As a mother of young children, I've heard the following rosy message from more than one slightly more-seasoned mom: "Don't worry, it gets easier!"
It's a message of hope and encouragement, a recognition of how hard some aspects of early motherhood can be. But according to new research, it might also be wrong.
A new paper, published earlier this year in the journal Developmental Psychology, suggests that the hardest time for mothers isn't when their children are in early childhood, but later — when their children reach middle school.
The paper, by Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla of Arizona State University, reports the findings from an Internet-based survey of 2,247 relatively well-educated American mothers. The participants responded to a series of questions designed to assess multiple facets of their well-being, including aspects of their personal adjustment (such as stress and life satisfaction), perceptions of their child's behavior (including both positive and negative behaviors toward the mother) and aspects of their experiences as a parent (including feelings of guilt and being subsumed by parenthood). The mothers were also classified according to the ages of their children, with categories including infancy, preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and adulthood.
The data revealed different patterns of well-being for mothers with children of different ages.
In the early years, when motherhood is often portrayed as especially demanding, mothers reported high levels of parenting "overload." They felt that mothering crowded out time and energy for themselves and for other facets of their identities. But they also reported high levels of positive behaviors from their children and relatively high levels of parenting satisfaction overall. This suggests that the early challenges of motherhood were partially offset by high rewards.
By the time children reached adulthood, mothers reported significantly lower levels of parenting overload and guilt but maintained relatively high levels of parenting satisfaction. Contrary to the idea that mothers suffer from an empty nest, the data suggested that mothers of adult children enjoy relatively high levels of maternal well-being.
It was between these two periods that mothers reported the highest levels of dissatisfaction with parenting, with mothers of middle-school children representing the peak. Overall, life satisfaction also dipped in this period, with highs in stress, loneliness and feelings of emptiness — though ratings for these dimensions did not differ significantly between mothers of middle-school children and those in neighboring age groups. Mothers with middle school children also tended to perceive more negative behaviors from their children, and to perceive their children as less well-adjusted.
Importantly, these trends reflected group averages; there was considerable variation in the experiences of individual mothers. But the findings do suggest that some of the periods that are typically most difficult for children themselves — with the onset of puberty, a renegotiation of identities and sometimes forays into risky behavior — are also the most difficult for their mothers.
In a conversation by email, professor Luthar suggested that some of these threats to maternal well-being could be offset by "mutually supportive groups for moms" at schools, in the workplace or in individual communities. She also speculated that fathers similarly experience their children's middle school years as an especially stressful period.
So for mothers of young children, does it get easier? The data suggest that eventually it does, but it might take longer than you expect — and there might be some rough spots along the way.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo