Can parenting be detrimental to our well-being? According to a new study, the answer is: It depends.

Over the years, many studies have evaluated the relationship between parenting and mental health. Admittedly, this topic is complex and the findings have been mixed. Some researchers report that raising children contributes to our happiness and well-being. Others suggest the opposite may be true.

A recent study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies suggests that it’s not whether we’re parents – but how we parent – that may be an important factor to consider.

According to researchers at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, women who engage in “intensive parenting” are likely to experience negative mental health outcomes like stress and depression. The authors focused on women because they tend to be much more likely to engage in this type of parenting style.

So, what is intensive parenting?

In a nutshell, it’s an underlying belief held by parents (typically moms) that parents should always sacrifice their needs for the needs of their children. These parents also tend to seek their own happiness primarily through their kids. And they always strive to offer stimulating activities to their children without giving kids much down-time or opportunities to entertain themselves. What’s more, these parents often view themselves as more capable than their partners and, as a result, tend to take on too many parenting tasks throughout the day. This may ultimately lead to burnout and resentment. 

In an online questionnaire of 181 mothers of young children, the authors of this study found that mothers who believed that the woman is the essential parent were less satisfied with their lives. In addition, women who believed that parenting is especially challenging were more stressed and depressed. Approximately 23 percent of this sample had symptoms of depression – a number much higher than the estimated rate of depression among adults in the United States (around 10 percent).

If parenting with this level of intensity can lead to such negative feelings, why are plenty of moms engaging in it? The answer is complex. Most likely, women believe that putting their own needs and well-being aside will make them better mothers and, ultimately, benefit their children. Of course, the irony is that this type of parenting may contribute to more negative outcomes for all involved.

Certainly, children are more likely to thrive when their parents are happy and emotionally healthy. And parents are more likely to enjoy the parenting journey when they strike a balance that involves caring for their children and caring for themselves.   

In two parent homes, experts suggest that sharing the parenting responsibilities can enhance each parent’s well-being and feelings of competence. Also, it can be helpful to seek childcare help from trusted family members and friends. Even small breaks like taking a walk, going out for a cup of coffee, or reading a magazine can go a long way in helping parents recharge and feel less stressed.

So how do you find a healthy balance so you can care for your children and yourself? Or is this a difficult challenge?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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