Motherhood is most frequently defined as a set of socially constructed activities involved in nurturing and caring for dependent children. While early work on mothering focused on the quality of mothering and its effects on the child, the study of mothering has recently expanded to include the activities, understandings, and experiences of motherhood. Thus, as scholarly work on mothering shifted to focus on the person who does the child rearing, definitions of motherhood also began to broaden.
Studies undertaken in the 1970s and early 1980s routinely reported that both men and women tend to see the mother as being more vital to the needs of young children than the father. By the early 1990s a more egalitarian approach to parenting appears to have emerged; however, it is clear that women continue to carry out more childcare and domestic tasks than their partners.
Beliefs about motherhood often reinforce traditional gender-based divisions of labor. According to Terry Arendell, in her comprehensive article Conceiving and Investigating Motherhood: The Decade’s Scholarship, the prevailing ideology in North America is that of intensive mothering. Proponents of intensive mothering suggest that mothering should be exclusive, wholly child-centered, emotionally involving, and time consuming. The good mother portrayed in this ideology is devoted to the care of others, often neglecting her own needs and interests. When asked to articulate their notion of what makes a good mother, women often endorse the ideal of the good mother put forward by the intensive mothering ideology.
Inconsistencies between the ideologies of motherhood and the experiences of real women are widespread. According to the good mother model, mothers should be passionate about their parental duties. In reality, however, raising a child can result in frustration, depression, and anxiety. In theory, the ideal mother is one who has a constant presence and guiding role in her child’s life, putting the child’s needs ahead of her own. In practice, however, achieving the ideal can pose a challenge to a woman’s sense of self and desire for autonomy. Given the sometimes difficult work associated with mothering, meeting the criterion for a good mother can feel overwhelming, particularly to new mothers. In truth, mothering is a very distinctive and individual experience. For many mothers, tension between the good mother ideal and the reality of mothering is resolved by the emergence of a personal and evolving definition of a good mother.
It is not unusual for mothers to feel constrained by the tasks of motherhood one moment, only to experience significant emotional rewards from parenting their children the next. While the responsibilities associated with parenting sometimes weigh heavily on mothers, they also derive great satisfaction from the powerful role they play in the positive outcomes of their offspring. For the majority of women, parenting is both challenging and rewarding. Mothers understand that they are essential to their children’s identity formation and socialization. They clearly see their contribution to the care of children as extremely important and unique. Many mothers see themselves as the primary source of comfort for their children. Mothers also believe that they are more naturally attuned to children’s emotional needs than other caregivers.
Assuming primary responsibility for children’s day to day upbringing can be stressful. Marital dissatisfaction, economic hardship, and difficulty locating and affording childcare can all contribute to greater stress and dissatisfaction among mothers. Mothers living in crowded conditions with young children feel more overburdened than other mothers. Similarly, young mothers, especially those with multiple children, experience greater distress and have fewer psychological resources than older mothers. While popular discourse on motherhood often emphasizes the pressure and stress mothers experience, a national survey of more than two thousand mothers found that mothers generally report high levels of satisfaction with their lives. Results of The Motherhood Study suggest that women nearly always tie their satisfaction with their lives as mothers to how their children are doing. In particular, mothers find satisfaction from watching children grow-up well. They also find specific satisfaction in learning from and with their children. While mothers experience more parental strain over the course of child rearing than fathers, they also report more satisfaction with parenting. As cited in Arendell’s article Conceiving and Investigating Motherhood, mothers are generally more positive and supportive of their children than fathers, and both mothers and children report that children feel more closely attached to their mothers than their fathers.
Research indicates that maternal satisfaction and well-being increase with income and education; satisfaction and well-being are also higher for married mothers and those with high levels of religious involvement. Employed mothers who are able to locate and afford high-quality childcare, who are supported by their partners, and who have flexible workplace options also experience increased well-being. Research by Stacy Rogers and Lynn White also related parenting approach to maternal satisfaction. Specifically, they found that mothers who utilize an authoritative parenting style – characterized by warmth, autonomy, and consistency and clarity in use of discipline – report more satisfaction with parenting than those who use an authoritarian approach.
