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Thanks to ‘intensive parenting’, raising kids is harder than it used to be, studies show

mom helping daughters brush teeth in bathroom - intensive parenting
mom helping daughters brush teeth in bathroom - intensive parenting

In today’s fast-paced world, the demands on parents have surged to unprecedented levels, largely driven by the prevailing Western approach known as intensive parenting. This ideology paints parenting as “a child-focused, emotionally taxing, labor intensive, time-consuming task best completed by women as they are the ‘expert’ caregivers (Hays, 1998). This parenting belief has upped the ante when it comes to the standards of what it takes to be considered a good mother in today’s society.

Parents—mothers in particular—are expected to devote every iota of themselves, their time, their energy, their resources to their children, often in tandem with managing careers and household duties. Unfortunately, this leaves mothers with little room to breathe, as taking a step back is often equated with falling short as a parent. Modern parenting can feel challenging at best—and simply unsustainable at worst.

But are today’s parents truly facing a tougher challenge than those who came before? As a maternal health advocate and someone who studies motherhood across the globe, as well as being a mother of four myself, join me as we navigate the intricacies of the recent shift to intensive parenting, exploring both its global impact on modern motherhood and the underlying cultural norms that continue to shape our perceptions of motherhood.

Redefining motherhood in the 21st century

The consensus, at least in the US, is clear: parenting in the 21st century is no walk in the park, especially for mothers. According to a 2023 study by Pew Research Center of parenthood in America, 70% believe that being a mother today is more demanding than it was just a few decades ago. The numbers show that 60% share the same sentiment about fatherhood. The investment of both time and money in children has skyrocketed compared to previous generations, leaving 40% of parents confessing that parenting is a tiring job, and nearly one-third find it a consistently stressful task.

At its core, parenting has undergone a profound transformation over the past decades. As outlined in the book “Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think)” by Reshma Saujani, the Center for American Progress reports that in 1960, only 20% of mothers worked; today, that number has surged to 70%, with 75% of these women working full-time. However, despite more women working outside the home, social scientists have documented a substantial increase in both mothers’ and fathers’ time spent with children since the 1960s in the US.

Intensive parenting: The new norm

This phenomenon known as intensive parenting has emerged as a defining cultural backdrop of modern motherhood, one that transcends boundaries of race and class, demanding an unprecedented level of active involvement within increasingly constrained timeframes. Patrick Ishizuka, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies intensive parenting describes it as the dominant cultural model of parenting in the US today.

Rooted in the belief of intensive parenting is an expectation that mothers, in particular, must attend to every facet of their child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, even if it pushes them to the point of exhaustion and parental burnout (Villalobos, 2014; Wall, 2018).

Intensive parenting is one driver behind mom burnout

It’s not surprising, then, that mom burnout rates are climbing. In previous decades, the traditional family largely consisted of stay-at-home mothers who rarely engaged in paid work outside the home (Hays, 1996; U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). However, these gender roles and characteristics of mothers within the traditional family led to a societal norm and expectation of how a mother should be that continues to impact mothers today (Hays, 1996).

These social norms of what it means to be a “good mother” are often conveyed through media and social media images (Chae, 2015), communicating standards for the “ideal” mother that reflect intensive mothering. In the age of the ‘Insta mom,’ where parenting is heavily influenced by social media, it’s evident that we’ve heightened the expectations we place on mothers.

“In Western societies [like America and Australia], where millennial women are more educated than any previous generation, they are experiencing alarming rates of burnout as they attempt to juggle both the demands of the paid workforce and the responsibilities of a stay-at-home mother,” Andrea Bombino, a life and career coach for women, explains. “This balancing act is not only exhausting, but it is also causing women to question their commitment to their professional career, as well as questioning putting their family above all else, including putting them above their own health and wellbeing. Juggling these responsibilities is not only tiring, but also makes mothers reevaluate their career choices as they prioritize their family, often to the detriment of their own health and well-being.”

Intensive mothering places a huge burden on women to achieve perfection in their roles as mothers.

Recent research indicates that this mounting pressure for perfection in motherhood has been found to be positively associated with parental burnout and exhaustion.

“For many women, it is not the process of becoming a mother itself that is the hardest thing—not the pregnancy, the months of growing a new lifeform in her belly, not the labor and delivery, not the sleepless nights, not the breastfeeding [although yes, all of those things can be excruciating]—but rather navigating the bureaucracy of an economic and social world that is not set up with them in mind.” writes PhD candidate Charity M. Hoffman in a dissertation.

Is intensive parenting just a US problem?

While well-documented in the US, the question arises: does the trend towards intensive and parenting extend beyond the borders of the United States, reaching a global scale? Or is the pronounced effect in the US a result of the absence of family-friendly policies like paid parental leave and subsidized childcare, in contrast to other nations that provide more substantial support for parents?

Globally, there are a number of practical differences that mean our lives as parents now are hugely different to previous generations, from they way that we access support networks, financial challenges as the cost of living rises, work boundaries with more women in the workforce than ever, the constant flow of expert information and advice, the comparison of social media, the way we conduct friendships to the amount of knowledge we have around parenting.

Over the past half-century, there has been significant progress in women’s participation in the workforce across Western countries. However, this transformation has not been mirrored in the realm of household responsibilities. Despite the shift from the traditional male breadwinner model to dual-earner families, women continue to shoulder the bulk of unpaid domestic work.

