You may have seen the studies trumpeting the higher amount of life satisfaction found among parents. Or the studies that found lower levels of well-being among parents. So which is it?
Of course it depends on who you ask and how you ask, but the paradox of parenthood's pluses and minuses in terms of emotional well-being is well-established in the research literature.
The reality of parenting, as with many things in life, is somewhere in between.
"Give yourself a break - seek help if you need it."
A recent study in particular, published in June in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, has done a better job than most in trying to identify this middle ground and tease apart what might make some parents feel more fulfilled and satisfied in their lives while others simply feel stressed, overwhelmed and depressed.
Although relatively small, the study, led by Kathryn Rizzo, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Mary Washington, aimed to better understand the "parenthood paradox" by investigating parent attitudes.
They discovered that the level of life-satisfaction or depression that a mother felt was, unsurprisingly, different from one woman to the next, and it was closely tied to her beliefs about parenting.
Investigating "Intensive" Parenting
The approach Rizzo and her colleagues took was to consider a kind of parenting called "intensive parenting" that mothers might take - and whether this particular parenting approach is more or less likely to be associated with poorer well-being.
Intensive parenting involves five different aspects of parenting beliefs: "essentialism, fulfillment, stimulation, challenging and child-centered." The extent to which a person subscribes to each of these components is determined through a 25-question assessment tool used by psychologists to measure each of these five aspects.
Essentialism refers to the ideas that mothers are the most necessary and capable parent - that a child cannot live with his or her mother and that a father's role is less important to a child's development.
Fulfillment refers to the beliefs that a parent's happiness is primarily derived from their children. Stimulation relates to the obligation parents feel to constantly provide their child with stimulating activities to promote their intellectual, physical and overall personal development.
The "challenging" component basically states that parenting is difficult - so difficult that its challenges exceed those of working as a top corporate executive, for example. Finally, the child-centered beliefs emphasizes that parents should always sacrifice their needs for their children's needs.
The Link Between Intensive Parenting and Poorer Well-Being
The researchers used an online questionnaire to survey 181 mothers of children under 5 years old about their parenting beliefs. The moms were recruited through Facebook, mothering blogs and discussion board and emails to moms at a day care center.
The majority of the mothers surveyed were between the ages of 26 and 33 (44 percent) or between 34 and 41 (44 percent), and 89 percent were Caucasian. Nearly all (94 percent) were heterosexual, and 94 percent were either married, with a domestic partner, engaged or in a committed relationship.
The largest economic group among the moms identified themselves as "middle" class (43 percent) or "upper-middle" class (32 percent). A little over half (54 percent) said they worked full-time outside the home while 15 percent worked part-time outside the home and 31 percent were stay-at-home parents.
The researchers also asked the parents questions about the family support they received, their symptoms of depression, their life satisfaction and the amount of stress they felt on a daily basis. Each of these items was measured using standard assessment tools that have been validated in past studies and in use by psychologists in clinical practice.
The results indicated that most of the parents supported the intensive parenting beliefs related to fulfillment, stimulation and being challenging and least supported the notion that the mother was the most important, essential parent. Though most of the women were satisfied with their lives, they had moderate levels of stress, and 23 percent suffered from symptoms of depression.
Overall, the researchers found that the more the women supported ideas related to intensive parenting, the more likely they were to have negative mental health. Even when the amount of family support was considered in the analyses, mothers who believed they were the most essential parents were the least satisfied with their lives of all the mothers surveyed. Also less satisfied were those who most strongly believed that parents' lives should revolve around their children.
Likewise, those who believed that parenting was challenging were the most stressed and depressed and had lower levels of life satisfaction. It is possible, though, noted the researchers, that these parents perceived parenting as challenging because of their stress and depression rather than the other way around. No association was found between poor mental health and the intensive parenting aspects related to feeling that parenting should be fulfilling or to feeling that parents are obligated to provide stimulating activities for their children's development.
Ultimately, the authors concluded that "the negative maternal mental health outcomes associated with parenting may be accounted for by women’s endorsement of intensive parenting attitudes." In other words, it's not the fact that a mom is a mom that leads to her feelings of stress and depression - it's the kind of mom she perceives she needs to be.
"The current study provides some clarity to the mixed and paradoxical findings on the mental health outcomes of parenting by suggesting that it may be the way of parenting utilized, not being a parent that results in negative mental health outcomes," the authors wrote.
The authors then pose the logical question: if intensive mothering is linked to poor mental health, why do they do it?
"They may think that it makes them better mothers, so they are willing to sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children's cognitive, social and emotional outcomes," the authors suppose. "In reality, intensive parenting may have the opposite effect on children from what parents intend."
What's the Solution to Finding the Middle Ground?
According to LuAnn Pierce, a licensed and clinical social worker who often works with women, families and children, the relationship between intensive parenting beliefs and worse mental health outcomes is part of a broader pattern found throughout psychology.
"It is no secret today that our beliefs are directly connected to our emotions and behaviors," she said. "Distorted beliefs identified by cognitive behavioral theorists are believed to be responsible for many of the mental health problems we experience. Anxiety and depression are two conditions that can often be linked to such thinking errors."
The thinking errors Pierce refers to are ones such as "black and white thinking, mind-reading or fortune-telling" - all of which are thought patterns that most people engage in at times but which can cause "debilitating psychological conditions when they are left unchecked," she said.
Pierce pointed out that beliefs associated with intensive parenting fit this model well, so one solution is for parents to examine the underlying beliefs that give rise to these thoughts, many of which can be traced back to parents' own childhoods but which no longer apply to life in the 21st century.
Examples of these false beliefs, she said are thoughts like "I have to do things myself or they won't be done correctly, AKA, my way," or, "I must/should/ought to be able to be all things to my child/family/husband, otherwise there is something wrong with me."
The best way to address these kinds of negative thoughts - which can often lead parents into a vicious cycle of negativity - is to consider where they came from.
"To stop the anxiety, depression or other negative emotional reactions, we teach people to challenge their thoughts by asking basic questions," she said. "Is this really true? How do I know it is true? Are there times when it is not true? Can I prove it is true? What would happen if this weren't possible? Is this belief still working for me today in my current life, or is it based on outdated beliefs that worked in the past but no longer?"
Working through these answers, especially with a mental health professional, can often help parents discover more of a middle ground in which they can appreciate the fulfilling lives they have with their children without being overwhelmed by the stress, difficulty and self-induced pressure they put on themselves to be the "perfect" parents.