Today, when we think of mothers, we often think of mothers as overworked, tired, and stretched—more so than their own mothers, and much more so than their grandmothers. Women today spend more time with their children than previous generations, breastfeed longer, spend more money on their children’s wants and needs, invest more physical and emotional energy in parenting, and are more likely to prioritize their children over their own health and well-being. – existing. It is called intense motherhood, and it’s based on the idea that good mothering requires all of these efforts. This belief is widespread in the US and several other Western countries, causing stress, anxiety and guilt in modern mothers.
With so much attention given to the fact that intensive mothering is much more common today than it was a few decades ago, it is easy to imagine that most women believe that intensive mothering is necessary and are intensive parenting themselves. Indeed, it seems almost impossible to talk or write about the education of women today without imagining that it requires such a large investment of time and energy. But most mothers indeed so intense? WHO there is no intense mom?
We know from the work of other researchers that working-class or non-white women are less likely to be intense in some respects. For example, they are more likely to believe that the health and happiness of the mother is an important goal, in contrast to intense mothering beliefs that emphasize that children should always come before parents. But are these the only women who take a less “intense” approach? What makes these women different from the majority?
My recent Gender and society I found the article’s assumption that most American mothers adhere to these intense mothering norms may not be accurate. Using the Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement (PSID-CDS) panel study, I explored how women adhere to, reject, and negotiate intensive mothering attitudes and behaviors. I found four types of moms: laid-back moms (33 percent), high-investor moms (25 percent), bottom-of-the-line moms (22 percent), and stressed-out moms (20 percent). Relaxed mothers were relatively low in intensive mothering. High Investors were very intense, but still maintained a more relaxed approach. Essentialist mothers were the only group that believed that mothers were inherently better caregivers than fathers. Finally, stressed mothers were emotionally stressed but still relatively non-intensive in their parenting behaviors. In short, although women who do not labor intensively are often considered “deviant,” my research suggests that they may be the majority, or at least as common, as those with high labor intensity.
Relaxed mothers and mothers with essentials were less educated, less wealthy, and younger than high-investor and stressed mothers. In addition, they were more likely to be black or Hispanic and to be single mothers, suggesting that relaxed and substantive mothers are generally less prosocial than high-investor and high-strung mothers. Therefore, although the least intense group (Relaxed) was less favorable and the most intense group (High) was superior, we still do not understand much about how background characteristics relate to intensive mothering; Essentialist and strained mothers share relatively moderate to varying parenting intensity, but they appeared to differ significantly in education, income, age, race/ethnicity, and marital status. More research is needed in this area.
Employment status also had a complex relationship with intensive mothering. Presumably, the least intense group of Relaxed Mothers and the Most Emotionally Stressed Mothers were recruited. This suggests that mothers may have different parenting experiences due to employment, with some having high emotional stress and others being more relaxed. Also, monetary resources did not appear to “protect” working mothers from emotional distress, as stressed mothers were significantly wealthier than relaxed mothers.
My research shows that the diversity of mothering styles is much greater than is often assumed, and these findings are important for social policy. We often assume that most mothers can and will be intensive mothers, which means that most children receive the high investment inherent in intensive mothering. It is important that we no longer see high-intensity mothering as the norm, as it almost certainly masks important differences in child development within families.
Jane Lankes (@JaneLankes) has a Ph.D. in Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Human Nutrition Research in Grand Forks. Her research examines family, gender, and well-being, with a focus on motherhood and marriage.
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