Why “Intense” Moms Are More Depressed

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.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. Claire says

    I absolutely love this! I share your concerns over these “studies” that seem to imply that parents are less happy/fulfilled than childless people. And I love your distinction between intense vs deliberate mothers. I err on the side of intense, so I appreciate your suggestions for correcting that.

    • Allyson Reynolds says

      Thanks, Claire! I appreciate the positive feedback because I think it’s kind of a sensitive subject. I’m so glad you got the point of my post.

  2. Debbie says

    Thank you for such a fantastic perspective on motherhood/parenthood. I have two little ones under age 4 and have felt an overwhelming pressure to be and do every single thing on the intense mother list. I think that our society’s cultural definition of motherhood has expanded so rapidly, much in part to the ease of information sharing – both positive and negative, that we are now expected to be our child’s entire world. I can’t tell you how many developmental activities, new theories of emotional development or discipline or tips on how to deal with every single move, word, thought and habit of a child that I come across every single day. And most of them make me feel guilty for not doing it that way, or not doing it as well. I think it’s important as mothers to realize that our child’s fulfillment, and our own, is an entirely individual process that cannot be forced no matter how much a mother tries to intervene. I also find it interesting that our culture tells us (I think) that the most important relationship is between parent and child, although the marital relationship is disposable. Pop culture tells us that fulfillment and happiness is to be found in our children, not our marriage. We are to nurture and spend quality time with the kids, learn how to communicate with them effectively and encourage their passions. Then we turn around and roll our eyes at the fathers. We are told to sacrifice everything for the child, and we do, much to the child’s detriment.

    My husband is currently in the midst of a surgical residency as well, so I appreciate the metaphor of enduring the overworked, underpaid residency years in order to reap the benefits later. I’ve never thought how similar our experiences during this time are in these years of learning. I’m always told to “cherish these moments” and “remember them now because they won’t be little for long” whereas most days I just feel like I’m barely holding my head above water. Cherish this? Have you tried chasing a 3 year old who decided to poop on the potty but not wipe while holding a screaming infant on your hip? I’m so relieved to hear that the “private practice” years come later and that I’m not missing out on some fabulous fulfillment before it gets even harder. Thank you for your encouragement and your words of hope (and for reading this Odyssey-length comment!).

    • Allyson Reynolds says

      So may great points, Debbie! Especially about the message out there that our children should be everything while our marriages are considered disposable. And I do feel for you at this stage of motherhood with your husband as a surgical resident. It was at that very time (with 2 children under 4) that I was the most overwhelmed and depressed and I think it was because I was still trying to do it all and be everything without much physical support at home. And that was before mommy blogs, Pinterest, etc., so I can only imagine the pressure that exists now to “read up” and “match up”! Hang in there. Be easy on yourself. Be GOOD to yourself. (And no, you do not need to cherish the poop on the toilet while your infant is screaming kind of moment!)

  3. Claire says

    Well, these early years are going by way too quickly for me, and I do try to cherish them. Not the moments that you described, but the other ones that make it so well worth it. Maybe it’s because I waited so long for my son. Maybe it’s because I only have one child (and my husband has a manageable work schedule). But the sweetness of my son far outweighs the stresses of caring for him. I look at his baby pictures now and want to pick up that tiny baby so badly that it hurts. And I know in a few years I’ll look at his toddler/preschool pictures and feel the same way. So I try to remind myself of that when I get frustrated with the inevitable stresses that arise during the day (and I don’t say that as someone who goes about her day in bliss and serenity, because over the course of a day I get frustrated more times than I care to admit.)

  4. says

    That article gave me more hope for motherhood than anything I’ve read in recent memory. Thank you! I’ve been forgetting about the long-term rewards of motherhood–a very dangerous trap to fall into. I love your contrasting list.