The 2023 Women in the Workplace Report by Deloitte, encompassing data from 5,000 women across 10 countries, indicates that despite the fact that there are more women globally in the workforce today, women worldwide bear the primary responsibility for household tasks. Astonishingly, even among those who work full-time (88% of respondents), nearly half still find themselves predominantly tasked with domestic responsibilities, including cleaning and caring for children. Motherly’s State of Motherhood survey found similar results: 58% of moms report they are primarily responsible for the duties of running a household and caring for children, up 2% over 2022, and just 32% report sharing responsibilities equally with a partner, down 2% year over year.

In today’s Western societies, mothers dedicate more time to childcare (Bianchi, Robinson, and Milkie, 2006; Dotti Sani and Treas, 2016), engage in more prolonged periods of breastfeeding (Baker, 2016; Faircloth, 2009; Maralani and Stabler, 2018), and grapple with heightened emotional challenges in child rearing (Ennis, 2014; Liss et al., 2013; Sutherland, 2010) than ever before in recent history.

Parents across developed nations today are spending more time on their children than ever before.

New York Times-bestselling author of “Fair Play” and “Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim Your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World,” Eve Rodksy, a thought-leader in the realm of domestic labor and partnership equity, highlights a concerning trend revealed through her research with Fair Play cards. Mothers today not only spend more time with their children but also bear the brunt of about two-thirds of household responsibilities. What’s more, even tasks that might seem similar to what mothers handled in the ’60s and ’70s have become notably more challenging.

“When I was growing up, meals were often quick microwave dinners. Nowadays, mothers are dedicated to providing organic, home-cooked meals, feeling a sense of guilt if they don’t. Even the act of preparing a meal involves much more planning and effort,” Rodsky points out.

Many families today have the added complexity of managing allergies and accommodating various dietary needs within a household, as well as the demands of school schedules and extracurricular activities adding another layer of complexity to family meal times. “We have made everything so much harder for parents,” details Rodsky.

The routine, everyday tasks outlined in the Fair Play deck (which includes 35 activities like meal preparation, grocery shopping, dishes, and laundry) have been a part of household responsibilities for generations. However, there is a lot more labor that goes into the conception, planning and execution of these daily tasks.

Rodsky emphasizes, “It’s not just harder because more women are in the workforce. It’s because these tasks are not the same as when our parents did them. They are harder. The ‘daily grind tasks’ have become more grinding.”

Arisa, a mother in Tokyo and co-founder of For Her, a postpartum meal service, reflects on the evolution of motherhood roles in Japan. In past generations, there was a prevalent tradition known as “kotobuki taisha,” where a woman, upon announcing her engagement or marriage, would often retire from her career to devote herself entirely to the household. In 2022, the number of working women in Japan hit a record high, and today, a more common term in parenting is “wan-ope” (one operation), signifying instances where one parent, typically the mother, takes on all parenting responsibilities alone, often during a husband’s demanding work schedule. This dynamic places immense strain on mothers, who must juggle childcare, household management, and their own professional responsibilities.

In a recent survey conducted by Japan’s Cabinet Office, it was found that 61.1% of people in Japan believe that raising children is a challenging task. Despite Japan having one of the most generous paid parental leave policies globally, designed to promote greater male involvement in childcare, a recent report highlights “an entrenched view that men were breadwinners and women responsible for household chores and childrearing are still holding women back in society despite ‘rapid changes in individuals’ work styles and family forms across Japan.’”

The weight of expectations: Being a “good mother”

In a shift from historical norms, European parents are increasingly embracing this intensive parenting style with the weight of being a “good mother” now the default in Western societies.

Even in societies with robust welfare systems aimed at reducing inequality, intensive parenting is gaining traction. A 2016 study from Sweden found that most parents believed extracurricular activities would help children develop useful skills and that facilitating this was part of the parenting ideal.

Asabea, a midwife and mother based in Stockholm, reflects on her mother’s experiences in comparison to her own. She acknowledges the unique challenges her mother faced as a newcomer to Sweden, grappling with language barriers and without access to the full spectrum of benefits available to mothers in the country. Moreover, being a Black woman in a predominantly white nation added an extra layer of complexity. Asabea contends that while both generations navigated the demands of working motherhood, there’s a significant shift in the expectations placed on mothers today in Sweden.

“If I think about motherhood in general, historically there is a big difference now that as mothers in Sweden, we are expected to be everything: Career-focused, driven, attentive mothers who are respectful of our children’s feelings, all while maintaining our own identity separate from our kids. It’s hard trying to be everything,” says Asabea.

The paradox of modern motherhood

There is an intricate balance and tension that the majority of modern mothers face today across Westernized nations. The shift towards intensive parenting, contrasting against traditional expectations, forms a distinct challenge on mothers today that previous generations didn’t grapple with.

Despite advancements in policies and childcare options in some countries (even those with the most generous policies in the world) mothers across Western societies find themselves navigating the demanding terrain of intensive motherhood where the expectation to devote extensive time, energy and effort to their children often comes at a cost to their own well-being. This entails juggling the responsibilities of the workforce with the responsibilities of household tasks, all while striving to embody the idealized image of a “good mother” that is perpetuated through media and social platforms. The evolution of opportunities for mothers contradicts the enduring traditional expectations, creating a complex tension between our past and present identities.

A version of this story was originally published on Oct. 6, 2023. It has been updated.