The Pressures of Privileged Motherhood—Kate as Case Study

We all love our kids. But rich mothers are different. Just look at Kate.

Posted Jul 23, 2013

Over the course of her pregnancy, all eyes were on Kate Middleton. On her blossoming bump, sure, but also on Kate as a signifier of motherhood itself. The pressures on new mothers are immense--the  hormonal, emotional and psychological sea changes of pregnancy, childbearing and lactation combine with social, family and marital pressure to "do it right." For Kate Middleton, these pressures are radically increased. Her newborn baby is not her own, after all, at least not entirely. A royal baby, he belongs to all of the UK and the world.

Kate will be a radically different mum than her husband's grandmother. We know that Prince Charles was raised largely by his beloved nanny, as his mother traveled the world doing Important Things. There is a story of Charles, at around age three, eager to see his mummy upon her return from a long trip. Queen Elizabeth, a product of her time and position, bent down and told her toddler firmly that he would have to wait his turn in the receiving line.

Princess Diana broke the royal mold and brought motherhood into cuddlier, cozier territory with her hands-on parenting of Wills and Harry. "The People's Princess" was a mother we could relate to, often photographed holding her boys and known to insist on her right to give them affection and as "normal" a childhood as possible.

Like Diana before her, Kate will be a privileged mother for sure, perhaps more so than any other mother on earth. And in my recent research observing and studying privileged mothers in Manhattan and London for my ongoing project, Primates of Park Avenue: an Anthropological Memoir of Uptown Motherhood, I have learned there are unique pressures on these mommies. They include:

  • The pressure of being perfect in pregnancy and recovery. From their wardrobes to their post-pregnancy bodies we expect mothers, particularly famous ones, to "snap back" in no time. Remember Gwyneth Paltow, that perfect mother we love to hate, photographed looking trim and radiant mere hours after the birth of her children? Such expectations trickle down to the mainstream as well. Even during pregnancy, we feel pressured to be perfectly attractive, meticulously groomed and desireable. Sure, any French woman will tell you it’s great not to let yourself go during pregnancy. But privileged mothers in Manhattan tell stories of Brazilian bikini waxes just prior to their due date and blowouts and manicures and pedicures on the way to the scheduled C-section. Stilettos at 38 weeks of pregnancy are now de rigeur among a certain set. If we can’t relax our expectations of a woman in her last trimester, when can we?
  • The pressure of being constantly on call. Sure, all mothers have endured sleepless nights and dog-tired days in order to care for their children. But in a post-John Bowlby era, and with the widespread embrace of “attachment parenting,” non-working mothers especially face the unique pressure of feeling obliged to spend every possible moment enriching, improving and bettering their children. Reading to them in utero, for example, and giving them perfect nutrition and perfect stimulation are relatively new expectations that can create a tremendous sense of anxiety for new mothers.
  • The pressure to make all the right choices, be it the best qualified nanny, the safest stroller or car seat or organic vegetables for her baby and children can create tremendous stress. Non-working mothers, far from languid, are the chief administrator of their children’s lives. And one of the things they must do is choose, choose, choose. What we know from the psychological and neuropsychiatric literature on choice tells us that the "privilege" of having options is itself a psychological stressor (see below).

This is worlds away from keeping calm—e.g., dumping your tot with her nanny, or even leaving her to play for an hour alone in her room while you do the laundry—and carrying on. We have come full circle since Queen Elizabeth's mothering days and are firm in our belief that it is all on mother to raise, enrich and improve her child, day in and day out, whether she has an army of help or is a single mother.

Here are some additional unique pressures Kate is likely to face in the days and years ahead:

Increased scrutiny and judgment

Every mother has experienced it: you walk out and your mother or your sister or mother-in-law or a total stranger exclaims, "That baby's too hot, that baby's too cold, put a bonnet on her, take that pacifier out of her mouth!" The advice, usually unsolicited, goes on and on.

All these opinions demonstrate that as a species, we take a communal interest in babies, a holdover from when raising children was truly a community affair. Most anthropologists now agree that we evolved as "cooperative breeders"--that is, groups of us, not just mother/father pairs, raised our children together. It was an undertaking of many, with everyone helping out, women even nursing the babies of their close kin. The "cooperative breeding mentality" software is still in there--which is why, even though moms and dads now raise their kids themselves, we scrutinize, judge, and have so many opinions about a woman's parenting.

Kate will face this scrutiny x 63.2 million. All the UK will have an opinion about whether Kate ought to breast or bottle-feed, put her newborn on a schedule or feed "on demand," sleep train the baby at 3 months or six months or never.

And it's not just babies we care about....we also take a communal interest in mothers. "She looks tired! She looks cross! She's too skinny! She's too fat!" Entire magazines are dedicated to the business of judging mothers (see Us and Star covers on Kim K's pregnancy, or stories in celeb magazines about Britney Spears's literal and figurative maternal slips). Kate will face these pressures not only from her family and close friends but the entire world.

The stress of too many options

Given the wealth and power of the family she has married into, Kate will have choices, choices, choices about how to raise her baby. But Kate's choice of the best five Silver Cross prams, the mostfantastic baby wipe warmers, the very best nanny and governess and more can be a double-edged sword. Lots of choices and options, psychologists including Barry Schwartz tell us, exhaust us psychologically, emotionally and physically. In the case of privileged mothers like Kate, keeping your child happy and healthy collides with choice upon choice, potentitally leading to feeling overwhelmed (“So many choices!”) and anxious ("What if I make the wrong choice?!")

Hampered by the Help

Whether it's your mother, your father-in-law, or the nanny or night nurse, many new mothers find themselves hindered by the help. Sure it's good to have people helping out.

But it's another layer of relationships, since the people helping are people, after all. No matter how professional, there's an interpersonal aspect, and there's the rub. Having help on hand can buoy a new mother, or stress/sap her with more obligations and more stress. Many new mothers I work with tell me they feel the pressure to “mother” their childcare providers, making them meals and even listening to their personal problems, rather than resting and relaxing post-partum. And the stories of new mothers feeling at the mercy of bossy older sisters, mothers, mothers-in-laws and night nurses are legion. This is because a brand new mother is an inexperienced mother, and she feels and is uniquely vulnerable and porous. She is likely tired and overwhelmed at first. With all the extra help available to her, Kate is, ironically, potentially more likely to feel

The rich are different. So are the stresses they face when they give birth and raise children. These are decidedly first-world problems, it's true. But further research and additions to the psychological and sociological literature of motherhood will help us understand how to support every mother in every circumstance and broaden our sense of how parenting practices affect not only children, but those who raise them.