Content uploaded by Suniya S. Luthar
All content in this area was uploaded by Suniya S. Luthar on Jan 12, 2017
Content may be subject to copyright.
What it feels like to be a mother:
Variations by children’s developmental stages
Luthar, S.S., & Ciciolla, L. (2016). What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by
children’s developmental stages. Developmental Psychology, 52, 143-154. doi:
FOR PUBLISHED VERSION, PLEASE EMAIL Suniya.Luthar@asu.edu
We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Masters and Doctoral students in Luthar’s prior lab at Teachers College,
Columbia University. Sincere thanks also to all the mothers who participated in this study, to Judith Warner for her continued
interest in and support of this work, and to Dr. Sumru Erkut and three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback on
earlier versions of this paper. This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R01DA014385; R13
Address correspondence to Suniya S. Luthar, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University , 900
S. McAllister Rd., Tempe, Arizona, 85287-1104. Email: Suniya.Luthar@asu.edu
What it feels like to be a mother:
Variations by children’s developmental stages
The central question we addressed was whether mothers’ adjustment might vary systematically by the
developmental stages of their children. In an internet-based study of over 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers with
children ranging from infants to adults, we examined multiple aspects of mothers’ personal well-being, parenting, and
perceptions of their children. Uniformly, adjustment indices showed curvilinear patterns across children’s
developmental stages, with mothers of middle-schoolers faring the most poorly, and mothers of adult children and
infants faring the best. Findings based on children in mutually exclusive age groups -- e.g., mothers with only (one or
more) infants, preschoolers, etc. -- had larger effect sizes than those based on the age of the mothers’ oldest child. In
contrast to the recurrent findings based on children’s developmental stages, mothers’ adjustment dimensions showed
few variations by their children’s gender. Collectively, results of this study suggest that there is value in preventive
interventions involving mothers not just in their children’s infancy and preschool years, but also as their children
traverse the developmentally challenging years surrounding puberty.
Keywords: Motherhood, middle school, affluence, resilience, parenting
Our goal in this article is to explore well-being of mothers in a sample of mostly well-educated women,
with this central question: does maternal adjustment vary substantially by children’s developmental stage? The
literature on parenting is rife with studies of how mothers affect their children, yet there is little systematic effort to
understand factors associated with mothers’ own distress or well-being, and how this might vary from their
children’s birth through adulthood.
There are at least two reasons to focus on these issues among samples of well-educated mothers, the first
being that despite their affluence, these women can be at high risk for stress. Motherhood in general entails hard
work, with ongoing demands on time, emotional and physical energy, and conflicts with other roles and
relationships (Balaji et al., 2007; Luthar & Ciciolla, in press). Furthermore, there have been increasing reports of
elevated parenting stress among upper middle class mothers in particular. In terms of sheer time commitments,
cohort data between 1993 and 2008 show that college-educated mothers increased time spent on childrearing from
12 hours per week to more than 20 (Ramey & Ramey, 2010); parallel increases for less-educated mothers were from
10 to 16 hours, and for college-educated fathers, four to ten hours per week. In other analyses of patterns spanning
2003 to 2007, college-educated mothers reportedly invested 130 percent more time than their less educated
counterparts in managing their school-age children’s activities, including planning, organizing, attending, and
traveling to and from events (Kalil, Ryan, & Corey, 2012). Additionally, Lareau’s sociological research on
concerted cultivation (Lareau, 2003; Lareau & Weininger, 2008) has established that mothers shoulder much more
of the “invisible labor” required by children’s organized activities than do fathers, with the associated stresses of
managing packed schedules with several commitments, often with inflexible deadlines, and for more than one child
on a given day.
Besides the potential stress from role overload, a second reason to study this group of women is because
like mothers in general, they are likely to react strongly to major perturbations in their children’s well-being. That
mothers generally experience ‘contagion of stress’ from their children is evident in biological evidence on women
deeply affected by distress in their offspring (see Barrett & Fleming, 2011; Swain, Lorberbaum, Kose, & Strathearn,
2007). Studies have shown that mothers and fathers both experience early preoccupation with their infants -- that is,
a “deep focus on the infant to the near exclusion of all else” -- but the intensity of this preoccupation is greater
among mothers (Leckman et al., 2004; Feldman, Weller, Leckman, Kvint, & Eidelman, 1999), and mothers tend to
be more sensitive to the cries of their newborn infants than are fathers (De Pisapia et al., 2013). Later in
development, emotional distance from teenagers affects both fathers and mothers but again, there are greater
ramifications for the latter as their identities are more closely tied to the parenting role (Collins & Russell, 1991).
