It’s a well-trodden path for today’s first-time parents. They read all the latest parenting books, buy the trendy baby gear, and decide on the strategy: naturally birthed, breastfed, self-soothed, Montessori-schooled. All set.
Then the baby is born, and the best-laid plans can go out the window faster than a decent night’s sleep. When babies and children don’t follow their parents’ well-researched expectations, feelings of failure and disappointment can soon creep in.
Pressure from the pursuit of parenting perfection while juggling multiple roles, or what researcher Carrie Wendel-Hummell calls being a “super-parent,” is leading to depression and anxiety, especially for women, she says.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Changed Face of Parenting
Strategic parenting is a relatively new phenomenon. For centuries, children were seen (and not heard) as little adults and “childhood” as a distinct stage of life was rarely studied. Children were socialized naturally in the home, church, and community, and parents didn’t put much thought into how to forge a successful, marketable citizen. In fact, it was commonly believed that too much attention and praise might spoil children or make them conceited.
But after the Industrial Revolution the science of developmental psychology began to take off along with the need for an educated workforce. Psychologists went looking for ways learning could be more effective. Parents were eager to help their children succeed in the new economy, and women were valued largely for their domestic and child-raising abilities. Enter the ubiquitous “child expert.”
But parenting advice overload has taken a toll, says Wendel-Hummell, a researcher at the University of Kansas who studied perinatal mental health. In her interviews with struggling new parents she came to realize that the problems they brought up were not the usual suspects—sleep or feeding issues—but often their psychological fear of falling short in the areas of cultural expectations related to parenting, relationships, or the elusive family-work balance.
Some parents reported wishing they had “prepared less” before their child was born, because so much of the parenting advice was contradictory that they didn’t know what to believe in the end.
“What stressed me out a lot from the start was that I looked at too many [parenting theories] across the spectrum,” wrote a mother-participant diagnosed with clinical postpartum depression. “I got really overwhelmed by all the differing [opinions], I was sort of buried in it… I think there’s no way to understand what it means to be a parent until you just do it.”
“What set me over the edge was having those expectations that I was setting upon myself,” wrote another struggling participant, “Expectations around parenting and what I should be doing with sleep and what I should be doing during the day—those expectations were the hardest.”
The problem with approaching parenthood as a subject to master is that it gives parents a false sense of control, says Wendel-Hummell.
The majority of “super-parents”—middle-class dwellers accustomed to academic and career success—are often shocked when they can’t “succeed” at parenting in the same way as other pursuits.
“Parenting is just so much less predictable and so much more learning through hands-on than other prior experience,” she says. “And they’re so used to being successful that this feels like a big failure, that they are completely incompetent. … This line of thinking would contribute to depression and anxiety.”
Parental perfectionism is on the rise because parents now seek much of their status from the performance of their kids, according to Hara Estroff Marano, author of “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.” The problem is that parental perfectionism often works against the child’s own developmental needs, while the parents’ obsessive traits are easily passed down.
The intense focus on the child—think helicopter parenting—has also inverted how children position themselves in the broader society: where the child’s main role was once to contribute to family or community, their gaze is now guided toward personal interests and individual success.
Recent research warns that there is also a physical cost to caring “too much” about your kids. A Northwestern University study published this month in Health Psychology concluded that highly empathetic parents may be more willing to sacrifice their own health for their children’s sake, forgoing things like sleep, exercise, and other activities that could mitigate the stress of care-giving.
But even as parental guilt seems endemic, parents are actually spending more time with their kids than ever before—despite continually increasing work hours.
In fact, working mothers spend more direct time with their children now (13.7 hours/week) than stay-at-home moms did in 1975 (7.3 hours), according to the Journal of Marriage and Family. Meanwhile, recent research suggests quality time with parents is far more important than quantity.
Reclaiming the Joy of Parenting
But some parents say modern child-rearing doesn’t have to be so stressful and high-stakes. They advocate for a new (actually, old) approach—a return to instinctual parenting based on the parent’s core values and common sense—and consciously rejecting “competitive parenting” and social comparison.
“Today’s Typical Parents aren’t miserable, but they’ve turned parenting into a chore—and act as if happier paths are impossible or abusive,” wrote father-author Bryan Caplan in his book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”
Caplan points to the collection of twin and adoption studies that suggests the effects of parenting in the long run matter less than other factors like genetics or peer groups. His conclusion: “As long as you don’t do anything crazy, your kids will probably turn out fine.”
Popular parent bloggers-turned-authors Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest say parents can reclaim their sanity and joy of parenting by tuning into their family’s unique value system—and tuning out the rest.
“Living a joyous life that’s in line with your values (instead of some manufactured version of “successful modern parenthood”) will give your kids room to grow into the strong, unique people they are meant to be,” reads their book, “Minimalist Parenting.”
Parents can do this by following that inner feeling of satisfaction every time they make a decision that rings true, rather than caving to external pressure, say Koh and Dornfest. By using their “inner bus driver” parents can “steer around” unwanted pressure.
What might they want to steer around? Their own guilty inner-voice, unrealistic social media representations (ignore those prolific ‘humblebrags’ about your friends’ kids), pushy suggestions from well-meaning relatives, and baby-product marketers, for example.
Wendel-Hummell suggests a measured approach to parenting advice: read what you need to meet the child’s basic needs, but not so much that it makes your head spin. Use expert advice as a tool to try—not the gospel truth.