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:

Figure 2

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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


Bethany is a perpetual student who just won't stop taking classes. She's gone from engineering to psych and family systems to applied statistics, and is really fascinated by how people feel about numbers. She blogs about this over at Graph Paper Diaries, and experimenting with contingency tables at Two Ways to Be Wrong.

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  1. Interesting. Thanks for this. I’m lazy and not looking up the original article (bad me) but it occurs to me that it wasn’t arguing back that made me miserable when offspring was in middle school, it was, purely and simply, that xie was desperately unhappy and self destructive. Xie and I were both changing, but these weren’t “phases” (I hate the trivialization that implies.) I’m prepared to give middle school, itself, quite a bit of the blame, and institutional pigeon-holing of young people (including by gender and sexuality, but also family finances etc) was central to that. Heteronormative health classes, cliques, and teachers who were wholly unprepared to reach out to kids who were clearly unhappy, plus an overwhelmingly competitive atmosphere (most likely true at many middle schools in the sample if they focused on college-educated mums) made life horrible. And yes, all the parents confidently telling me that it was so much easier for me than for them because they had boys, and girls were so much easier. Or parents rolling their eyes at me when I said my kid (whom they considered female) wasn’t interested in boys, because obviously ‘she’ must be and I was too stupid to realize it.

    So I guess (from my anecdotal sample size of one) I’d say that preparing me for the teen years to be tough would not have helped as much as having meaningful pro-active support and genuine appreciation for diversity (as opposed to lip service tolerance) in our school and community.

    1. That makes a lot of sense, and I’m sorry you had so many structural challenges to contend with.

      They did mention a bit about how the school environment gets rougher and less personal just as kids start having all the issues puberty can bring. I think it would be really interesting to also include questions on the helpfulness of the school system/other support systems during different phases to see if that also dipped. It would add another dimension if both kids AND parents had trouble with the schools.

  2. My sister’s family fits squarely into this demographic, and their experience matches completely. My 12-year-old nephew isn’t adjusting well to middle school, and the ripples that spread outwards are, in fact, waves. Sullen, withdrawn, argumentative, you name it – whoever decided that sixth graders could be moved up into middle school should be shot.

    Puberty is rough for everyone, but when your entire self-worth is based on which version of iPhone you have, and when Xbox or Playstation is an existential crisis, the first-world problems have gotten way out of hand. The whole family’s in therapy because of one kid, Oy.

  3. I think it is really interesting that there was a difference in overall impact based on other children’s stages. Something I will have to keep in mind when the youngest hits middle school the same year her brother (presumably) goes off to college.

    This is the sort of thing I really wish they had generations of longitudinal data to back up, because I would be really interested in whether the increased pressure on today’s middle school kids, at least in my relatively well off highly educated mid-Atlantic suburb, has any effect. I remember junior high sucking hard enough without being expected to get 3-5 high school credits before I was out of 8th grade and I wonder if there is any parental effect there.

  4. All of the issues mentioned in comments here are great.

    – The disconnect between what is valued by authority figures in elementary school vs middle school / junior high is often bewildering to young people.

    – The lack of meaningful support through puberty, and the choice to lump young people together at one of the most vulnerable times (and then have them read ‘Lord of the Flies,’ an irony apparently lost on people who design the curricula)

    – Since the study focused on middle class, educated families, the type of pressure on young people in this demographic has shifted in the last 30 years. Whatever reality may be, the sense a few decades ago was often “work hard and you can do better than your parents.” The feeling now is “you must be perfect if you even want to tread socio-economic water. There is only perfection and failure, no mistakes are tolerated.” Again, this is not, necessarily, reality, but, at least in our experience, the message came from school administration, other parents, students and teachers. This doesn’t give kids any chance to experiment and learn without constantly being pressured to NOT FAIL. It is doubly tough for kids working their way through identity and marginalization issues.

    A favorite quote from one of our high school orientation meetings was “don’t let your child take too many AP classes,” followed in the same breath with “students who don’t take every honors/AP class they can and earn top marks in them won’t get into good schools, but not every student should go to college.” The issue here is that it says that the kids who have no right to college are the ones who, for whatever reason, do not compete well. That would include many young people from less affluent neighborhoods, with family problems, marginalized and stigmatized kids that deal with bullying or being ignored in class, etc. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with these kids, and many, many of them would enjoy education that treated them as full people, rather than failures.

    First world, privileged problems, but ones that select for first world privileged people who have no sympathy for or understanding of anyone who is not like them. I suppose it’s an effective way to maintain first world privilege.

  5. Echoing Cyrus that there’s a lot of good stuff here!

    The increasing pressure Em mentions(essentially a college creep) is covered in the discussion section of the paper as a possible reason for the difficult times. That’s part of why I’d be interested to see the study repeated on the less affluent. I think both similarities and differences could tell you something interesting….though I don’t know quite what without a study 🙂


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