What Age is Hardest on (Some) Moms?
Well hello hello! Welcome to “This Week in Parenting Research”, where I break down a new and interesting study I find that somehow relates to parenting. I’m still playing around with the format, so bear with me.
As the mother of a 3 year old who informs me daily that he is NOT a baby, I was recently intrigued by this headline:
Moms, you think babies are tough? Wait until middle school. It was a Science Daily write up of the more demurely titled paper “What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages” recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology. Curious what I was in for, I decided to take a look at the paper. Here’s what I found:
First, some limitations. This study only looked at mothers in the USA, and they intentionally oversampled well educated mothers. 84% of the sample had a college degree or higher. This puts some unfortunate limitations on the generalizability of this data to “mothers” in general, since nationwide only 37% of women have college degrees. The sample was also mostly white, mostly (but not all) heterosexual, mostly married, fairly wealthy, and mostly from the Northeast. While the specificity can be limiting, it does leave some good room for other people to repeat the experiment with other groups. It would be interesting to see what the results were for Dads, or mothers from other demographics and could give us insight in to how different groups experience parenthood differently. The data was self-reported on a web-based survey.
So what did they do? They gave over 2000 women a questionnaire that covered the mother’s own well being, her feelings about parenting, and her perceptions of her child. They analyzed the responses based on the age of the kids, with some adjustments for people with kids of different ages.
What did they find? Well mothers of middle schoolers do experience some dips in well being. Out of the 10 metrics measured, moms of middle schoolers faired worse than the other phases in 7 of them. The most dramatic dip both visually and statistically was in parental satisfaction:
Interestingly, all the effects were smaller if there were multiple children in different age categories. Having to focus on just on age seemed to make the age related effects worse. It’s also interesting to note that while the effect seemed bad, there was also more variability than in other age categories. Some parents had a lot of trouble, some not as much. Also interesting, they actually looked to see if these issues varied based on the gender of the child. Most of them did not. For mothers with all boys or all girls, there were no significant differences. For oldest children, the only effect was that mothers of girls thought their daughters liked them a bit more, and they felt more satisfied with their parenting.
Surprisingly, they did not find that infancy had much of an effect on mother’s well being.
So what does this mean?
So this sounds somewhat negative, but it actually tells us a couple non-surprising things:
- If you have one child or children close together, their phase of life has a bigger impact on you than it would otherwise. This makes sense because your attention is focused on one thing.
- One phase will always be the worst, and it makes sense that the time period that’s hardest on kids is also hardest on mom.
- On the other hand, moms showed a happiness dip even if their kids didn’t argue much. We shouldn’t rule out that some of the dip is an unrelated mid-life developmental issue for the moms. We could just be seeing two effects combined.
- Mentally preparing parents for a tough phase may help
That last point was an inference from the authors, but it was an interesting point. They had expected to find that infancy was hard on mothers, but at least in this study population it wasn’t as bad as they thought. They suggest that may be in part because we’ve focused on getting women prepared for that challenging time. This suggests that acknowledging that a time period is tough and providing support for parents may be really effective.
Conclusion: I think this research gives some really interesting data. Hopefully it will be used to build parents up in a “yes, this really is tough and it gets better” way and not in a “everyone panic” way. I still want to see it replicated on different populations, including fathers, to see if this is a typical trajectory or if other groups experience it differently. I think we could learn a lot from that, and it would help guide schools with interventions.
I was interested to see how little difference gender made….I’ve had so many people confidently tell me that “girls are harder” or “boys are harder”. Whatever people say later, in the moment, those effects don’t really seem to show up.
Overall, interesting study, would love to see follow up!
Featured Image Credit: Flickr user in pastel