What to do in this era of choices in childrearing? How can we parent with the “right” amount of care and intensity to raise well-adjusted kids? I suggest using your own happiness as a guide. The best gift you can give your children is your own well-being.
No matter what your child care and work arrangement, the most important thing you can figure out is how to be satisfied with your life. Kids are remarkably perceptive; they report not wanting more time with their parents but wanting their parents to be less stressed and happier when they are around them.
We know happiness takes many forms. It is also true that parenting can take us to the limits of our patience, energy, and time. You aren’t doing your kids any favors by sacrificing an essential part of your well-being.
However, in an effort to be great parents, many of us are doing just that. Research has found that the most “intense” parenting style has been found to correlate with depression.
The Journal of Child and Family Studies reports on the “mental health outcomes of intensive mothering” and defines intense mothering with high scores on the following 5 components:
• Essentialism: the feeling that mothers more than fathers are the more “necessary and capable” parent.
• Fulfillment: defined by beliefs such as “a parent’s happiness is derived primarily from their children.”
• Stimulation: the mother should always provide the best, most intellectually stimulating activities to help the child’s development.
• Challenging: parenting is just about the most difficult job there is (participants ranked statements like, “It is harder to be a good mother than to be a corporate executive”).
• Child-Centered: kids’ needs and wants should always come before your own.
Moms who were high in “Essentialism” (believing that they were more critical to their kids’ upbringing than their husbands) were more stressed and less satisfied with life. They weren’t more depressed, however, (which could mean that feeling “essential” provides some sort of buffer to depression.)
Moms ranking high on “Child-Centered” (or “baby-led”) view of parenthood had less life-satisfaction, but not more stress or depression. Moms who felt that parenting was akin to running a company (high in “Challenging”) were more depressed, stressed, and less satisfied with life.
So if you’re a parent, and you think that everything you do as a parent matters a LOT, your quality of life goes down. The authors suggest that women “may think that it makes them better mothers, so they are willing to sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children’s cognitive, social and emotional outcomes. In reality, intensive parenting may have the opposite effect on children from what parents intend.”
To bring this back around to happiness, let’s all focus on our adult selves for a moment. Do you come home refreshed when you’ve gone for a run? Been at the office for a few hours? Out with friends? Watched a movie with your youngest kid? Do these things as much as possible.
If you can’t do what makes you happy right now, you still have a choice: to accept where you are in your life and do your best with the choices you do have. This acceptance is hard work, but it will help you bring your best self to your family. Figure out what you need and how to make it happen. Your kids will remember your smiles, your relaxed attitude, and your full attention. You’ll also teach them that you’re to be respected as a person with many facets, not just “mom” or “dad”. You have a life apart from them just as they have one from you. Everybody wins!