American parents are finding the job much harder than they expected, found a large new survey by Pew Research Center. And it’s not just how they feel — parenting is more demanding than it used to be, a variety of research has found.
Eight in 10 parents of children younger than 18 find it to be enjoyable and rewarding most or all of the time, according to the new survey of 3,757 U.S. parents in that group. But two-thirds also say it’s harder than they thought it would be — including about one-third of mothers who say it’s a lot harder than they expected.
The findings reflect and build on other research. Today’s parents spend more time and money on their children than previous generations — working mothers spend as much time with their children as stay-at-home mothers of the 1970s — and feel more pressure to be hands-on. Especially for college-educated mothers with careers, the demands have caught them off guard, economists have found. At the same time, many jobs have become all-consuming, paying people disproportionately more per hour for working long hours and being available anytime — even if more stressful.
The survey helps describe some of the particular ways in which parenting has become more demanding and stressful (one-third of respondents said it was that way all or most of the time).
For one, mothers feel increasingly torn between their various roles. They have more options beyond motherhood, in terms of education and career, yet they still feel societal pressure to meet certain standards as mothers.
Tips for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens
Are you concerned for your teen? If you worry that your teen might be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, there are a few things you can do to help. Dr. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suggests these steps:
Look for changes. Notice shifts in sleeping and eating habits in your teen, as well as any issues he or she might be having at school, such as slipping grades. Watch for angry outbursts, mood swings and a loss of interest in activities they used to love. Stay attuned to their social media posts as well.
Keep the lines of communication open. If you notice something unusual, start a conversation. But your child might not want to talk. In that case, offer him or her help in finding a trusted person to share their struggles with instead.
Seek out professional support. A child who expresses suicidal thoughts may benefit from a mental health evaluation and treatment. You can start by speaking with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional.
In an emergency: If you have immediate concern for your child’s safety, do not leave him or her alone. Call a suicide prevention lifeline. Lock up any potentially lethal objects. Children who are actively trying to harm themselves should be taken to the closest emergency room.
Resources If you’re worried about someone in your life and don’t know how to help, these resources can offer guidance:1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Text or call 988 2. The Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741 3. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
In the Pew survey, just one-third of mothers said being a mother was the most important aspect of who they were as a person. Yet they also said they felt judged for their parenting by friends or other parents, more than fathers were, and spent significantly more time than fathers on the physical and emotional labor of parenting. In recent years, the pandemic also forced many mothers to make it their primary role, even if it hadn’t been their plan.
“Women are more invested in work, and feel less guilty about that too,” said Robin W. Simon, professor emerita of sociology at Wake Forest, who did early research on parenthood and identity. “Women of earlier cohorts who were employed wouldn’t readily admit that being a mother wasn’t the most important. It’s not that the parent identity is less important, but it’s an important identity among others.”
Low-income parents, and those who are Black or Hispanic, were most likely to say that being a parent was the most important thing about them. They were also more likely to say that parenting was enjoyable or rewarding most of the time. That aligns with findings that for many poor women, children are “the chief source of identity and meaning,” as described by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas in their book, “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.”
Also, research has found, today’s parents feel intense pressure to be hands-on, constantly teaching children and interacting with them, whereas previous generations spent more time doing adult activities when their children were around. While this increased attention used to be an upper-middle-class goal, more recent research shows that people across class divides believe it’s the best way to parent.
Often, Pew found, this means more emotional engagement. Nearly half said they were raising their children differently than they had been raised by their own parents, and the largest share said the main difference was in how they showed love and built relationships with their children. In open-ended responses, they said they wanted to raise children who felt unconditional support from their parents. That meant less yelling, and more verbal affirmations, outward displays of affection and honest conversations about hard topics.
“I didn’t have a safe place to express my emotions of feeling understood,” one mother, 32, told Pew. “I try to have weekly talks with my kids to check in on their emotions to see how they are. Even if they had a good week, I have found it is still good to remind them you are there for them.”
Becky Kennedy, the psychologist known as Dr. Becky who founded the parenting group Good Inside and wrote a book by the same name, said that among the parents she works with, this was common: “I think this generation knows they needed that, and there’s more and more permission to go, ‘That really was an important need.’”
“Forever, parenting has been the only job in the world that we get no training and no support for; we’re just expected to do it,” she said. “This generation knows how much it matters, and it feels harder because they know how broken the system was for parents and they’re trying to fill that gap.”
Another way parenting has become harder, according to the survey, is a new set of concerns about children’s well-being. Parents typically have such worries but fears have changed over time. The so-called helicopter parents of the 1980s were mostly concerned about physical safety, like kidnapping and teen pregnancy. Those concerns remain, but they’ve been superseded by ones about mental health: Three-quarters of parents said they were worried their children would struggle with anxiety or depression, or face bullying.
Low-income parents and Hispanic parents, especially immigrants, were more likely to be worried across the board, including about potential violence. Four in 10 Hispanic parents, and the same share of low-income parents, said they were extremely or very worried their children could be shot, compared with roughly one in 10 high-income or white parents.
Economic anxieties were another concern. Parents today are the first generation that may not surpass their parents economically. Now, they say their top priority for their children in adulthood is to achieve financial independence and have careers they enjoy: Nine in 10 parents said those things were extremely or very important to them.
“I want them to be independent, save money, invest in their future, and become obsessed with their idea of success and not society’s ideas of success,” a 38-year-old mother told Pew.
These pressures to invest more in children may be one of the drivers of the nation’s declining fertility rate. One mother, 41, said: “I also have one child instead of three, like my parents, to ensure we have enough resources for activities, tutoring and organic good.”
And parents are thinking about these pressures when they consider their hopes for their own children’s adulthoods. Just one in five parents said a top priority for their children’s future was that they grow up to have families of their own.