When parents are so busy with their children’s lives, they don’t have any time for themselves and may be doing more harm than good.
Melanie Boyle is exhausted. Living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she’s mom to a 3-year-old whose weekly schedule includes occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, aquatic therapy, swim classes three days a week, ballet, gymnastics, cooking, and soccer.
“Then there’s the constant mental work,” she told Healthline. “What did she eat today? Has she had enough protein? How many vegetables? Does she have clean clothes and gear for activities? Has she napped? How many books did we read today? Did she have too much screen time?”
With so much going on, it’s no wonder Boyle is feeling overwhelmed by parenthood. And she’s not alone.
According to a recent New York Times article, “Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.”
The pressure is certainly on, with parents being more involved than ever before. There are more activities to attend, more expensive opportunities to take advantage of, and more outside judgment of parents who don’t seem to be doing it all.
The Times piece cites several reasons for this shift. From the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor (and parents wanting to ensure their children are on the right side of that gap) to the input from experts constantly suggesting parents do more, the article essentially concludes we’re asking too much of modern parents — and they’re suffering as a result.
Responses from parents online have been swift, with many chiming in to share their own experiences — both good and bad.
But is “the relentlessness of modern parenting,” which one expert quoted in the Times piece describes as “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive,” really what’s best for kids?
Dr. Steph Lee is a pediatrician specializing in preventive medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). She told Healthline, “I think some of it could be beneficial and some of it maybe not so much. Should you consider your child and make time for them? Absolutely. But should you neglect your own well-being? Absolutely not. Parents are better parents when they take into consideration their own needs.”
However, plenty of parents seem to be neglecting that needed time spent on themselves. And mothers, especially, seem to be sacrificing their needs for the needs of their families.
According to 2015 Pew Research data, 53 percent of mothers said they don’t have enough time or any time at all for friends and hobbies.
It’s not hard to see why, when 73 percent said their children participated in athletic activities in the last year, 60 percent said their children participated in religious instruction or youth groups, and 54 percent said their children took lessons in music, dance, or art.
Meanwhile, the majority of parents across all income levels said good, affordable child care was hard to find.
What’s more, 67 percent of mothers said they had participated in PTA or other school meetings, while 63 percent had volunteered with special projects, activities, or class trips.
Despite all that, half of full-time working moms reported wishing they were able to be more involved in their children’s education.
“Before the advent of the internet, I feel like parenting was basically ‘keep the kid alive, show up to parent-teacher conferences, and maybe a recital,” Boyle explained when describing her own relentless experience of motherhood.
“Now there’s so much information out there about what all we could be doing and how we could be doing better or more for our kids,” she said.
According to relationship and parenting expert Dr. Wendy Walsh, the issue isn’t that modern parenting is now asking too much of parents. It’s that society as a whole isn’t supporting families in doing what’s best for kids.
“Parents are now having to compensate for the fact that our society and culture aren’t helping the way they used to, so parents will fail at every turn because they’ll never be able to do it all,” she said.
The United States has fallen behind other developed nations when it comes to supporting families. It’s the only country that fails to guarantee any paid parental leave.
It also has the second-highest cost of child care, while healthcare spending in the country is double that of other nations but with worse outcomes.
Then there’s the fact that the structure of American families is simply changing. There are more single-parent homes, families are having fewer children (resulting in less help from older siblings in raising younger siblings), and extended family support isn’t always available.
There are also now more women in the workforce than ever before, but according to the Times piece, those women are still spending “just as much time tending to their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.”
According to Dr. Walsh, “The problem isn’t women leaving the household. The problem is twofold: men not entering the household and society not catching up to start taking over.”
But Walsh doesn’t think the pressure needs to be as great as many make it. She mentions Donald Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, who focused on the idea of being a “good enough” parent.
“Kids grow in our gaps,” Walsh explained. “They grow when we forget to pack their lunch or are a little late picking them up from school. A parent that is hovering is not good for kids, nor is a parent who is neglectful. Most of us who are trying end up being just good enough anyway.”
She believes kids benefit from the direction parenthood has headed today, but she wants to see society step up its support.
“It’s not that we’re telling parents to do it wrong, it’s that we’re not helping them to do it right. We need to stop blaming the parents. They’re just struggling in a system that’s already established and in modern communities where the deck is already stacked against them.”
Dr. Lee suggests talking to your child’s doctor if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of modern parenting or the latest recommendations being made by experts.
“The recommendations of the AAP should always be viewed as guidelines,” she told Healthline. “If your mental health or well-being is suffering because you’re trying so hard to adhere to these guidelines, that’s not what we intend. There are tools and strategies your child’s doctor can discuss with you for doing the best you can without adding more unnecessary stress.”
Boyle admits she wouldn’t necessarily change anything about the way she parents.
Where the Times piece states parents today spend an average of five hours a week actively engaging with their children compared to the one hour and 45 minutes a week parents in the ’70s apparently spent, she said, “That just seems so sad. I worked hard to have this child, why wouldn’t I want to spend time with her? In a perfect world, I’d spend an hour and 45 minutes just reading and playing with her every day.”
Boyle says she doesn’t mind the activities, mostly because her daughter loves them. And she loves her daughter.
Still, “Sometimes, I just need a break,” she said. “I just want to sit on the couch and turn my brain off for a little while. Or have an adult conversation. Or pee alone.”
They’re not unreasonable requests.
But if the relentlessness of modern parenting doesn’t allow for that time, perhaps modern moms and dads need to reevaluate their approach to parenting.