Satisfaction with social support also appears to be a key factor underlying some of the variation in maternal psychological well-being. Both quality of intimate relationships and quantity of social ties are related to mothers’ satisfaction and well-being. While mothers benefit from both emotional support and practical support, differences exist along racial and ethnic lines in mothers’ reliance on family and friends for childrearing assistance. In comparison to white mothers, who rely more on neighbors and friends for assistance, African American mothers rely mostly on extended family for help with childcare. In contrast to both black and white mothers, Hispanic mothers rely mostly on other household residents and less on extended family or nonrelatives.
Over the past 30 years, maternal employment has steadily increased for all racial and ethnic groups. According to traditional definitions, a mother is expected to be her child’s primary caregiver, particularly when her children are young; this emphasis on mothers as exclusive caregivers may result in feelings of loss, sadness, or guilt when mothers are separated from their children. The unique bond between mother and child may also make it difficult for mothers to relinquish care to others.
Mothering requires sacrifices in alone time, time with friends, and sleep. Many mothers also make sacrifices in their careers, by stepping off the career path or passing up opportunities for advancement. For women who continue to work following the birth of a child, the potentially conflicting demands of motherhood and employment may result in role strain. Many women struggle to balance work and family responsibilities. Employed women who are deeply committed to their role as mother and worker may be more likely to experience role conflict, especially when the demands of both roles are simultaneous and ongoing.
The research findings of Debra DeMeis and H. Wesley Perkins indicate that full-time employed women reduce the amount of time they spend on household chores, but they do not decrease their overall range of responsibilities. Mothers in part-time and full-time paid employment spend an equivalent amount of time with their children as full-time mothers. Furthermore, employed and full-time mothers generally engage in the same childcare activities, with the exception that full-time mothers watch more educational television with their children. Overall, mothers’ mental health and parenting satisfaction benefit from maternal employment. However, commitment to both work and family may result in less sleep, curtailed leisure time, and greater stress for working mothers.
When combining parenting and paid work, employed African American mothers may experience greater psychological satisfaction and less stress than white mothers. While they, like all employed mothers, must contend with role conflicts, employment rates among African American women have been higher for a longer period of time and working mothers are seen as vital to family survival. From such a perspective, the ideology of intensive (exclusive) mothering is neither practical nor desirable. As a result, racial-ethnic mothers have carved out alternative childrearing practices to those favored by white, middle-class mothers. Within the black community, raising children is not an individual undertaking; instead the honor and responsibility of caring for children is shared among sisters, grandmothers, and “other-mothers.”
Working mothers use a variety of strategies to cope with the increased demands on their time and attention. Research on strategies that employed mothers use to cope with role conflict indicates that working mothers frequently modify their standards for what constitutes a good mother. Because feelings of adequacy may hinge on the relationship between the actual mothering work women perform and their perception of a mother’s role, redefinition of the maternal role is critical for both employed and homemaker mothers. Working mothers who do not alter their definition of a ‘good mother’ may be more likely to experience dissatisfaction with their performance at work and home.
In addition to cognitively restructuring their attitudes and assessments, working mothers may also seek to emphasize the positive and downplay the negative aspects of being a working mother. For example, mothers in part-time and full-time paid employment are more likely to stress the positive outcomes of placing children in alternative care. When asked how they cope with the demands of motherhood and employment, working mothers also emphasize efficiency and organization, planning ahead, and relaxed attitudes about housework.
Research on mothering and motherhood is rapidly expanding. Historically, research on motherhood has been guided by the dominant ideology of intensive mothering. In order to fully understand the experience of mothering, however, inclusion of minority and working-class definitions and perceptions of motherhood is imperative. As more mothers join the workforce, additional information is also needed on the strategies working mothers use to meet the demands of work and family. Finally, mothers self-report of satisfaction warrants further exploration. As the primary caretaker for their children, most women encounter stress and anxiety. However, the majority of mothers also experience great joy and fulfillment in motherhood.
SEE ALSO: ▸ Attachment ▸ Subjective well-being
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