  5. StephJ says

    I think that the difference between “intense” mothering and “deliberate” mothering is exactly as you stated: the difference between focusing so intently ON THE MOMENT that you ignore all that is to come. I see a lot of mothers who put so much energy into their children and never leave them alone for a moment, and they have no energy left for their spouse or themselves. Then when their children are older they become the “helicopter” parents. Unable to let go as their children grow, they cling on, trying to keep that tiny baby they used to have by babying their older children. One of the most important things that we can do for our children, I believe, is to teach them to be self-sufficient so that they can be productive, successful adults. Yes, they need our love and care during the early years. But they also need to know that we believe in them, and doing everything for them sends them the wrong message — that they are not capable. I know that many “intense” mothers really feel that they are doing the best they can, but they need to really look at their motivations and see that what they are doing might be out of FEAR. Fear of losing their child, or of their child leaving them, so they hang on trying to keep them little. Often times, it is also a fear of losing control. We can’t control everything in our childrens’ lives. We can only help guide them and give them the tools to deal with whatever they encounter. I don’t think that “deliberate” mothering has anything to do with what the study was speaking about. Making choices based on fear is not a deliberate act most of the time.

  6. says

    I am really intense until my children are four, then I back off and attempt to emulate the deliberate ideal.

    Based on reams of parenting research and my own promptings from the Lord, I know that an intense time of Mothering the first couple years provides tremendous amounts of stability and emotional fortitude in children.

    Extended breastfeeding was my personal attempt to provide both the physical and hormonal connection to our five children, and for me, it provided the perfect vehicle to tune in to my children during the early busy years when it would have been so easy to get distracted with housework, volunteering,, interior decorating, crafting, and socializing.

    Nursing my toddlers through the terrible twos smoothed out the intensity of those difficult mommy moments and gave me a blast of relaxin hormone which calmed and comforted every trying situation.

    I believe that taking the long range view is key for every Mother. But it also helps tremendously to space the babies and give each child a time of focused Mothering during the early years.

    Jenny Hatch

  7. says

    This is one of the best posts I have read about motherhood & parenting as well. Beautifully said and astoundingly true!! Thank you for such powerful message…. All the best to us mothers who intensively love our children but have to be deliberate in our way of raising them. Cheers!!

  8. says

    Such a well written essay. I think the highlights of the differences between deliberate and intense parenting were spot on. It is so helpful to remember that during the moments we are not savoring, the messy, stressful, exhausting moments, that we have not failed, but meed to remember the big picture. Thanks for this lovely reality check!

  9. Chelsea says

    I am new to this whole mommy thing and, in a desperate attempt not to have my daughter resent our relationship (as I did/do with my mom), I now see how far I’ve fallen into being too “intense”. How does a new mom become more deliberate as a stay-at-home with an 8-month-old? The “deliberate” list seems like something I could grow into as she gets older, but for right now I feel hopelessly burnt out. My husband is gone from 4pm to 4am, so his window is sort of limited as to how much he can offer unless it’s the weekend.

    • says

      You are right- it is easier to relax and let go when your child is a little older. You are wise to realize that you are still in the midst of the most physically demanding and self-sacrificing stage of parenthood. You will find a balance, but it is a delicate dance. Give yourself time and know that it will pass. As your child grows, you can encourage her to play independently, develop some separation so you can recharge yourself. If your hubby’s schedule is limiting, find a sitter you can trust, even if only to give yourself an hour to go shopping, take a nap, get a massage, or read a book. You are doing great, and you are off to a wonderful start to be mindful of the difference between deliberate and intense. Good luck!

  10. says

    Bravo. I appreciate (from the bottom of my heart) such a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) treatment of the topic.

    I try to be a more deliberate mother, but I’m a work in progress. I do find, however, that every time I’m I’m really struggling with motherhood, I’m being more intense than deliberate.

  11. Kim says

    Thank you for sharing this study, and for your thoughtful response to it. What I derive from such studies is a way to help mothers improve their mental state. A depressed mother is not an effective mother. To use the parallel you made with your husband’s residency, certainly it would have been helpful if someone studied why residents are so miserable and sought to improve things. I, for one, do not like the idea of a depressed, overworked, sleep-deprived doctor working on me! One way we can help mothers is to highlight how “intense” thinking patterns is counterproductive. Your counter-points are an excellent way to do this. I think this study is useful for that purpose. When we are depressed, it can be just that we are having a natural mood fluctuation. Or it can be a signal to change something.

