It’s Time To Put An End To Intensive Parenting

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Raising a healthy child does not require parents to sacrifice their own mental, emotional, and physical well-being, says Jessica Smock.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, I feel both grateful for the last decades’ progress in women’s labor force participation, educational accomplishments, and gender role attitudes, but also discouraged by our society’s inability to realize true gender equality in the real everyday lives of parents. I’m also frightened by the potential long-term consequences for parents and children of our culture’s increasingly toxic embrace of “intensive” parenthood, also referred to as “helicopter parenting” or “over-parenting.”

The United States consistently lags behind other countries in parental paid leave policies, protections for part-time workers, and other workplace policies that would affect working parents. As a result, among 22 wealthier countries that comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States had fallen in female labor force participation from sixth place in 1990 to 17th place in 2010. As Stephanie Coontz pointed out in her New York Times piece about how the struggle for gender equality has stalled, researchers estimate that about 30 percent of that decline in ranking can be attributed to the United States’ inability to keep up with other advanced countries’ work and family policies.

Stephanie Coontz and other commenters have written about what they believe to be the main source for the modern “paradox” of gender equality—this relatively rapid shift since the 1960s and 1970s in gender role attitudes in relation to parenting, work, education, and, indeed, women’s place in the world at the same time that remarkably little has been done to assist them in the structural challenges that families face. They identify the source for this simultaneous progress and paralysis not in people’s attitudes and belief systems, but in the structural conditions—namely, government and workplace policy—that constrain all parents’ choices. And furthermore the rhetoric of the earlier feminist movement, which emphasized the freedom of women to make their own choices (stay home vs. work) can no longer be useful in a world of economic uncertainty and stalled progress in enacting family-friendly policies. 

I agree that we need a new mindset for how we think about “personal choices” for women. Indeed, how many of our career “choices” are actually “free” when they are made without the necessary supportive policies? As Coontz states in her piece, “structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences.”

This is all true. And very humiliating for us as a nation. However, I think that this justification alone lets parents, particularly women, off the hook too easily. I think we do need new family and work policies, and we should push for this at the state, federal, and corporate level. But we also need to look more closely at ourselves in the mirror as parents in our society. In my view, the current culture of intensive parenting may impact women’s choices and, just as importantly, their confidence and beliefs in themselves as strongly as their workplace’s leave polices. 

As a feminist, I am concerned about American women’s work choices and accomplishments. Yet—as the mom of a toddler who has gotten a crash course in the values of modern parenting during the last two years—I am just as worried about American mothers’ emotional lives at this point. 

This culture of “intensive parenting” has fetishized a parenting style for women that requires them to put their children’s perceived needs above time for and care of themselves, at all costs. Motherhood is not only a full-time, difficult job, but it is an extreme sport, requiring round-the-clock mental and physical vigilance, and a mother’s needs are relegated far behind her child’s, who is made the center of her universe. Our media culture loves to point out and debate the most extreme examples of intensive parenting—the mom who breastfeeds the grade schooler, the child who goes away to camp unable to dress himself—and most of us can laugh along at these parents. Because we would never be that extreme. 

However, scientists are learning more about intensive parenting’s effects on mothers, and it isn’t pretty. In one recent study, mothers were determined to be “intensive” parents if they believed that mothers, more than fathers, are most critical for their children’s development and are better parents; that a parent’s happiness should come mostly from children; that a child needs to be stimulated and attended to constantly; and that good parenting should be inherently exhausting and challenging and harder than any other job. The mothers who held these beliefs were found to be unhappier and to do significantly less well on several measures of psychological well-being. In short, moms who practice intensive parenting, were found to be less happy, more depressed, more anxious, and less satisfied with their lives overall. Ironically, although “intensive” mothers presumably justify their parenting choices on the basis of the belief that they are better for their children, scientists have long known that children of depressed, anxious, and unhappy moms fare worse than happier, mentally healthy moms. 

To me, as a feminist concerned with women’s emotional lives, this research also brings very good news for parents because what it suggests is that parenthood on its own does not make parents more stressed, unhappy, and anxious; rather, it is the style of parenting that you choose. In other words, it is not just the fact of being a parent that stresses you out, but it’s how you do it and what you believe about your own parenting skills.

So how do I think we should mark the anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique? We should, of course, renew our efforts to reverse the structural obstacles preventing all parents—not just women—from making easier, better choices for their families. But we should also look at our own parenting and think about how “intensive” it really should be.

First, feminists—mothers and non-mothers alike—should reprioritize their own mental, emotional, and physical health as individual women. We should recognize that good parenthood is not the ability to sacrifice our own well-being for our child. For instance, we are doing our kids no favors if our children’s sleep habits for years cause us to jeopardize our mood, judgment, and energy levels. Next, we should also refrain from judging other family’s choices and just assume that all families make the best decisions they can, given their imperfect circumstances. 

The good news for feminism is that the desire for equality in work and family is stronger than it’s ever been. For the future, feminism’s goals should be to challenge not only the work and government policies that get in the way of our progress, but also to confront the assumptions that are within ourselves.

Jessica Smock lives in Buffalo, New York, with her husband and toddler son. She is a doctoral candidate and Glenn Fellow in educational policy at Boston University and has a blog called School of Smock. Her research is about the experiences of African American girls at elite boarding schools. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University, where she majored in sociology and wrote her honors thesis about the evolving identity of new mothers, and she received her master’s degree in history and education at Boston University. She was a teacher for more than a decade at private and public schools in the Boston area before becoming a freelance writer and blogger.

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