It would be easy to assume that the sleep deprivation and aimlessness of new parenthood make for the most difficult period for a mother. My husband and I were so in thrall to – and afraid of – our first baby that we convinced ourselves that she couldn’t sleep on her own; she cried when we put her in her cot, you see. So, we set up a 24-hour rota to hold her – and we did this for months. She snored; we read books on our phones and got remarkably little sleep.
But you might also make a good argument for the difficulty of parenting a teen. This is the moment that the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that seemed so appealing a mere decade (or so) ago suddenly sound a death knell to the happiness and progress of your child. The independence of the teenage years, which can seem so alluring as you sit, rowing the damn boat yet again with your baby in a sing and sign class, can also spell danger. The stakes – academically, socially, physically – seem impossibly high.
The middle years are shrugged off as an unremarkable corridor on the path of childhood.
But what if those are the worst?
In a study that examines the wellbeing of mothers and their perceptions of their children (ranging in age from infants to adults), researchers found that stress and depression peaked in women when their children were “tweens”, aged 11 or 12. Mothers of infants and adult children were happiest and the researchers found a steady increase in stress levels over the early years, creating an upside-down V, the pinnacle of which is those tricky middle years.
The in-between years see the convergence of a series of challenges: for kids, there’s the school transition, from an often smaller primary to a larger, more impersonal secondary; there are the increasing hormones, and accompanying acne and body development. There’s a distancing between parent and child, as young people try to establish their own, individual identity; they associate more with their peer group and less with their family.
Just as all of these changes are affecting children, mothers (the study looked specifically at middle-class women with at least a university education) are hitting some difficult years, too: marriages aren’t as fresh as they once were; work demands are at their peak; and women are enjoying a few hormonal changes of their own, as they approach the menopause. And, small wonder, it feels bad to be rejected by the small people you have been raising.
“We get so much guidance and support and direction around new motherhood, from what sort of nappies to buy or what sort of sleeping arrangements are best, or birthing,” explains Dr Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and the study’s lead author. “Compare that with how you’re prepared for this transition to middle-school years and puberty – there’s nothing out there, beyond the fact that you’re told your kid will roll its eyes at you; that’s the least of it!”
It’s not all about the kids. Women must prioritise getting for ourselves the same nurturing love and support that we dole out to our children, parents and spouses
Discussing these middle years, Dr Luthar, a mother of two adult children, says, “I felt bewildered by what was going on – and I have a PhD in developmental and clinical psychology! When parents wonder, ‘What do I do when I discover vodka in his closet?', it’s not the same as asking: ‘What do I do when I discover he’s hit his little brother?’”
Interestingly, given the popularity of gender-specific books like Raising Girls and Raising Boys, while the researchers did examine whether the child’s gender led to variations in maternal adjustment, they found that it played no significant role – stressful behaviour, regardless of what it was, was damaging to mothers.
“I must confess that I had expected mothers of daughters to struggle more than mothers of sons,” said Dr Luthar, “but confused and stressed-out and sometimes obstreperous and defiant pre-teens are the same phenomenon to the mother.”
When I spoke to her, Dr Luthar asked me a peculiar question: “Who mothers you, Sally?” I’m 38. I laughed uneasily and mumbled something about my parents and friends. Perhaps my husband? You know, when I can schedule a chat with any of them. My brother and I frequently send each other supportive text messages. Does that count?
Dr Luthar demands more. Mothers need to prioritise their own feelings, she says. “We put ourselves last on the list – actually, we’re not even on the list; the Suzuki lessons are way more important than the fact that you’re crying yourself to sleep.”
Her solution? First, Dr Luthar advises parents to establish open lines of communication with children from the earliest years. Maintain an open and loving relationship – but be firm and consistent. Tell your child: “These are the limits. If you do X, these are the consequences. At the same time, if you are ever in trouble, please know I love you and come to me with the trouble.”
Second, there is so much emphasis on early childhood intervention – and this is important work – but there should be something to prepare parents in the final years of primary school for what’s coming, she says. Picture a sort of universal (free) NCT for parents of pre-teens. “If you’re prepared as systematically as we are for childbirth,” says Dr Luthar, “we need to be prepared at least as well – based on the data – for the series of things that happen in the middle-school years.”
Finally, as this study shows, it’s actually not all about the kids. Women must prioritise getting for ourselves the same nurturing love and support that we dole out to our children, parents and spouses. And, interestingly, this cannot come from your spouse. “In this day and age, there are way too many expectations on the person who is your marriage partner,” Dr Luthar says. “This isn’t an additional strain you want to put on your marriage.”
Create a support network – a few close friends, perhaps – and consult with them, not just when your heart is breaking, or you want to have a moan, but also when you want to think through parental decision.
This could also involve support from medical professionals. Thanks to charities like Heads Together, we’re seeing the profile of mental health in children raised; I’d love to see their fine peer-to-peer and expert-led support in every single primary and secondary school in Britain. And I’d like to see more mental-health care for parents. The NHS should acknowledge that postnatal depression – and other anxieties and depression related to or aggravated by parenthood – don’t end when the child turns one. Being a parent is wonderful. But it’s also difficult and we need better support.