Researchers to moms: You know how to give and give—but do you know the 4 things YOUR happiness depends on?
We kiss boo-boos, rub backs, give pep talks, do tuck-ins, applaud effort, listen endlessly, get everyone where they need to go—the whole nurturing nine yards. (Nine billion yards!) But wait. Who supports and nurtures us?
There’s now an official answer to that.
In a nutshell, let’s just say you can feel a lot less guilty about your book group. Or your walking buddies. Or stealing away for date night and moms’ night out. Or that “play group” that’s really about coffee, confab, and kvetching. Whatever you call that time you invest in rich relationships that nurture, restore, and love you for just being you, it’s really good for you.
Like, soul-nourishing good.
Amazingly, until now nobody in science had much looked at what keeps mothers’ psyches happy and grounded during their childrearing decades.
“You know the old saying, ‘Everybody wants a wife?’ This study is showing it’s maybe not such a joke,” Suniya Luthar, professor of psychology at Arizona State, told me after her insightful study—”Who Mothers Mommy?”—came out in Developmental Psychology last week. “But I think what everybody really wants, and needs, is a mother.”
More specifically, we mothers need mother-ing, she said. We need the same strong emotional sustenance that we work so hard to give our kids. “Mothers do and do—and most of the time, we’re pretty damn good at what we do! That doesn’t mean that we don’t NEED,” she added.The four things moms need most (no, not wine, sleep, chocolate, and Spanx):
In a first-of-its-kind study, Luthar and her colleague Lucia Ciciolla looked at 2,000 mostly well-educated mothers to parse out what most fuels their personal well-being as they cope with the demands of motherhood. Among the many possible factors explored, the researchers identified four stand-out needs (and the first two are especially key):
- Unconditional acceptance. That’s being able to say Yes to the question “Do you feel seen and loved for the person you are at your core?”
- Feeling comforted when distressed. “Just as children feel overall happier when they’re comforted as needed, the same applies to us,” Luthar told me.
- Authenticity in relationships. This means you feel you can show your core, true self to others, without having to pretend or conceal. You can be who you really are.
- Friendship satisfaction. Here, it’s quantity that fortifies: Are you satisfied with how often you connect with your friends?
When we feel these things, all is much more right with our world, and our ability to function in it. “I was taken aback,” Luthar said. “We put all these variables in to see which capture what women need as we go about our business being mothers, and these four things emerged as very powerful indicators. It may sound hokey that grown, competent, strong, independent, intelligent women would need mothering. But it’s so true.”
Sadly, many moms don’t realize that they have these needs or that they deserve to have them met, she added. It’s as if we’re so busy being preoccupied or depleted, running on empty, that we don’t even know what we’re missing.
So where does this magic mom fuel come from?
The answer looks different for each of us.
“It doesn’t matter where it comes from—a spouse, a best friend, your mom, a sister—as long as it’s someone special and provides that sustenance,” Luthar said. (For a handful of women in the study, a therapist filled the bill.)
Our partner can be a big source—but only when a marriage is strong. Just being married isn’t related to moms’ psychological well-being, the study found.
Even when our partner is a gem, though, he or she is usually far from the whole story. “We tend to put over-the-top unreasonable expectations on marriage,” Luthar told me. “Your spouse has to be your best friend, your lover, a good parent, provide financially, care for your family. It makes sense to take some of the burden off our marriages for some of these needs, like understanding and companionship—to get them from friends.” Women just naturally do this, more so than men, research shows.
Enter the mom pal.
Really good friends can be buffers against the stress of everything from a bad day to a kid in trouble. They get it when we complain because they, too, dream of cloning themselves or growing six more arms. They never fail to notice our haircuts and like our new shoes, completely overlooking any new wrinkles or extra baby weight that’s still there when our baby enters kindergarten. They watch our kids and share their stuff in a wonderfully endless circle of reciprocal paybacks. They know how deeply, how inescapably, we mothers feel it when our children are in trouble or distress. With true friends, we’re able to be ourselves—and in ways we’re not always able to with co-workers, fellow committee moms, a crazy mother-in-law.
So we need to make time for our support system. Mom friends are not a luxury!
The crazy thing is that time for that support often gets squeezed right off our calendars. Studies show that moms spend more time than ever on planning, organizing, and monitoring kids lives, up from around 12 hours a week in 1993 to 20.5 hours a week in 2008, according to other research. We make everyone but ourselves a priority (and when we do have some free time, we’re often more focused on our bodies—gym time, salon time—than our psyches). Technology adds to the squeeze by making it possible for us to work and do at all hours. (“I am a researcher and you are a journalist, and we are having this conversation on a Saturday,” she pointed out to me.)
One depleted mom told Luthar, “I’m envious of my kids because they have me. I wish I could get my kind of mothering.”
We ALL deserve our kind of mothering, Luthar told me. “What we give out, we also need. I want us mothers to recognize and prioritize this for ourselves. I believe that all mothers have this longing—though we rarely (if ever) consciously think about it. And I believe that’s why the study’s title has struck a chord in so many hearts.”
Yet there’s also this rub: “Friendships take energy. Someone has to pick up the phone, make a plan. And yet if we don’t….” Her voice trailed off.
So, hey! Maybe this is a good time for all of us to hit pause and zap a message to our besties. Book a lunch! Organize a mom play-date! Let them know how important their existence is. Forward this article with a two-word message: “See! Thanks!”