Most mothers hurt when their child is hurting. Moms often are the first line of defense when their children have problems; their children tell them their troubles and moms wipe their tears. Moreover, moms often invest a lot of time and energy in trying to figure out how to best help their children when their children have difficulties.
Moms typically feel good about spending this time and energy to help their children. What they do not feel good about is doing it on their own.
Research conducted over many decades finds that moms in two-parent households do more than their fair share of work at home, even if they work as many hours outside the home as their husband or partner. This is draining and can lead moms to feel overwhelmed and stressed out.
New research shows that it is not just laundry, meal planning, and picking up around the house that takes a toll on mothers. Mothers’ investment in children’s well-being, and their taking steps to ensure that their children are alright, may be even harder on moms than shouldering the day-to-day household tasks.
In research conducted at Arizona State University, Lucia Ciciolla and Suniya Luthar surveyed almost 400 mothers who lived with a spouse or partner and had children at home. The moms answered questions about who was responsible for managing household tasks (e.g., organizing the family’s schedule); they could answer that they were mostly responsible, responsibility was shared, or their partner/spouse was mostly responsible. The moms also answered questions about who was responsible for the children’s adjustment and well being (e.g., for being vigilant about their child’s emotions, for getting to know their child’s teachers). As expected, mothers reported taking most of the responsibility for managing household tasks and for managing their child’s well-being.
The findings that were particularly noteworthy, though, indicated that moms’ relationship with the spouse/partner and their satisfaction with life suffered more when they felt alone in managing their children’s well-being than when they felt alone in managing household tasks. Specifically, moms feeling solely responsible for managing household tasks was related to their feeling overloaded. However, moms feeling solely responsible for managing children’s well-being was related to their feeling dissatisfied with their partner, dissatisfied with their life, and empty inside.
Ciciolla and Luthar suggest that feeling solely responsible for children’s well-being may take a particularly strong toll on mothers, as compared to feeling solely responsible for household tasks, because the stakes are higher. They point out that moms typically know that dropping the ball on household tasks will have fewer long-term consequences than failing notice a child’s symptoms of depression or failing to advocate for the child at school.
Another contributing factor may be that spouses or partners "gaslight" moms by acting like the moms are making a big deal over nothing, exaggerating the situation, or overreacting. Consider, for example, a child who is having a hard time adjusting to kindergarten or a teenager who is acting especially sad and sensitive. Moms may be particularly attuned to their children’s difficulties and want to intervene. However, they may doubt their own judgement if their spouse or partner tells them that they need to just give it time and that getting involved will make matters worse. This is especially challenging because, at the time, there is no way to know who is “right.” If moms intervene and the situation gets better, there is no way to know whether the situation would have gotten better on its own. The only way to know for sure is to do nothing and see whether things get better or worse. Many times, moms are not willing to take this gamble and so they intervene without the support or help of their spouse or partner.
From this perspective, it is easy to see why moms feeling solely responsible for managing their children’s well-being may take a particularly strong toll on their own well-being. When moms feel solely responsible for managing household tasks, they often feel unappreciated. However, when the tasks are pointed out (e.g., mom made arrangements for the kids have rides after school), spouses and partners typically agree that the tasks are important. In contrast, when moms feel solely responsible for managing their children’s well-being, they may feel worse than just unappreciated. They may feel belittled, invalidated, and misunderstood in addition to feeling alone in the important task of monitoring and protecting their child’s adjustment.
What should mothers do when they find themselves in this position? Here are a few tips to try.
1. Take stock of the situation and decide whether and how to intervene. As a parent, it is easy to panic when a child is hurting or having difficulties. Because of that, it is important to take a step back and evaluate the situation and different strategies for intervening. Sometimes parents feel confident in their take on the situation and what to do (or not do). However, feeling confident in situations like these can be hard, especially if the spouse or partner is not on board. In that case, consulting with other parents, especially experienced parents who have dealt with similar situations, may be helpful for assessing the situation and gauging what response is most appropriate.
2. Try to share the load. Moms who are shouldering most of the responsibility for their child’s well-being might at least try to enlist dads’ support and involvement. Compared to boys, girls are raised to be more aware of emotions and more responsive to emotions. Given that, it seems plausible that dads may sometimes challenge moms’ judgments (e.g., in the form of "gaslighting") because they uncomfortable with the emotions involved in the situation and feel unsure of their ability to navigate it. Labeling the child’s difficulties as “no big deal” allows them to avoid the situation without feeling guilty about not getting involved. Although this can be be frustrating, keeping in mind that dealing with children’s difficulties often may come easier to moms than dads can decrease defensiveness and allow for more productive conversations.
3. Take care of yourself. Suniya Luthar and her colleagues highlight the importance of moms having connections with people who make them feel nurtured and cared for.* They refer to this as “mothering the mothers.” A lot is asked of moms, perhaps especially those who also work outside the home. “Doing it all” is not possible when moms allow themselves to become depleted because they put themselves last. In fact, “doing it all” may never a realistic goal. However, by taking care of themselves and fostering relationships with people who also care for them, moms may be able to do most of the things most of the time. And that is a good reason to feel proud.
*these relationships can be hard to find, check out Dr. Luthar’s non-profit Authentic Connections Groups for help with building those relationships (www.authenticconnectionsgroups.org).
Ciciolla, L., & Luthar, S. S. (2019). Invisible household labor and ramifications for Adjustment: Mothers as Captains of Households. Sex Roles.