I've asked the men in several recent audiences to raise hands if they think moms stress out concerning their children at least five times more than dads. All the men's hands went up to general laughter.
I then asked the women to raise hands if they agreed with the men. All the women's hands went up, again to general laughter.
"Please keep your hand up," I then asked, "if you think parenting has become bad for the mental health of women, in general, that is?" If any hands went down, I didn't see them. Again, laughter. Is any of this really funny?
Stressing out over children is a new phenomenon. Women in my mother's generation did not stress out over their kids. There might have been exceptions, but I've never run into one. The ubiquity of stressing began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I think I know why.
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The first modern parenting book, Between Parent and Child, by psychologist Haim Ginott, was published in 1965. In it, Ginott described a radically new perspective on and approach to children. Unlike pediatrician Ben Spock, whose monumental best seller was published in 1946 and was practical, Ginott went into psychological theory and gave parents new things to think about — abstract, speculative, unverifiable things. He talked a lot about the need for parents to correctly read, interpret and respond to their children's feelings, for example.
As was the case with Spock, women were Ginott's primary audience. But whereas Spock was reassuring, Ginott was disquieting. He implied that if parents did not respond to their children's feelings properly, great psychological distress would ensue. The success of Ginott's book unleashed a torrent of parenting books that is ongoing. As of March 23, Amazon lists more than 103,000 parenting books. That screams complicated!
Women are the primary consumers, by far, of parenting books. As they read, what I call psychological boogeymen jump off the pages and into their brains, where they take up residence. These little demons keep up a constant chatter that drowns out the quiet, calming voice of common sense. They cause mothers to agonize over minutiae, second-guess themselves and think they must be constantly on their parenting toes lest they miss or mishandle something and send their children's supposedly fragile psyches or school achievement into a tailspin.
In short, they read; therefore, they worry — an ironic thing for a guy who's written 20 parenting books to point out. And because they worry, they micromanage. And because they micromanage, they stress out. And because they worry and micromanage and stress out, they read. And around and around and around ... you get the picture.
My standard prescription for today's stressed-out moms: Stop reading parenting books, parenting magazines and any parenting newspaper column that brings on worry, guilt, confusion or the feeling that you now have a new mothering assignment to load into your backpack.
Your feelings count, too, you know.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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