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Can We Stop the Anxious Mommy Nonsense?

Vivia Chen

May 23, 2016


Maybe I'm too punchy today, but I had a visceral reaction to the title of an article in The Wall Street Journal: "Moms' Middle School Blues." Why, I thought, do we need to focus on mothers about that particular juncture in their kids' lives? Don't fathers have psychological issues as their children group up too?

The article is about research led by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. WSJ's Sue Shellenbarger calls it one of the "most ambitious and carefully targeted look yet at mothers’ well-being from childbirth until their children’s adulthood," analyzing responses from "more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers." Here's how Shellenbarger sums up the finding:

Mothers feel more anxious, dissatisfied and doubtful about their own parenting skills when their children are in middle school than at any other stage, new research shows.

The turbulence that hits sixth- through eighth-graders often begins with the onset of puberty, bringing physical changes and mood swings. Also, many students transfer from close-knit elementary schools to larger middle schools. Childhood friends may be separated, classes are often tracked by ability and teachers are more demanding.

Why the focus on this relatively affluent group of moms? The study says it's because they "can be at high risk for stress," adding that "motherhood . . . entails hard work, with ongoing demands on time, emotional and physical energy." Moreover—and here's the interesting part in the study—college educated moms spend more time on child-rearing than in the past (20 hours in 2008 v. 12 hours in 1993). And they invest 130 percent more time on their kids' activities than their less educated counterparts.

So here's my recap: Well-off, educated moms spend more time on child-rearing than ever before, yet feel they're doing a crummy job as their kids hit adolescence. How nutty is that?

Unfortunately, all this comports with what we've been hearing: Well-educated women sometimes turn into obsessive mothers. Living in New York, I'm well-acquainted with that type, particularly those ex-lawyers and bankers who've decided they're now devoting themselves to full-time motherhood. Forgive the gross generalization, but I'll say it: These moms are competitive, scary and ruthless. You do not want to run into them in a darkened school hallway.

But back to the study: Why do I find it troubling? To me, it normalizes the stereotype that child-raising is the primary domain of women and that women are programmed to be neurotic about it. At one point, the study suggests that moms are simply more attuned to their children: "That mothers generally experience 'contagion of stress' from their children is evident in biological evidence on women deeply affected by distress in their offspring." Luthar told Arizona State's on-line publication: “It is not enough simply to educate the mothers about the teen years; they must be ‘refueled’ themselves as they shepherd their children through this often tumultuous time.”

To me, there's something anachronistic that all this attention be devoted to how lost and depressed women feel when their kids enter adolescence. Perhaps many women do feel more responsibility about being a parent than their male partners, but why aren't men part of the discussion? 

Instead of giving women anodyne advice on how to handle the stress, how about proposing something radical? Tell women to give this ridiculous anxiety about child-raising a break—and remind them that it's not just their job.




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I'm going to say the thing that you should not say, men and women are different and their responses to parenting responsibilities are different. I agree that too many of these studies focus on women and promote the idea that women should be the primary caregiver, even when they're the primary breadwinner. That said, the longer I'm on this mommy journey the more I am convinced that the umbilical cord is an eternal tether between mothers and children connecting them in a unique way.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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