Intensive Mothering: the ultimate in self-smothering
Are you one of these mums …?
You take your three kids to the park every afternoon. You schedule weekly activities at the library and swimming pool. You spend Saturdays making homemade playdough, kicking a soccer ball and teaching piano chords. You pack a nutrient-rich lunch with sandwiches shaped like traffic lights. You help with homework, read stories every night, iron school uniforms and buy new sneakers before they have a chance to fall apart. You also squeeze a full time job into part time hours, volunteer in the school kitchen garden, exercise regularly, monitor your diet in order to look ‘yummy’, and have regular sex with your husband. You never lose your cool in front of, let alone at, your family.
If this is you… you’re a complete liar! Or you’ve got a nanny/cleaner/cook who does most of the work, or you’re one step away from being picked up by the men in white coats and driven to an undisclosed location where you’ll be stabilised on very strong medication for the next 6 months.
Ok, so that’s a bit over the top, but the point is we’re all trying to be this woman, this wonder mum. While our ideas of what makes a good mum may differ slightly from our peers, we share similar views on acceptable parenting, and the dominant ideology in white middle-class society is Intensive Mothering.
So what is it?
Sharon Hays defines Intensive Mothering as the onerous amount of time, energy and finances we spend on providing for our children’s emotional, physical and intellectual development. Heavily reliant on “expert advice”, we have made our kids the central focus of our lives, and if we’re not giving them our undivided love and attention at all times and providing them with endless opportunities and resources, we’re consequently not doing a very good job.
While not all women are intensive mothers, it appears to be the current standard by which we measure parenting. Intensive mothering is a white, Western phenomenon and excludes people from disadvantaged backgrounds and developing countries, where mums are encouraged to be wage earners over caregivers.
In middle class communities, stay-at-home mums who make children their primary focus are considered the best mothers. Yet despite the increasing numbers of women who work outside the home, we’re actually spending far more time with our children now than we did four decades ago during the idealised era of motherhood when mummy wore a frilly apron and kitten heels and baked apple pies all day long. Full disclosure - I am all for bringing back the kitten heels!
As women have brought more education and commitment to their careers, they have also instilled these qualities in their other job of having and raising children. From the labour room onward, women strive to over-deliver. Intensive Mothering requires sacrifice, dedication, strategising and long hours doing thankless tasks. In other words, it’s exactly like climbing the corporate ladder except there’s no glass ceiling or annual bonus. Unless you are these women.
How does it affect us as mothers?
Idealised views of motherhood aim to set women against each other rather than unite them, as well as create unrealistic goals that are almost impossible to achieve. This is illustrated by the so-called mummy wars where stay-at-home mums are pitted against working mums in a battle of who’s doing the best job. This “war” is manufactured and serves only to distract parents from the real issues they face, such as inadequate childcare options, difficulties in re-entering the workforce and non family-friendly workplace policies. For stay-at-home mums in particular there has been significant internalisation of the mummy wars, with some taking great pains to separate themselves from working mothers, believing they need to be a fulltime caregiver in order to give their kids the best possible start in life.
The biggest problem in all of this is that we’ve turned motherhood into a difficult and complex task that is damaging our mental and physical health. The standards of parenting are ever changing, ill-defined and contradictory and they will remain that way for as long as we continue to buy into it. Unattainable ideals coupled with an inability to understand that we don’t have to listen to the “experts”, buy the most expensive baby products or pay undue attention to what other mums are doing, has had a significant impact on our mental health. Single mothers, working mothers, lesbian mothers and other women outside the proscribed “norm” are even more likely to suffer psychological harm.