  12. Susan says

    I have 7 children ages 11-25. I would often muse on why I was so ovewhelmed, so exhausted, do discouraged. It finally dawned on me that: “Modern family life is not how the original family systems were designed.” Form followed function – but not any more.
    For most of history, extended families have lived together. They lived in small abodes surrounded by lots of space. Mothers weren’t alone: fathers worked the fields, or worked downstairs in the shop, and at lunch time would be home with the wife and kids. Often extended family members either lived in the same household, or lived in close proximity making daily visits possible.
    For mothers, the extended family provided the necessary help and breaks any human being would need, alleviating both physical and mental stressors.
    Adults worked together to raise children and the adults were around to talk to, and to make observations. One day, I brought my children to visit my grandmother. When she saw me, she said; “You look tired. Why don’t you go lay down? Have you eaten? I’ll make you something and then go close your eyes.” Who else but a family member would be motivated to make those observations and take that kind of initiate to shore up the MOM with food and relaxation? Who else is keeping a baseline record of what you look like and sound like when you’re healthy and well-rested vs. when you’re distressed and unraveling? I’m talking about the subtle differences, because friends can recognize some things, but usually we brush offers of help away because we don’t want to impose – and besides, we think, we can pull ourselves together. This lack of daily intimacy with extended family allows physical and mental erosion to progress unnoticed until the mother is in full blown distress.

    There’s more – Over-adaptation leads to incapacitation. So we overadapt to our modern situation alone in our homes with our appliances that have given the message to mothers: You don’t need a mother’s helper because you have a dishwasher, and iron, a vaccuum, a car to do your own shopping, a phone to make all your own appointments and arrangements. But while the tools have gown in number, our brains have not necessarily evolved to mentally and emotionally handle all that these tools require.
    My grandmother used to tell me about the days when she was growing up in Chicago. The gypsy wagon would come through the alley every day selling fresh vegetables and fruit. Look at the problems that solved. The mother didn’t have to remember to buy the food – it came to her. The mother didn’t have to load up the kids in the car, dress them for the weather, buckle them into carseats, make sure the diaper bad had diapers, find a babysitter for the children she wasn’t taking with her…etc.
    From my own days, the milkman brought the milk. My mother didn’t even have to change out of her robe. And we saw my grandparents nearly everyday, so when my parents wanted to go out, there was an array of built in babysitters – aunts, cousins, etc. Many people used to send their laundry out, and aside from cloth diapers, most people have far fewer clothes.
    So in many ways, life was simpler with many more invested people in close proximity, and with a lower expectation of what any one woman was expected to do. (There was even a movie in the 30′s about a man who felt guilty because his wife was stuck at home with a baby and he couldn’t afford to get her help – and she was overwhelmed.) My grandmother used to remind me that when she had her two children she spent 10 days in the hospital – and she had normal births!

    So it became easier to understand that I was stressed, because the system had changed in ways that are detrimental to natural mothering. We are more isolated than ever and much food preparation used to be accompanied by discussion with other adults. People would peel the potatoes and talk, quilt and talk, etc. Until extended families, or maybe close friends are more involved in each other’s lives, mothers will continue to be distressed.

    • Camille says

      I absolutely love your perspective, Susan. I am a mom of 6 with no family very close by and I have thought of the same points that you brought up. On top of the isolation, extended errands, and loads of paperwork that are part of our current lifestyle, there is also a silent expectation that our kids must be stellar in everything they do. It creates such anxiety that we all perform at top notch every day! And for what, to impress some imaginary audience? I definitely have found myself falling into that trap. I love how the article differentiates between “intense” and “deliberate” parenting. I have been trying to relax and not worry so much that everything will pass us by, because I and my family move at a slower pace than average. “Deliberately” making that decision has really helped me feel so much happier and that is reflected in our family life.

  13. Mary Anne says

    I admit that I can be on the “intense” side when it comes to mothering (and just about everything). I have had lots of depression, but parenting has never been the primary reason. Usually the depression has affected my parenting – not the other way around. I have to say that my happiest years of mothering so far (my kids are 12, 11, and 9) have been – without exception – when they were ages 0-5. It was a gift that I loved almost every minute of those early bonding years at home with my children. I was completely immersed in it, and never unhappy with my role as Mother.

