Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Is Too Much Mothering Bad for You?

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Is Too Much Mothering Bad for You?

Article excerpt

A Look at the New Social Science

HOLLY SCHIFFRIN AND MlRIAM LlSS, PROFESSORS of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, spent their early years as students reading about the perils of insufficient mothering: John Bowlby's war orphans, scarred with the lasting psychic wounds of "maternal deprivation"; René Spitz's bereft infants, starved for mother care in foundling homes; Harry Harlow's baby monkeys so desperate for maternal contact that they'd cling to a terry cloth mother-substitute. Once they themselves became psychologists, however, and - eventually - mothers, their interest in the dynamics at work in the mother-child relationship took a somewhat different turn.

There was, they realized, more than a halfcentury of research looking at the needs of infants and the psychological fallout for children when mother-baby bonding goes wrong. Indeed, the parenting culture they'd entered, as new mothers in America in the early 2000s - a culture that celebrated stay-at-home motherhood, idealized mothers who submerged themselves completely in the care of their babies, and treated all mother-child separation as a problem fraught with the potential for psychic tragedy - had sprung, to a great degree, from the lessons of that research.

As working mothers obliged to employ some degree of child care, guilty about doing so and yet convinced that their professional activities were not just important but healthy, both for themselves and their families, they found themselves in an intellectually troubling version of the work-family bind that affects the vast majority of mothers today. They were stressed, and emotionally divided. Rushing to do all and be all, to rise to the exacting standards of the twenty-first-century culture of motherhood in America while striving to achieve tenure, they found themselves starting to fray. Could this, they wondered, possibly be a healthy thing? And was it - did it need to be - a new avenue for psychological research?

"As highly educated professionals wanting to maintain this profession but also to be present for our children, we feel that pressure. We feel that stress," Schiffrin said in a phone interview this past summer, not long after she and Liss (and former student Kathryn M. Rizzo) had published the fruit of their queries, "Insight into the Parenthood Paradox: Mental Health Outcomes of Intensive Mothering," in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. "When we were younger, in grad school, we were interested in child outcomes. Now as parents we're seeing first-hand the pressure on parents."

Schiffrin and Liss weren't the first to sense that there was something very wrong with the contemporary culture of motherhood. Many critics in recent years have denounced the demands for extreme self-sacrifice, total child-centeredness, and time -intensive, highstakes mothering performance that took root in America in the final decades of the twentieth century. In popular books and much-emailed newspaper and magazine articles, they've denounced the effects on family life of "hyperparenting," incessant "helicopter parenting," and "frantic family syndrome." They've accused today's overly involved mothers of raising American kids to be inveterate narcissists, charged them with producing a "nation of wimps." But these mainstream critiques have generally remained focused on the effects, once again, of incorrect mothering on children, families, and society.

In academia, on the other hand, some researchers had started to focus on mothers. In 1996, sociologist Sharon Hays had gone so far as to label what had become the prevailing philosophy of 24/7 "intensive motherhood" an "ideology," and in so doing energized a new mini-field of motherhood studies, dedicated largely to deconstructing that ideology and redefining and reclaiming motherhood in ways more in line with the conflicting realities of contemporary women's lives.

Sociologists, psychologists, women's studies scholars, and literary critics started describing many of the negative effects of intensive motherhood - what legal scholar Joan Williams has called "Giving Tree Motherhood" - on women's self-conception and well-being. …

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