Emotional Health · Health

Stay-at-Home Moms and ‘Intensive Mothering’

Martin’s piece drew many letters and comments from readers who pointed out, correctly, that many Upper East Siders do not conform to this picture. Others questioned what was wrong with women’s devoting themselves to their children and husbands full time. In my view, there is nothing wrong with that, but there are three aspects that are potentially troubling that may be an issue sometimes. 

The first has to do with “self-actualization.” Psychologically healthy development usually includes a need to exercise our talents and skills in a way that feels important and fulfilling. For many women, motherhood satisfies that need, as it is deeply satisfying emotionally and has many “creative” aspects as well. However, the women described here, many if not most of whom have been educated and prepared to work at high-level, intellectually challenging careers, sometimes have trouble making the adjustment from boardroom to playroom. I have personally observed the Broadway-ready school benefits and Halloween parties that are the result of the talent and skills of a large group of highly competent women focusing on a relatively simple project. 

This relates to the second issue: intensity and competition. Is better always better? In the quest to give their children the best life they can, these highly talented moms (and dads) sometimes lose sight of the fact that children often benefit most from low-key, easygoing, non-competitive activities. I once saw an expert give a talk to parents, meant to be reassuring, explaining that your child didn’t have to be the “best” student in the class. Maybe your child could be the ”best” bike rider. These were third graders. Why do children have to be the “best” at anything in the third grade? In this setting, the message is that they do. 

My third concern is the message that these mothers are sending to their daughters. Are they sending them to the best, most competitive schools and colleges with an eye to the same blueprint that they have followed? What is the point of all this education? There was a time before the feminist revolution when some (not all) women who went to medical school dropped out if they married a fellow student, even if they were close to getting their M.D. I see something reminiscent of those times in this scenario.

I suppose what I am really asking is this: What is a fulfilling life for a woman? No one can sit in judgment about someone else’s choices. But independence has always been tied to mental health, at least in Western cultures. Martin writes:

“The wives of the masters of the universe, I learned, are a lot like mistresses—dependent and comparatively disempowered. Just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates her version of power from her man’s, might keep a thinking woman up at night.”

We don’t know for sure that this is true. Being educated, intelligent women, they have chosen this life. But what has brought this article so much attention is just that idea: This is what some of the people with the most “freedom of choice” in our society have selected for themselves. The questions this raises won’t be answered easily.

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  • Chris Tirpak June 4, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Interesting article, thought provoking. We’re reaching a population tipping point in the earth’s ability to sustain human life. The earth is not growing any bigger, but the number of us is out of control.

    So, in a time of planet-wide overpopulation, why would any thinking woman choose to spend her precious life on grooming her own replacements?

    What would motivate her to avoid self-actualization?