    When my oldest was six, I ended up getting divorced and thrown back into the workforce long before I would have chosen it. My youngest was still a toddler, so I did not get as much time with her – and that about killed me. I do agree that some of the payoff moments come much later in the journey, like yesterday when my youngest made me dinner after a long day at work. I have now completed my master’s degree in counseling, and I have a fulfilling career. I still wish I could spend more time with my children, but they are all bright, happy, and kind individuals who have become stronger through our hardships.

    My intensity is something I manage by trying to be more deliberate when I can. I really like how your list of “deliberate” qualities represents a balanced outlook on mothering, rather than an overly negative one.

  14. says

    I so appreciate this article! I’m ashamed to admit it, but I think I am probably in the category of an “Intense” Mother. I mean well of course! But I do have this tendency to want to control every aspect of life for my boys because of course noone can do it better than I!! 😉 Sometimes seeing these things in writing combined with the loving influence of the Holy Ghost, can help one come to realize the error of her ways…I now will resort to being a much more sharing Mother so that other good and kind people can influence their lives too. Not that I shut everyone out but I know that I probably smother them a little too much! I definitely want to be in the “child-centered” category rather than the “self-centered” one! My boys are wonderful, individual, smart human beings that with my guidance along with their family and others will certainly reach their potential…as long as I step back. :) I’m reading the book “for Every Mother” by Janene Wolsey Baadsgaard and its great. There’s a chapter on “Worry-Itis” which is me in a nutshell. She says (as an Mother of older children now), “Abdicating my self-appointed role as the family worrier has set me free to savor my life one day at a time. I used to have preconceived ideas about how events and people were supposed to turn out. Now I just show up, smile, and see what’s going to happen next. We don’t even know if we’re going to be alive tomorrow, so getting hives over anything in the future is rather pointless. When we let go of worry, we are finally able to savor the peace and joy that is ours for the taking…” Just thought that this goes along with being an Intense Mom…I know for me worry takes up way too much of my time! Thanks again Allyson for the wonderful advice!

  15. Kate says

    As a mom of 4 kids, 2 “big” ones (12&9) and 2 “little” ones (3&4months), I have found that over 12 years of being a mom I have moved from being a somewhat “intense” (and maybe a little insecure) mom to a more deliberate mom as described in your post. It’s so much nicer! Little ones are definitely more challenging to care for, they’re more needy. My ultimate goal is for my kids to be self-sufficient, well adjusted people, and deliberate mothering is certainly the way to accomplish that. It’s all about, like you said, facilitating/guiding children to ultimately be independent.

  16. Sarah says

    I love anything that validates my desire to relax and embrace my son’s very “independent play” way of functioning! :) I love the list you made of the differences between intense and deliberate mothering. So close, and yet so different! Wonderful observations and thoughts!

  17. Melanie says

    I think your insights and perspectives in response to this study are solid, but I tend to agree with your argument that the study itself is flawed. To essentially criticize moms who are in a very intense period of mothering, by accusing them of being too intense seems a little silly. For example, mothers of children under the age of 5 sort of are their child’s world since children are biologically born totally dependent on their mothers (especially prior to formula or other options). So while moms can certainly slip into an unhealthy level of self-importance or the other traps outlined, there’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy attitudes. Like you suggested, studies like this can lead women to the conclusion that being a mom is inherently depressing and should therefore be avoided. I am getting more comfortable all the time with the idea that just because something is hard doesn’t mean I should run from it or even necessarily try to change it. Sometimes a change of circumstance is needed, and sometimes a change in attitude is needed. And in certain cases, change doesn’t necessarily need to happen we simply need to take a deep breath, put a smile on our face, and keep moving forward! I fear some people read this study and conclude that having children is bad for mental health, instead of seeing that having children can be simultaneously difficult (maybe even “more” difficult than being a CEO….who knows), maybe even at times “depressing” and also be totally beautiful.

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