Data on the mental health effects of parenthood has been mixed — many studies have found that having kids actually makes people less happy, but a few have found the opposite. Psychologists at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington wanted to find out if people’s parenting philosophies influenced how their kids made them feel. They discovered that certain beliefs associated with very involved parenting did made mothers feel worse about their lives.
For a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, authors Kathryn Rizzo, Holly Schiffrin and Miriam Liss asked 181 moms how much they agreed with a variety of statements associated with “intensive” or highly-involved parenting. The statements included, “Although fathers may mean well, they generally are not as good at parenting as mothers,” “It is harder to be a good mother than to be a corporate executive” and “Children’s needs should come before their parents’.” They also gave them questionnaires designed to measure their depression, stress, and general satisfaction with life.
The researchers found that mothers who believed that that moms were naturally better and more important parents than dads — a belief they termed “essentialism” — were more stressed and less satisfied with life than moms who didn’t have this belief. Believing that parenting was very hard was also associated with stress, lower satisfaction and depression. And the “child-centered” belief that parents should always put their own needs second to their children’s was correlated with lower satisfaction as well.
Study co-author Miriam Liss told BuzzFeed Shift that moms who believe they’re naturally better parents may refuse help from dads and others, making the moms stressed and overwhelmed. But, she noted, moms who held essentialist beliefs had lower life satisfaction even if they felt they had a lot of support from other people in their lives. This belief, said Liss, is “really problematic” and “something that we should be discouraging people from holding.”
Liss was hopeful that greater awareness of the downsides of intensive parenting philosophies might make them less prevalent: “the best way to change is understanding that these beliefs aren’t so good for us.”
They may not even be good for children. Moms who reject help from others or sacrifice their needs for their kids may think it’s just what they have to do to help their kids become healthy adults who will succeed in life. Actually, though, excessive parental involvement can cause problems for kids. And, said Liss, “if we’re depressed, that’s not good for our children.” So while making kids the center of life may have become the gold standard for a certain set of parents, it may not really be good for anyone.