Risks experienced by mothers: Variations by children’s developmental stage
In considering how mothers’ well-being might vary across their children’s developmental stages – that is,
the years of infancy, preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, and adulthood – we anticipated,
first, that the middle school years would be the most challenging. This period marks the time of transition to
adolescence with major changes in physical, hormonal, and cognitive development, along with increasing efforts to
Motherhood - Developmental stages
separate from parents and develop personal identities (Smetana, 2011; Steinberg & Silk, 2002, for reviews). At the
same time, unfortunately, children have to cope with adjusting to large, relatively impersonal school environments,
“mismatched” to their developmental-stage needs (Eccles et al., 1993) and engendering high stress for many. With
increasing freedom from home, this is also a time when youth generally begin to experiment with risk-taking
behaviors including substance use, rule-breaking, and sexual activity (Steinberg, 2008). In parallel with their
children’s significant stressors, mothers of middle schoolers themselves confront several new developmental
challenges. Many contend with confusion from the rapid changes in their children’s personas; distress around their
moodiness or rebelliousness; hurt as a result of behaviors seen as rejecting of parents; and concerns about
engagement in high-risk behaviors (see Lareau & Weininger, 2008; Smetana, 2011; Steinberg & Silk, 2002).
Second to the middle school years, we expected maternal distress to be elevated during their children’s
infancies. The birth of a child is a major life transition that brings with it significant stressors including high
demands on personal time and energy (Kluwer, 2010), with mothers often affected more than fathers, and potential
spillover effects on quality of marriages. Reviewing research on the transition to parenthood, Nelson (2003)
reported that it is generally mothers who shoulder the bulk of the burden for both household duties and caring for the
newborn, and this can become a source of frustration and in turn, potentially, conflict with their partners. Similarly,
Keizer and Schenk (2012) report that following the birth of a child, mothers, more so than fathers, devote much
energy and time to taking care of the household and the infant, and the attendant reduction in time shared as a couple
can exacerbate marital dissatisfaction. That well-educated mothers of infants may be particularly vulnerable is seen
in evidence of somewhat greater marital dissatisfaction among these mothers than other groups of parents (e.g.,
fathers of infants, or less educated mothers), possibly because of the likelihood, for many in this subgroup, of having
had to scale back on desirable careers with the birth of a child (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003).
Finally, across developmental stages, we expected the lowest levels of stress, and the most satisfaction with
life, among mothers of adult children. When adult children do not live in the home, women do not have to
experience the immediacy of witnessing (and being affected by) their children’s everyday life stressors, ranging
from a romantic breakup to a bout of minor illness. The few degrees of separation may well bring some relief to
mothers, who for two decades or more “are consumed with doing for (their) children in mind and soul and body”,
and as a result are left personally depleted (Warner, 2005, p. 116).
Operationalization of constructs: Maternal well-being
Maternal adjustment was operationalized here in terms of aspects of personal well-being as well as
experiences in the parenting role. In the former category, we considered diverse negative and positive dimensions
including four that are commonly examined: anxiety, depression, stress, and satisfaction with life. We also
considered two new indices that seemed especially critical for well-educated women: feelings of emptiness and
fulfillment in their everyday lives. These dimensions reflect subjectively experienced overall dissatisfaction as
opposed to gratification at the pursuit of meaningful personal aspirations, thought to correspond to advanced
educational degrees (Green &.Hill, 2003; Löve, Hagberg, & Dellve, 2011; Luthar et al. 2013; Warner, 2005). With
multiple outcomes examined, our goal was to base our central inferences on predictors found to show consistent,
recurrent links across conceptually related sets of outcomes (see Maner, 2014).
