Are Most U.S. Women Intensive Mothers? Perhaps Not.

By Jane Lankes

Today when we think about mothers, we often think of moms as overworked, tired, and stretched thin—more so than their own mothers were, and far more so than their grandmothers were. Women today spend more time with their children than in previous generations, breastfeed for longer periods, spend more money on kids’ needs and wants, invest more physical and emotion energy into parenting, and are more likely to prioritize children over their own health and well-being. This is called intensive mothering, and it is based on the idea that good mothering requires all this effort. This belief is widespread in the United States and several other western countries, leading to stress, anxiety, and guilt for modern mothers.

With so much emphasis on how much more common intensive mothering is today than a few decades ago, it’s easy to imagine most women believe intensive mothering is necessary and are intensive in their own parenting. Indeed, it feels nearly impossible to talk or write about modern women’s parenting without presuming it involves this kind of high time and energy investments. But, are most mothers actually that intensive? Who isn’t an intensive mother?

We know from the work of other scholars that women who are working-class or non-white are less likely to be intensive, in some ways. For example, they are more likely to believe that mothers’ health and happiness is an important goal, in contrast with intensive mothering beliefs emphasizing that children should always come before parents. But are these the only women who take a less “intensive” approach? How different are these women from the majority?

In my recent Gender & Society article, I found the presumption that most American mothers follow these intensive mothering norms may not be accurate. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement (PSID-CDS), I explored how women adhere to, reject, and negotiate intensive mothering attitudes and behaviors. I found four types of mothers: Relaxed Mothers (33%), High Investors (25%), Essentialist Mothers (22%), and Strained Mothers (20%). Relaxed Mothers were relatively low on intensive mothering overall. High Investors displayed high intensity behaviors, but still retained some attitudes that were more relaxed. Essentialist Mothers were the only group that believed mothers were naturally better at caregiving then fathers. Finally, Strained Mothers were emotionally stressed, but were still fairly non-intensive in their parenting behaviors. In short, while women who do not mother intensively are often seen as  “deviating” from the norm, my research suggest they may be in the majority, or at least as prevalent, as the ones with high intensity.

Relaxed Mothers and Essentialist Mothers tended to be less educated, less wealthy, and younger than High Investors and Strained Mothers. They were also more likely to be Black or Hispanic and be a single mother, suggesting Relaxed and Essentialist Mothers are overall less socially advantaged than High Investors and Strained Mothers. Therefore, while the least intensive group (Relaxed) was less advantaged and the most intensive group (High) was more advantaged, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about how background characteristics are related to intensive mothering; Essentialist and Strained Mothers are both fairly moderate or mixed in their parenting intensity, but they looked very different in terms of education, income, age, race/ethnicity, and marital status. More research is needed in this area.

Employment status also had a complicated relationship with intensive mothering. Relaxed Mothers, the least intensive group, and Strained Mothers, the most emotionally strained group, both were likely to be employed. This suggests employment can result in varying parenting experiences for moms, with some showing high emotional strain and others appearing more relaxed. Moreover, monetary resources don’t appear to “protect” working moms from emotional distress, as Strained Mothers were far more wealthy than Relaxed Mothers.

My research shows far more variety in mothering styles exists than is often assumed, and these findings matter for social policy. We often assume that most mothers can and will be intensive parents, meaning, most kids are receiving the high levels of investment characteristic of intensive mothering. It’s important that we stop framing high intensity mothering as the norm, because this almost certainly hides important differences in children’s development across families.

Jane Lankes (@JaneLankes) holds a Ph.D. in sociology and demography from The Pennsylvania State University and is an incoming postdoctoral fellow at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. Her research examines family, gender, and well-being, with focuses on motherhood and marriage.

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