Attachment parenting: It may cause more stress, less happiness

A new study shows that attachment parenting can lead to moms reporting more stress and lower levels of happiness. Why might this parenting style be bad for mom?

Bob Brawdy/The Tri-City Herald/AP
Jennifer Licon holds her newborn son, Adalberto Miguel, at the Tri-City Union Gospel Mission in Pasco, Wash., back in May of this year.

Here’s another shot in the debate over “attachment parenting," the newly popular style of American mothering (and yes, it almost always refers to moms) that includes “always-on” mommy behavior such as baby wearing, extended breastfeeding, and co-sleeping.

A study published recently in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that mothers who subscribe to this sort of intensive style of parenting – moms who feel, for instance, that they are the essential caregiver for their child, or that mothering should be child-centered with a constant stream of intellectually stimulating activities for the kid – tend to have more stress and lower levels of life satisfaction than other parents.

In the new study, researchers from the Psychology department at the University of Mary Washington – Kathryn Rizzo, Holly Schiffrin, and Miriam Liss – evaluated online surveys by 181 mothers with children under 5 years old. Their goal was to gain more insight into what has become known as the “Parenting Paradox.”

The Parenting Paradox is the discrepancy that’s been found in a number of studies between people’s idealized perception of parenthood (that it is one the most beautiful and fulfilling experiences in life) and the negative mental health outcomes often associated with parenthood. (More stress, less happiness, more fatigue, that nagging and constant desire to sleep past 6 a.m. for one day, just one day, please.)

The Mary Washington researchers noted, though, that there is quite a lot of debate about this paradox. While some studies have linked parenthood with these lowered levels of happiness, higher stress levels, and so forth, others have found no link between parenthood and psychological well-being. (These latter studies find that parenting is a tradeoff. As in, sure, the morning wake-ups are a drag, but then there’s that beautiful, smiling baby cooing in the crib. Let’s call it a wash.)

Perhaps, the researchers theorized, it was the style of parenting that led to the paradox, not the fact of parenting itself.

So they asked moms a series of questions to identify those who have embraced “intensive” mothering. Moms rated how strongly they agreed with statements such as: “Although fathers may mean well, they generally are not as good at parenting as mothers.”  Or: “Finding the best educational opportunities for children is important as early as preschool.”  And: “It is harder to be a good mother than to be a corporate executive.”  (For those who think Marissa Meyer doesn’t know what she has coming.)

The researchers controlled for family support, which they expected would have a significant impact on mom’s perceived happiness. Then they broke down the other findings.  And it turned out that some key indicators of what they described as intense parenting had strong correlations with lower mental health markers for mom.

Women who believed that mothers were the most capable parent, for instance, had significantly higher levels of stress and life satisfaction. (Researchers theorized that these moms might be less likely to accept help with child rearing – even from dad.) Those who believed that parenting is challenging also seemed to suffer – they had higher levels of depression and stress, as well as lower life satisfaction.

“Believing that parenting is demanding appears to be particularly toxic for women,” the researchers wrote. “It may be that if women are supposed to be inherently natural parents (i.e., Essentialism), then viewing it as difficult and exhausting is particularly bad for women’s mental health.”
And women who believed that parents’ lives should revolve around their children (this was measured by answers to child-centered questions in the survey) had lower levels of life satisfaction. 


“If intensive mothering is related to so many negative mental health outcomes, why do women do it?” the researchers asked. “They may think it makes them better mothers ... so they are willing to sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children’s cognitive and socio-economic outcomes.”

But there needs to be more research, the scholars wrote, to see whether this sort of parenting does, actually, benefit kids. 

“Intensive parenting may have the opposite effect on children from what parents intend,” they wrote.

Something to chew on during the baby's next teachable moment.

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