American mothers are stressed and worried about their children’s mental health

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In the midst of the ongoing pandemic and a worsening mental health crisis among children, a survey of American parents by the Pew Research Center reveals that parents have many worries on their minds — and that mothers in particular are carrying much of this mental burden.

Pew’s survey of more than 3,700 parents in the United States, conducted in fall 2022 and released Tuesday, revealed that parents are worried for their children for a variety of reasons, with fears about mental health topping the list. Mothers were especially concerned, with nearly half (46 percent) reporting that they are “extremely” or “very” worried that their children will struggle with anxiety or depression at some point, while 32 percent of fathers said the same.

When asked about a host of potential threats to their children — including mental health challenges; bullying; kidnapping; physical attacks; problems with drugs or alcohol; being shot — mothers were consistently more worried than fathers, and Hispanic mothers in particular were more likely than White, Black or Asian mothers to say they were extremely or very worried that their children might face most of these experiences, according to the poll. (The survey found no comparable pattern among fathers across racial or ethnic groups.)

Taken together, the findings of the report offer a striking reflection of the intensity of modern motherhood: Mothers were more likely than fathers to say that being a parent is stressful and tiring all or most of the time. Mothers said they do more than their spouses or partners to manage child-care responsibilities (most fathers claimed the division of labor is roughly equal). Mothers were more likely than fathers to report feeling judged by people other than their spouses or partners for the way they parent their children — including by relatives, friends and other parents in their communities. They were also more likely to say that being a parent has been “a lot harder” than they had expected (30 percent of mothers gave this answer, compared with 20 percent of fathers).

And mothers are more likely to view parenthood as the defining element of their identity: Thirty-five percent of mothers described being a parent as the single most important aspect of their personhood, compared with 24 percent of fathers.

Rachel Minkin, a research associate at Pew who co-wrote the report, noted the connective threads between the survey responses.

“Moms see the work of parenting as very important, but also more tiring and stressful,” she said — which perhaps isn’t surprising given that mothers also report doing more of the work when it comes to child care. “Moms say they are more worried, and then when it comes to parenting styles, moms are also more likely than dads to say they tend to be overprotective. So you can see how these issues might inform one another.”

The report is the first comprehensive survey of parenting in the United States that Pew has conducted since 2015. The findings of the previous survey illustrated the challenges of working parents, with mothers and fathers alike reporting that they struggled to balance their professional responsibilities with their parental roles. Parents also shared concerns about their children’s mental and physical safety.

The sources of stress have only intensified in the years since, as the pandemic placed additional strain on working mothers in particular, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year warned of a precipitous mental health decline among adolescents and teenagers.

Working moms are not okay

As parents navigate this complicated landscape, mothers seem to feel most subjected to scrutiny by others. Mothers were more likely to say they feel judged for their parenting decisions “at least sometimes” by their own parents (47 percent) or by their spouses or partner’s parents (45 percent). Mothers are also far more likely to say they feel judged at least sometimes by other parents in their communities (41 percent of mothers, compared with 27 percent of fathers). Fathers, on the other hand, were more likely than mothers to say they feel judged by their spouses or partners for the way they parent their children.

Yet, even as they are faced with a multitude of challenges, the vast majority of parents — about 8 in 10 mothers and fathers — said that being a parent is enjoyable (82 percent) and rewarding (80 percent) all or most of the time.

The survey offers an illuminating snapshot of what parenting feels like to families in the turbulent current moment, Minkin says: “It is interesting for us to be able to do this survey now.”

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