no one ever felt the need to entertain me as a kid. I didn't experience nonstop enrichment activities growing up and I turned out pretty good. My mother, father and grandparents had no qualms about telling me to go away and figure out how to amuse myself. These days there are times when I focus intensely on my kids and times when I'm perfectly comfortable telling them to take a hike. 

Parenting is more difficult than working 

Don't put your dukes up. This was not about engendering the argument between people who work at jobs in offices or factories or cockpits or storerooms, and people who work in the kitchen, laundry room and family room, and people who work in all of the above. Waving the white flag in the mommy wars!! It's all relative. Instead, the study found that women who had a negative belief about parenting - that there's no harder job in the world and you should expect it to be tough, tough, tough all the time - were a lot less satisfied with their lives. If you're constantly thinking parenting is a mountain too high to climb, you might want to retrain your brain and focus on the positives.

A parent should always sacrifice their needs for the need of the child

This one gets moms into so much trouble. Many of us are willing to give up everything if it means our children will be happier or better off, but giving up everything quite often leads to resentment, exhaustion and … unhappiness. Depressed parents are not only unhealthy, their children are unhealthy too. "Depression damages the interactions between parents and children, and disrupts family routines and rituals," reports the New York Times. "Children with a depressed parent are themselves more likely to manifest symptoms of depression, research shows, along with other psychiatric problems and behavior issues. They are more likely to make visits to the emergency room and more likely to be injured."

So, sacrifice, schmacrifice. In the end, sacrificing everything is likely to hurt more than it helps. Even proponents of Attachment Parenting, which many might consider to be an intense parenting philosophy, believe that balance is key. One of the eight principles of Attachment Parenting International is to
strive for balance. They suggest not being afraid to say no, avoiding over scheduling and making sure to make time for yourself in order to ensure striking a balance between your own needs and those of your children.


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