Once upon a time, we raised children. Now we “develop” them by intensive parenting to optimize their happiness, success, and potential. Just the thought of it is exhausting.
Parents are drowning
From the impossibility of balancing work and life to the lonely pressure of staying at home to care for children, mothers can’t win. The cultural ideal of motherhood is an all-absorbing devotion to her children as the source of her life’s meaning, creativity, and fulfillment.
Children are seen as fragile and only properly cared for by loving mothers. Fathers can’t help much, because they are thought to lack the right nurturing skills. (14)
Working mothers say they can barely keep up and that they blame themselves. Stay-at-home moms quietly confess they are lonely. Or as one mother shared over a glass of wine,
“I am losing myself a little bit more every day. I gave up my career because it was too much, and I wanted to be there for my kids. I feel like I need to take them to the activities and the lessons, because how else will I justify staying home?”
Fathers who try to engage often find themselves dismissed as incompetent to care for children, or ignored even as they stay at home to be the primary caregiver.
“When I take my daughter to preschool, it feels like the teachers pat me on the head for being a good boy,” one stay-at-home dad told me. “When I take my toddler to the grocery store women approach me and smile. ‘Is Daddy babysitting so Mommy can have a little time to herself?’ They say. I smile, but I want to say, ‘No. I’m just parenting.’”
Why are we drowning in stress?
Because we are caught between incompatible beliefs.
The ideal of motherhood: Only mothers will do; no other caregiver is a valid substitute. Mothers should fully devote themselves to their children.
The ideal of the worker: Workers, whether parents or not, should fully commit themselves to their work. That family stuff is important, but it is something you should do on your own time.
The ideal of childhood: We should cultivate our breakable, precious children with just the right mixture of nurture, boundaries, activities, and enrichment. We should never say the wrong thing, or they may be damaged for life.
It’s a ShouldStorm. We should do this, we should do that, and we should definitely not do that other thing. We cannot win.
Research now shows that the stress mothers feel is not because they aren’t working hard enough, aren’t mindful enough, aren’t organized and efficient enough. This is a structural problem. No woman can solve this alone; it is not your fault.
We all know that a sweeping change in our society and in work-family policies will be a long time coming. But parents need a way to live in our perfectionistic culture of anxiety and criticism now. The relief we get from realizing the stress is not our fault will only last a short time unless we make a change.
What to do about it: The 3S Method
The 3S Method: Whenever you feel a Should... Sigh, See, and Start.
Today, in the moment when you can’t take one more Should that stresses you out, Sigh. Take a deep breath in, and let it out as slowly as possible. Slow out-breaths activate the calm and connected centers in the autonomic nervous system.
Once you get that back online, instead of reacting to the Should, See. See your child, see your situation, see your options. Sigh and See onboard mindfulness quickly, under pressure.
Then (and only then) Start. Start listening, start thinking about what is appropriate here, start trying something different. And most of all, start accepting that you don’t have to get it right.
It doesn’t matter what you start next. Start something, start nothing, start the wrong thing. Because if you Sigh, See, and Start, you will build skills quickly. If you get it right, you’ve learned something. If you get it wrong, you may trigger a should ("Oh, I should have done it that way"). That’s OK, just go right into Sigh, See, and Start again.
The 3S method is a continuous process that enhances parents’ confidence and wisdom over time. The more we do it, the more we grow. The Shoulds simply become irrelevant. Or as one mother told me, “Before I had only anxiety, but now I have confidence.”
We can’t change the world overnight, but we can find a little more peace with ourselves and our kids. The culture of intensive parenting (i.e., the ShouldStorm) gives onerous, specific advice for each and every sort of parenting situation.
But Sigh, See, and Start is a simple method that engages our leadership and connection with our kids. Parents use the three steps to choose wisely and mindfully in a given situation… and find a little space to breathe.
©Alison Escalante, MD
Collins, Caitlyn. (2019) Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.