The interactive style of child-rearing characterised by intensive motherhood may be too demanding, research suggests.

Better-educated mothers, who typically focus on developmentally progressive, ‘intensive motherhood’, tend to be the unhappiest, according to our findings.

These mothers tend to be pioneers of focused mothering that involves lots of conversation, reasoning and intellectually stimulating activities such as reading and support with play and homework. The long-term educational benefits to their children are well established.

Is intensive motherhood detrimental to children?

Our results suggest that there may be a link between what are regarded as the best parenting practices and more miserable motherhood. The findings raise questions about whether this accompanying maternal unhappiness may be harmful to children, given what we already know, for example, about the detrimental impact of post-partum depression. In short, it may not be good to advocate extra reading with the children if that produces stressed-out parents who end up yelling at the kids.

“It may not necessarily be good to advocate more reading with children if that means parents feel more stressed and, perhaps, end up yelling at the kids.”

Our results may help explain why parenting programs have struggled to persuade less-educated mothers to follow the lead of their better-educated peers in using a “concerted cultivation” approach to child rearing. Intensive parenting practices may be particularly onerous for lower-income mothers who already face many other sources of stress. Their resistance could make it more difficult to reduce inequalities by bridging the growing achievement gap between the children of better- and less-educated parents.

Better-educated mothers report less well-being

Our research has found that better-educated US mothers consistently reported lower levels of momentary well-being when caring for their children. The more years of schooling mothers had attained, the lower their reported levels of happiness and meaning and the higher their reported levels of stress and fatigue.

We used data from the well-being module of the American Time Use Survey (ATU) to understand emotions in mothering experiences, and how those emotions vary by mothers’ educational attainment and the type of child care activity in which mothers were engaging.

The ATU survey asked about specific episodes and experiences. Thus the information gained is more nuanced than from a more general question such as “How do you feel about childcare?” Answers to such questions may be positively conditioned by societal attitudes—such as the notion that caring for children is a good thing—leading to a rosier picture of childcare than the one gleaned from reported feelings using a diary.

“This study should make us reconsider a sometimes simplistic approach that emphasizes intensive, developmental time with children, no matter what the psychological cost to parents – and possibly to children as well.”

Better-educated mothers reported lower well-being even when children weren’t present, our study found. Nevertheless, the roots of their dissatisfaction seem to lie in their status as mothers: we didn’t find these differences in well-being between better- and less-educated non-mothers.

Better-educated mothers spend more time with their children

What differences between better- and less-educated mothers in advanced economies might help explain our findings about their relative well-being? First, better-educated mothers spend more time with their children. In the US, even after controlling for a wide set of socioeconomic characteristics, women with less than a high school degree spend about 12 hours per week providing child care, while college-educated women spend 16 hours. In most advanced economies, mothers in general increased their time with children from about one hour per day in the 1970s to about twice that much by 2010. In the US, however, the increase was twice as large for college-educated mothers; less-educated mothers increased child care time by four hours per week, while college-educated mothers added more than nine hours.

More intensive motherhood

Second, better-educated mothers typically practice a more intensive form of parenting. In the US, college-educated mothers spend 1.5 more hours each week on developmental child care activities than non-college educated mothers. They also spend more time in extra-curricular activities as a way to help their children gain entry to college. Similarly, for example, UK mothers devote more time to studying with their children than less-educated mothers, reflecting the greater emphasis on academic achievement to pass through the UK’s university admission process, compared with the US.

Because they spend more time with their kids, better-educated mothers have less leisure time than other mothers. Yet our results held even after controlling for the duration of the childcare activity and the amount of leisure during the diary day. Similarly, we found that better-educated mothers were generally less happy, regardless of the type of childcare activity in which they engaged.

We thus suggest that better-educated mothers may feel more pressure than less-educated mothers. This pressure may result from the social expectation that they practice a more intensive, more interactive style of parenting. Another possibility is that higher levels of unhappiness among highly educated mothers might be explained by differences in the way parents work together in their homes. At this point, we can’t be sure of the cause.

Better-educated fathers also more unhappy

Intriguingly, our research suggests that a similar pattern of more miserable parenting may be emerging for better-educated men. We found that the most highly educated fathers—those with post-college qualifications—are also finding less meaning and happiness in childcare than that reported by less-educated fathers. This finding strengthens the case that there may be a problem with highly interactive forms of parenting.

Our findings should, therefore, sound alarm bells for child development gurus and policy makers who may see more interactive, intensive parenting as the prescription for good child-rearing in general and for resolving inequalities in particular. It took Western societies a long time to recognize that simply maximizing children’s time with mothers was not always best for children. It is now generally recognized that mom going out to work benefits children, on balance, by increasing household incomes. Likewise, this study should make us reconsider a sometimes simplistic approach that emphasizes intensive developmental time with children, no matter what the psychological cost to parents – and possibly to children as well.

If this approach is making mothers and fathers miserable, children may be harmed. We know that parents’ mental health can make a big difference to children’s well-being. Likewise, unhappiness can threaten parents’ relationships, whose stability is also important to child development. We should value parents’ happiness—it matters to children. When designing policies for children, parents’ well-being should get plenty of consideration and support. It could be very short-sighted to leave it at the bottom of the list of priorities.

Header photo: Chris Parfitt. Creative Commons.

Policy Implications

Our findings should sound alarm bells for child development gurus and policy makers who may see more interactive, intensive parenting as the prescription for good child-rearing in general and for resolving inequalities in particular. It took Western societies a long time to recognize that simply maximizing children’s time with mothers was not always best for children. It is now generally recognized that mom going out to work benefits children, on balance, by increasing household incomes. Likewise, this study should make us reconsider a sometimes simplistic approach to policy that emphasizes intensive developmental time with children, no matter what the psychological cost to parents – and possibly to children as well.

Practice Implications

The divergence in child care time across maternal education has been claimed to be one of the factors behind the diverging destinies of children born to mothers from different educational backgrounds. Recent policy interventions aimed to encourage less-educated parents to increase the time they spent with their children, particularly in developmentally relevant activities such as reading as the Parents and Children Together Program (PACT) in the USA, have failed because of low take up rates and high drop out rates. By looking at maternal momentary well-being while engaging in child care activities my research moves the debate beyond the quantity of time, and proposes a wider conceptualization of maternal time that can be used as an important policy lever for improving children’s development as well as mothers’ well-being.

References

 Gimenez-Nadal JI & Sevilla A (2016), Intensive mothering and well-being: The role of education and child care activity, IZA Discussion Paper No. 10023

One Comment

  • Jean Robinson says:

    I am not surprised by this finding. As a great-grandmother, I grew up at a time when child and adult worlds were more separate, and I and my brothers were allowed to just BE. I am grateful for that. I brought my children up in an Oxbridge academic enclave where children were constantly bombarded with intellectual activities. I saw that they did not seem happy, or particularly nice.
    The view that children are to be viewed as economically productive future citizens rather than future people of all kinds is narrow and restrictive. So is the view that less well educated mothers are less good parents because they are not reading or having productive conversations with children. In England it has been shown that poorer Mums are not taking up all the free childcare time available to them. I wonder why? Could they find being with their children better than stacking shelves in supermarkets? Perhaps some of educated mothers’ unhappiness is due to comparison with time which could be spent on career development and prestigious work.
    There are many kinds of successful parenting, and I have seen it in poor homes with uneducated parents. Let us give more support (of a kind which is seen by supportive by the recipient) and less criticism, and stop assuming that only the “experts” know how to do it.
    Jean Robinson, President, Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services