When I’m asked, “How are you?,” my knee-jerk reaction is to quickly just say, “Fine” or “Good.” But a couple of years ago, I remember being stopped in my tracks when an acquaintance paused after my automatic reply and asked me again, “How are you, really, dear?” She saw right through my hasty answer and cared enough not to let the moment pass to show me kindness.
I wasn’t all right. I was overwhelmed by an everyday parenting challenge that left me unsteady. Perhaps she noticed because she, too, was a mom and was reminded of a similar feeling in her own life. With a simple question, she showed me that my well-being was important to her. While I was taken aback and unsure of myself as I tried to figure out what to say, I felt tended to by her invitation to be real. It was a reminder to be thoughtful of my own well-being—an often-forgotten priority for moms.
“It is my earnest wish that women can commonly come to prioritize, and to regularly receive themselves, the steadfast love and care that is uniquely associated with the term mothering,” wrote researcher Suniya Luthar nearly 10 years ago. Her call to action for “mothering mothers” is no less urgent today.
According to the recent “Parenting in America Today” survey by Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of mothers find parenting harder than they thought it would be, and nearly half of moms say being a parent is tiring most or all of the time. What’s more, nearly half of moms say they feel judged about the way they parent their children by their own or their partner’s parents. Instead of judgment and unreasonable expectations, what mothers need is support—from friends, partners, and community. As busy moms, we can support each other and take steps to get the mothering that we need ourselves.
Great expectations on moms
A recent study by Eva-Maria Schmidt and her colleagues looking at research over the past 20 years found that our society has five primary expectations about what makes a “good mother.” But, simultaneously, these expectations are often unattainable and overwhelming, and perpetuate inequities:
- The Present Mother is physically nearby and highly attentive to her child so that she knows what her child needs and wants.
- The Future-Oriented Mother uses her time and financial resources to provide a nurturing environment—like healthy foods, recreational activities, and stimulating educational opportunities—to secure her child’s successful development.
- The Working Mother adjusts her work commitments so that they do not disrupt her family responsibilities.
- The Public Mother reflects to the world that she is in control of her body, the way she parents, and her child.
- The Happy Mother is content with her parenting role and how she is raising her child.
It’s no wonder why “mom guilt” is so pervasive—mothers are asked to try to be all of these things all at once, and if they’re not successful, they’re often asked to try harder without support. “Mothers’ emotional responses to conflicting normative expectations are predominantly negative, and may even compromise mothers’ well-being,” explain the researchers.
Moms need support
What helps moms to be well? In a 2015 study, Luthar and her colleague Lucia Ciciolla explored the keys that contribute to well-being in over 2,000 mothers (mostly married and white). The study’s findings dispute the perspective that mothers’ well-being is primarily driven by their investment in their children and their role as a mother. Rather, there is a consistently strong tie between moms’ well-being and their level of social support.
Moms who feel personally supported tend to feel less anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness, and more life satisfaction and fulfillment. These findings were consistent across women with different levels of education (high school or college degrees).
The researchers found that there were four especially important personal supports that nourished moms:
- Unconditional acceptance: Do you feel seen and loved for the person that you are?
- Reliable comfort: When you are deeply distressed, do you feel comforted in the ways you need?
- Authenticity in relationships: How much of the “self” do you show to others—is your “outer self” very much the same as your “inner self”?
- Friendship satisfaction: How satisfied do you feel about the frequency of visiting with your friends?
What’s more, moms who are satisfied with their spouses or partners tend to feel less stress and emptiness, and greater life satisfaction. But, although relationships with partners and spouses are important for moms, they are not the only relationships that matter. Moms’ satisfaction with their friends was chief in all facets of their well-being in the study. In fact, what seems most critical is that moms feel cared for by someone—partner, relative, friend, or colleague—in their everyday lives.
“As contemporary mothers strive so carefully to tend their children, therefore, they must deliberately cultivate and maintain close, authentic relationships with friends as well as family,” explain Luthar and Ciciolla.
How to build your support network
It seems that moms don’t have to travel very far to nurture a network of supportive relationships. A new study by Tuija Seppälä and her colleagues of over 400 moms in Finland showed that moms who connect often with other moms in their neighborhood tend to have greater well-being. Moms who have frequent and positive contact with one another feel more like they belong in the community, and in turn they feel they receive emotional support, help, and advice from their peers. Further, those moms who feel supported by other neighborhood moms feel more satisfied with their daily lives.
In her recent book, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends, researcher Marisa Franco offers guidance around practical ways to nurture friendships. If you want to make mom friends in your neighborhood, consider these few tips:
- Take action: Put yourself in an environment where people meet regularly, assume that you’re underestimating how much people like you, open up to people in the group, and invite someone to meet up with you.
- Be vulnerable: Take a chance to share the “truest parts” of yourself. This shows trust and care to someone, which can invite them to show you their capacity for love.
- Find ways to be generous: Share a meal with someone, offer support to help them with their own goals, spend time together, or take them to the airport.
- Show love: Greet a friend with affection, let them know you’re thinking of them, and celebrate their good news with them.
Of course, being a mom has both highs and lows. It is important for moms to know that we’re not alone and to be connected to other moms who can lift us up when we’re experiencing the hard parts of parenting.
“Any mother who has raised children from infancy through adulthood has experienced periods of less-than-optimal parenting; this is a difficult job,” explained Luthar. “It is with all this considered that I suggest we make it a top priority to foster the resilience of . . . mothers, with special efforts to harness what we know from research about women helping other women through adversities.”
This article is dedicated with love to the memory of Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., in recognition of her scholarship and advocacy for mothers, fathers, and children’s well-being.