Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mothers Don't Matter (Except They Kind of Do)

Hold onto your yoga pants, moms. A new study published this week in The Journal of Marriage and Family addressed a question that plagues mothers everywhere with heaping tons of mom guilt: Do I spend enough time with my child?

The mom guilt runs deep with this one, because moms are always wondering, "could I do more?" No matter which side of the Mommy War battlefield we may find ourselves on, it is the universal pesteringly persistent concern all mothers share. Mothers at work worry that they spend too much time earning a living and not enough time engaged with their children. Stay-at-home mothers worry that they spend too much time cleaning the refrigerator and sorting laundry and not enough time engaged with their children.

But guess what... according to research, it doesn't matter (at least it kinda doesn't).

Surprisingly, there seems to be zero correlation between emotional health, academic performance, or behavior and how much time mothers spend with their children. Zero. As in no effect AT ALL.

The research, led by a trio of sociologists, examined children between the ages of 3 and 18. (I will point out a huge flaw in their conclusion: They didn't consider motherhood involvement in the lives of babies and toddlers, which might just be the most important and foundational stage of a person's life. So stop crying into your dish towels, ladies... you might still matter!)

Thank you researchers for making me question the value of what I've been doing with my time and energy for the past 19 years!

But wait... there seems to be one important exception with one important element at one important stage in a child's life.

Adolescence.

"Moms matter because they buy you coffee!"
Just when you thought you were home-free, when you thought you could pretty much leave them to their own devices, that you could skip town for the weekend and you didn't have to worry about them starving to death or wandering off and getting lost. Just when you thought you could let your guard down a little. Just when you thought the hard part was over.

The researchers found that the more engaged time mothers spent with their teenage children, the less likely those children were to engage in delinquent acts (which included everything from lying to being arrested). The effect was admittedly statistically small... but definitely there. And we moms are used to clinging to small fragile strands of hope (or is that sanity? I can't remember. They might be the same thing.)

Mother Nature has a grand sense of humor, doesn't she? The point in life where our kids are pushing us away, is the time they seem to need us most.

And the stakes are so much higher. At three, they might flush a bunch of Legos down the commode while no one is paying attention. A situation easily (though perhaps expensively) fixed by a call to the plumber. At sixteen, they might be having unprotected sex, or binge drinking, or skipping school while no one is paying attention... actions that can have life-long and often tragic consequences.

I'm going to get all science-y here for a minute. During adolescence, the brain's prefrontal cortex is still developing. Which means, even though they might look like adults, they pretty much suck at decision-making and impulse control. Also, their brains are awash in dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain's reward and pleasure centers. This means that they tend to overestimate the rewards they'll reap from their risk-taking. Translation: they live dangerously and make bad decisions and their brains are more susceptible to drug addiction (Thank you, dopamine). Fun times.

Adolescence is the stuff parental horror movies are made of:  children walking around in adult bodies, making adult decisions, but without the benefit of adult brains. It's enough to make me want to run screaming in terror and hide under my bed until it's all over.

But this is when they need me most. Even if I can make just an infinitesimally small difference in their lives, I'm jumping in full force, both feet, no holds barred. I'll be right here engaged and present. I'll ask questions and seek their opinions and strike up conversation so frequently that they'll probably strain an eyeball muscle from all the eye rolls they'll shoot my way.

But I don't care. There's a lot at stake here. I love these people immensely. I'll do whatever it takes. I stuck it out through the years of poopy diapers and sleepless nights and singing twenty-seven consecutive verses of The Wheels on the Bus. I can do this. After all, conversations at this age are way more interesting. I remember when they thought a half hour conversation about Thomas the Tank Engine was the most riveting thing ever.

You know that parenting advice that gets shoved our way by well-meaning family and friends (and librarians and baristas and dentists and homeless people...), the advice that says "Kids need you to be their parent, not their friend"...that one?

Well guess what...

 They need us to be both.

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