In the June publication of the Journal of Child and Family Studies, a study was published that kicked off another series of articles about how parenting causes depression and unhappiness.

Here we go again.

To be a fair, the study referred to in these articles specifically tags those who practice “intense parenting” to be more prone to depression, not parents in general. Even so, the topic is one to make those of us in this community of “deliberate” mothers a bit uneasy. Is there a difference between being a “deliberate” mother and an “intense” mother, and if so, what is it?

I get a little riled up over studies like these for several reasons, but one in particular: I don’t like the possible inference that since parenting doesn’t make you deliriously happy every day of your life then maybe it’s not worth doing.

It’s a simple fact that life is full of both times and experiences that will test our “mental health” with feelings of anxiety, worry, and yes, depression. Trying to avoid any and all experiences that may cause some sort of mental or physical discomfort feeds into the selfish attitude of those who want what they want NOW, and they want it to come easily and without pain or struggle. The problem with this type of thinking is that it doesn’t take into consideration the potential long-term benefits that often come from personal sacrifice.

I can’t help but think of the nine incredibly long post-college years that my husband endured medical school and a surgical residency program while we were married and raising our first three children. It certainly wasn’t the highlight of our married life. He was painfully overworked and woefully underpaid. It would have been so easy for him to say, “This is for the birds. I’m not feeling happy or fulfilled. I’m outta here.” But his vision of what he wanted his life to be long-term was much bigger than his day-to-day experiences. And it was those visions of what he wanted for himself in terms of a career and what he wanted for our family in terms of financial stability that kept him going. Was he “happy” during those years? Did he have an overall sense of balance in his life? Was he able to avoid all feelings of inadequacy, burn out, or guilt for not being home more often? Of course not, but that wasn’t the point.

Motherhood is much the same. Many women struggle successfully through the early years of motherhood understanding they will eventually reap the benefits of having intelligent, caring, hard working children who return their love in later years. No one ever promised that motherhood would bring happiness and personal fulfillment at every stage in life. Motherhood can be hard–really hard–but it is by nature a life-long calling that garners various rewards and benefits over time.

I mention this because the researchers of this particular study only interviewed women with children ages 5 or younger. This struck me since I do have this paradigm of motherhood being a life-long pursuit with some of the most personally fulfilling “pay days” landing much further down the road. Mothers with children under 5 years of age are notoriously more frazzled, overwhelmed, and, possibly depressed than mothers with school age or grown children. (I know, it depends on the children and the situation. I’m speaking in generalities here.)

It seems a bit overreaching to quantify depression in mothers based only on women with children in this narrow age group. Not only are the early years extremely difficult because of the demanding nature of caring for babies and young children, but mothers in this stage are also at a disadvantage in the sense that they are still relatively inexperienced and have yet to see the fruits of their labors. Their perspective can often be unfortunately shortsighted.

Perhaps this is one of the key differences between an “intense” mother and a “deliberate” one. A deliberate mother sees the bigger, long-term picture, and knows that the messes, tears, and sleepless nights of today aren’t going to last forever. She understands what it means to sacrifice of herself without totally losing herself, and that her sacrifice is for a grander purpose in the future.

I think the words of Proverbs may apply here, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Is it possible that having vision and a purpose amidst the craziness of motherhood can protect against the very depression this study refers to? I like to think so.

Keeping all of this in mind, we at The Power of Moms do not encourage any behavior or attitude that is truly and chronically bad for a mother’s mental health. But because most women don’t want to miss out on the opportunity of becoming a mother, and motherhood has the potential to cause significant mental health challenges in some circumstances, we need to find better ways to deal with the difficult times and debilitating attitudes that mothers face at one point or another.

Which takes us back to the specific differences between “intense” mothers and “deliberate” ones. (Because we really aren’t keen on associating motherhood with depression!) In the study mentioned, the authors used five categories to define “intense parenting” which were found to cause both anxiety and depression in parents–namely mothers.

  1. Essentialism–the feeling that mothers, over fathers, are the more necessary and capable parent.
  2. Fulfillment–the belief that a parent’s happiness is derived primarily from their children.
  3. Stimulation–the idea that the mother should always provide the best, most intellectually stimulating activities to aid in their child’s development.
  4. Challenging–the idea that parenting is one of the most difficult jobs there is (participants ranked statements like, “It is harder to be a good mother than to be a corporate executive”).
  5. Child-Centered–the belief that the child’s needs and wants should always come before the parent’s.

To compare and contrast, I’d like to mirror the list above with my own list that defines, in part, what it means to be a “deliberate” mother as opposed to an “intense” one.

  1. Importance–the belief that a mother plays a vital and important role in her child’s life, along with the child’s father, grandparents, siblings, teachers, and other positive role models.
  2. Fulfillment–the belief that part of a mother’s happiness is found in raising her children to the best of her ability, including a balanced pursuit of her own dreams and goals in order to serve as a role model for her children while also maintaining a sense of personal identity.
  3. Encouragement–the idea that a mother is meant to encourage, not to entertain. While a mother does provide many wonderful learning opportunities for her child, she also encourages “free play” and the independent use of her child’s imagination.
  4. Challenging–the idea that raising another human being to adulthood is one of the most worthy and difficult pursuits in life, but it is viewed as a do-able challenge, not an impossible burden.
  5. Family-centered–the belief that a child’s needs and wants should be considered within the greater context of the entire family’s happiness, including the mother’s.

I could be off my rocker, but as I see it, “intense parenting” isn’t child-centered at all. It is mom-centered. The mom is the center of her children’s universe. The mom is the only one who can properly take care of her children and help them reach their potential. The mom is constantly doing something for her children, invoking Martyr Mommy Syndrome. The mom is worried about the success of her child because she believes it will be a reflection of her mothering. The mom, the mom, the mom, the mom.

The irony is that a mother who cares for and values herself as much as her children, a mother who is able to step back and let other people have an influence on her children, a mother who lets her children work certain things out on their own–that mother will actually do more for her children than an “intense” mother who feels and acts as though her children couldn’t survive without her. In a very real sense, caring for oneself and knowing when to step back is actually the better definition of being child-centered.

It seems to me that the bottom line is to not get too wrapped up in self-importance. Of course a mother’s influence is one of the most powerful forces for good in a child’s life, but it’s not the only influence. It might help to think of ourselves as stewards and facilitators rather than masters of our children’s destiny. That’s their job.

It also seems important to remember that at times, love (and by definition, sacrifice) hurts. Most mothers love their children more than anything in the world and are doing everything they know how to help them become the best they can be. Even when they’re trying to take care of themselves and have appropriate balance in their life, that kind of effort and vulnerability opens a mother up to heartache, anxiety, and yes, sometimes depression. It can be comforting to know that’s part of the program and that motherhood is a life-long journey. Today is not forever.

Maybe I shouldn’t get so riled up about these studies after all. They do give us warning signs to look out for and facilitate finding solutions that strengthen mothers. And since these “intense” mothers are trying to do nothing more than be the best mothers they can be, the implications of this study must be quite comforting: That “intensive parenting” isn’t the way to go for the mother or the children. In an indirect way, this study gives us all permission to relax.

QUESTION: Are you more of an “intense” mother or a “deliberate” mother? Have you ever experienced depression based on the factors mentioned in this study?

CHALLENGE: If you are an “intense” mother, try stepping back a little bit more today. Let dad do a little more of the child care, challenge that belief that you always have to be front and center, take some time for yourself. Consider it the best thing you could do for your child.


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