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Regular version of the site

Intensive Mothering

What it looks like and what it means for children

© ISTOCK

A mother’s intense involvement in her children’s lives is perceived as a social norm by many. However, intensive mothering is not always a voluntary choice. School and broader society often pressurise women into making this decision. Whether or not this parental practice always benefits children remains a question. The following is a brief account of related issues based on a new paper by Olga Isupova and other research into this field.

What is intensive mothering?

Intensive mothering is a pattern of behaviour increasingly adopted by working mothers — mainly university-educated residents of big cities — over recent decades. For many of them, children are their absolute priority. What some experts describe as child-centrism is a tendency for mothers to build their lives around parenting and to spend as much time as possible engaging with their children.

The main purpose of this parenting practice is to support the child’s academic performance as well as his or her success outside of school. Such parents, while keeping up with their responsibilities at work, become deeply involved with their children’s schooling and also invest in the extra-curricular education provided by clubs, studios, music and art schools.


Why has this practice become so popular?

There are several factors involved. First, society places extremely high value on achievement. Many families make every effort to help their children succeed. Family investment in school students, including time, effort and money, has been growing. Second, the importance of good education for subsequent high-paying employment is obvious. Third, the boom in intensive mothering has been associated with neoliberal trends in social institutions such as school and the labour market, in particular, the increasing emphasis on individual responsibility, according to Isupova.  As a result, intensive parenting has virtually become the norm in urban communities.


Do women choose to engage in intensive mothering?

It is not always a voluntary choice. Many women carry it out it in response to external pressure from school and broader society and to internal ‘parental anxiety, partly natural and partly induced, about their children’s future in a market economy’, Isupova notes. The researcher quotes the mother of a nine-year-old girl: ‘Refusing to help your child with homework is not an option. If a child has not learned something properly, the teacher will rebuke their parent after classes for failing to help the child with homework and neglecting the child’s academic performance’.

That said, many women choose intensive mothering voluntarily, simply because they wish to ‘give as much as possible to their children’.


How exactly do women practice intensive mothering?

First, they arrange their schedules to allow them to spend as much time as possible engaging with their children. They are always informed of the child’s classroom and extracurricular activities — particularly given that Russian school as a social institution emphasises parents’ active role in their children’s education. In junior school, mothers are expected to help children with homework, and in senior classes, few parents can avoid ‘the financial cost of hiring private tutors’. In addition to this, most parents understand the value of extracurricular activities  and sign up their children to attend clubs and studios.

Second, most women practicing intensive mothering make an effort to learn about child psychology and to establish emotional contact with their children.

Third, such mothers often self-educate on child-rearing topics, focusing in particular on expertise in areas such as health, education and upbringing. They read about them on the internet, watch video lectures, consult with experts, etc. To sum up, intensive mothering requires a wide range of knowledge and skills.


 Since parenting requires a set of competencies, can we say that it is getting professionalised?

Yes. Society increasingly perceives parenting as a job which involves certain technical knowledge and psychological skills. However, parenting patterns still vary widely,  so it may be too early for generalisations.


Why only ‘intensive mothering’? What about fathers?

Mothers and fathers alike seek to be competent parents. But in practice, mothers usually get to be more involved in their children’s lives, while the father continues to be the family’s main breadwinner. But this arrangement is changing, and there are a growing number of involved fathers (mostly — but not exclusively — in middle-class families). However, mothers (and grandmothers) continue to bear the main burden of childrearing.


 How do women manage to combine work with intensive parenting?

Indeed, many mothers today find themselves in a situation of double employment. They are expected to give it a hundred percent both at work and at home. This imperative of perfection in respect of women is a timeless cultural phenomenon. Everyone — society, men and even other women who have adopted patriarchal stereotypes — expect women to excel in every way, from looks to career. Gender conditioning begins in childhood: for example, there is social pressure on girls dictating them how to grow up in the right way and what interests to have.

In fact, ‘intensive’ mothers often sacrifice their careers to ‘raise their children properly’. Many choose low-paid jobs, flexible scheduling, remote work, etc. Working mothers are less likely to be appointed to top executive positions.


Do they practice intensive mothering even with babies?

It tends to start when a child is 12 to 18 months. There are many early development methods and clubs for infants available. Education as such begins in preschool years. Mothers seek out kindergartens that offer a wide range of activities, from dancing to learning English, and also take children to art classes and sports clubs. When children begin to attend school, mothers tend to add other activities, on top of the already heavy school workload. This increases the pressure on mothers.


Looks like ‘intensive’ mothers have a hard time raising their children…

Most probably, they do. Due to their own perfectionism as well as social pressure, they may feel that despite all efforts, they are not doing enough for their children. But is perfection really possible?

The fast pace of their lives causes many mothers to ignore their own health and to give up on self-fulfilment outside of the family. ‘Intensive mothering of school-age children tends to cause chronic stress and fatigue in women living in big Russian cities’, according to Isupova. Their children are often stressed as well. ‘Doing homework is always a struggle <...>’, says a respondent referring to her 12-year-old daughter. ‘I keep using psychological support methods with her, otherwise she will develop neuroses’.


 So intensive mothering is not always good for children, right?

Apparently, it is not. First, the children of perfectionist mothers tend to have extremely tight schedules. ‘A couple of days a week were not taken up with clubs <...>’, a respondent recalls . ‘I used to look forward to these free days so I could stay home after school or go out with friends’. The mother of a graduate class student admits, ‘Large amounts of homework often caused my daughter to become hysterical’.

Second, children are not always allowed to decide for themselves (e.g. on their preferred area of specialisation). ‘Often a merging of mother and child occurs, with the mother being the decision-maker in the dyad, while the child is denied the opportunity to exercise their will’, explains Isupova.




IQ


Study author:
Olga Isupova, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Demographic Studies, HSE Institute of Demography
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, June 27