In the parenting role, similarly, we considered both positive and negative dimensions. These included
frequently studied indices such as satisfaction in the parenting role as well as guilt associated with parenting, and
role overload (Morris & Coley, 2004; Rotkirch & Janhunen, 2010). Additionally, women reported on rejecting
behaviors toward the target (oldest) child, perceived adjustment problems in this child, as well as the child’s
behaviors directed specifically at the mother, both positive and negative (Eckstein, 2004; Prinz, Rosenblum, &
O’Leary, 1978; Rohner, Saavedra, & Granum, 1978). The last two dimensions were included given the plausibility
that over and above general feelings of satisfaction or stress in the parenting role, mothers of early teens, more so
than others, could perceive their offspring as being low on affectionate and thoughtful gestures toward them, and at
the same time, high on distancing behaviors in everyday interactions (Eisenberg et al., 2008; Heatherington, Tolejko,
McDonald, & Funk, 2007).
Distinct approaches in analyzing developmental stages and gender effects
In examining mothers’ adjustment across children’s developmental stages, we used two distinct analytic
strategies, the first considering the age of their oldest child, in line with what has been done in prior research
(Kerestes, Brkovic, & Jagodic, 2012; Nomaguchi, 2012). In a second set of analyses, we used mutually exclusive
groups defined by developmental stages, including only those mothers whose oldest child and younger siblings fell
in the same developmental period. This was done to remove potential “contamination” of effects associated with
more than one age group. To illustrate, positive effects associated with having an elementary school child might
offset, in part, the negative effects of living with a teenager (Nomaguchi, 2012). In order to avoid any such dilution
of stage-specific effects, our second set of analyses entailed comparisons of mothers with children (one or more)
only in one of the five developmental categories of infancy, preschool, elementary school, middle school, high
school, and adulthood. We expected group differences to be larger in the second set of analyses as compared to the
first. Aside from children’s developmental stages, we also examined potential effects associated with child
gender. This decision was guided by commonly held beliefs that conflict between mothers and daughters tends to be
higher than problems with sons, especially around the teen years (Eisenberg et al., 2008; Panfile, Laible, & Eye,
2012). In considering this issue we examined child gender both as a main effect and in an interaction with child
In this study of largely well-educated mothers, we addressed the following questions. First, are the middle
school and infancy years of their children especially challenging for these women, considering negative and positive
indices of mothers’ personal adjustment; feelings in the parenting role; and perceptions of their children? Relatedly,
are their children’s adult years the least challenging for mothers, with other developmental stages falling in between
the two sets of extremes? Second, are identified differences consistent when considering the age bracket of just the
oldest child, versus considering the age bracket encompassing all children in the family? Third, might the child’s
gender be associated with variations in maternal adjustment, as a main effect or in interaction with the child’s
Sample and Procedure
Data were collected through the “Moms As People” study, an online survey designed to examine how
mothers feel about various aspects of their lives, with the intention to oversample for relatively well-educated
women. Women were recruited for the study by word-of-mouth, flyers, media reports (Warner, 2006a; 2006b; 2009)
and lectures, and between 2005 and 2010, a total of 2,247 American women completed the survey. No incentives
were offered. (Note: A much smaller group had responded to an earlier version of the survey that included several
rights-managed scales (e.g. the Beck Depression Inventory) that became prohibitively expensive. Those respondents
are not included in the current sample). Across the various online measures in the package, 88% of mothers who
began the survey completed it; only 11.8% discontinued before the end.
Demographic details are provided in Table 1. As shown there, 46% of the sample had a graduate degree
and an additional 37% had a college degree. The remaining 16% had at least a high school education, described by
Wilcox (2010) as “moderately educated”. Most women in this sample (85%) were legally married; of the women
who reported having a partner or spouse, 2029 (97.5%) had male partners and 50 (2.5%) had female partners.
Also shown in Table 1 is the number of mothers by children’s developmental stages, separately by the age
of the oldest child and by exclusive age groups. In general, mothers of middle and high school youth were less well
represented than those with younger and older children.
------ Insert Table 1 and Table 2 about here --------
All measures used had good psychometric properties, with alpha coefficients, reported in Table 2, ranging
from .78 to .95 (median .86). Furthermore, evidence for convergent and discriminant validity is seen in the patterns
of correlations among conceptually related constructs in Table 2. To illustrate, mothers’ personal distress indices had
intercorrelations ranging from .50 -.77; these values much higher than their correlations with variables reflecting
perceptions of the child, in the range of .15 to .30.
In descriptions that follow, those questionnaires that were created specifically for the Moms as People
study (given copyright issues, as noted earlier) are listed with an asterisk next to the construct; for the specific items
in these, please see Luthar & Ciciolla (in press). In all measures utilized, high scores represent high levels of the
construct being assessed.
