New research has found that unconditional acceptance by friends and authenticity in relationships play crucial roles in contributing to the well-being of mothers.
In what is described as the first known study to delve into the phenomenological experience of motherhood, Dr. Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, and postdoctoral research associate Lucia Ciciolla, Ph.D., asked more than 2,000 well-educated, upper middle-class mothers what factors helped them cope with motherhood.
This group, the researchers said, is described as being at “high risk” for parenting stress, because over time, they have come to spend vastly greater number of hours each week on children’s activities and commitments, as compared to well-educated fathers and less-educated mothers.
In the study, published in Developmental Psychology, the researchers said four factors out of seven stood out as main contributors to helping mom’s equanimity of spirit and keeping distress at bay:
- Unconditional acceptance;
- Feeling comforted when needed;
- Authenticity in relationships; and
- Friendship satisfaction.
Interestingly, being married was not related to mothers’ psychological well-being. More significant, according to the researchers, was the quality of the marriage.
“Relationships with spouses are important, but clearly not determinative to a mother’s well being,” Luthar said. “Our findings show the strong potential protective power of other close relationships — satisfaction with the frequency of visiting with friends had significant unique associations with all seven adjustment outcomes.”
The new study is a by-product of Luthar’s more than 25 years of work on resilience among children facing adversities. Researchers have found that the single most powerful “protective factor” for kids is having a strong, supportive bond with the primary parent.
As mothers are typically primary parents across socioeconomic strata, the researcher said she is now deliberately focused on trying to unravel what best helps mothers function well.
“Developmental science is replete with studies on what moms do and do not do, what they should do and should not do, but there is almost no attention to what might mothers need to negotiate the inevitable challenges in sustaining ‘good enough parenting’ across decades,” she said.
One goal of the study was to test the stereotype that mothers today are excessively invested in their children, as embodied in the phrase “helicopter parents.” There was no support for this stereotype in the study findings, Luthar noted.
“Our results yield little support for views that as a group, upper-middle class mothers’ well-being is primarily tied to their investment in their children and their roles as parents, and instead, suggest far stronger ramifications for feelings of being personally supported,” she said.
“Women’s adjustment status did co-vary with how they felt in their roles as mothers, but also showed equivalent, if not vastly stronger, variation with the emotional support in their everyday lives.”
According to Luthar, that emotional support is best-captured in two simple phrases: “I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core,” and “When I am deeply distressed, I feel comforted in the way I need it.”
“Just as unconditional acceptance is critical for children, so it is critical for mothers who must provide it,” Luthar said. “Mothers, like children, benefit greatly when they know they have reliable sources of comfort when in distress.”