Maternal Adjustment. Anxiety was measured by the Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale (Zung, 1971) with 20 items
rated on 4-point Likert scale. Depression was assessed by the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale (Zung, 1965), also
with 20 items rated on a 4-point Likert scale. Mothers’ levels of stress were measured by 10-item Perceived Stress
Motherhood - Developmental stages
Scale-10 (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983), with ratings on a 5-point scale. Emptiness* was assessed by
four items rated on a 5-point scale, reflecting women’s feelings of malaise and dissatisfaction with their everyday
lives. Fulfillment* was assessed by 5 items, also rated on a 5-point scale, indicating a sense of gratification and
pursuit of meaningful life goals (see Luthar & Ciciolla, in press). Loneliness was measured by the UCLA
Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau, & Ferguson, 1978), with 20 items rated on a 4-point scale. Finally, overall Life
Satisfaction was assessed by the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985), with 5
items measuring global cognitive judgments of satisfaction with one’s life, rated on a 5-point scale.
Parenting Experiences. Satisfaction with Parenting*, Parenting Guilt*, and Parenting Role Overload* were
assessed via scales with eight, six, and seven items respectively, each rated on a 5-point scale (see Luthar & Ciciolla,
in press). In addition, Rejection of the child was measured by the Undifferentiated Rejection subscale of the Mother
version of the Parental Acceptance-Rejection Questionnaire (PARQ; Rohner et al., 1978). This subscale consists of
10 items measuring parents’ self-perceptions of rejecting behaviors toward their child rated on a 4-point scale, such
as, “I tell my child he/she gets on my nerves.”
Perceptions of child. Mothers responded to 14 items rated on a 5-point scale assessing their perceptions of their
child’s Maladjustment*, including ratings of child’s mood and behavior. Six and five items (each rated on a five
point scale) respectively assessed the degree to which mothers saw their child as behaving in positive and respectful
ways towards them as opposed to manifesting rude or distancing behaviors (see Luthar & Ciciolla, in press). These
scales are referred to as Child Positive to me* and Child Negative to me*, respectively. (Note that all three of these
subscales had “Not Applicable” as one of the response choices, to account for possible developmental
inapplicability, e.g., “Child is argumentative” for mothers with only infants).
Data Analytic Approach and Missing Data Handling
As this is among the first known studies of mostly well-educated mothers, we considered it optimal to
conduct in-depth exploration of different domains rather than attempting a priori data reduction via factor analyses
(as combining measures can obscure important differences existing in reality; see Sheldon & Hoon, 2007). At the
same time, to reduce Type I errors, we conducted multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVAs) on conceptually
related subscales (e.g., personal adjustment vs. parenting dimensions). Furthermore, in follow-up ANOVAs,
stringent Bonferroni corrections were used in applying thresholds for statistical significance.
Due to changes in the online survey (i.e. the addition of some items) across multiple waves of data
collection, as well as the possibility of respondents skipping questionnaire items, missing values were examined for
the extent of missing data using IMB SPSS Statistics 22. No more than 15% of outcome values were missing from
any single variable. Multiple Imputation (MI) analysis was conducted using Multiple Imputation in IMB SPSS
Statistics 22, which uses a Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) algorithm knows as fully conditional specification
(FCS). The imputation model included all of the variables used in the current study, as well as additional variables
from the larger data set that may add importantly to the imputation (e.g. personality variables, psychiatric
diagnoses). Only data for continuous variables were imputed as child developmental stage and child gender had
complete data. Twenty separate data sets were imputed with the number of between-imputation iterations set to 100
(Enders, 2010). Analyses were then run on all 20 imputed data sets and the statistics automatically pooled.
Multivariate Analyses of Variance (MANOVA) were used to examine differences in maternal adjustment,
parenting experiences, and perceptions of child across child age-based categories, first using data according to the
age of the oldest (target) child, and then using data according to families with one or more children that fell into
exclusive age groups (i.e., only infants, only preschoolers, etc.). In both instances, we controlled for the number of
Results using the age of the oldest child showed significant effects for personal adjustment, F (35, 9173) =
6.46, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.90, Λ η2 = .02 (partial η2s are reported throughout); parenting experiences, F (20, 7241) =
24.96, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.80, Λ η2 = .05; and perceptions of child, F (15, 6029) = 30.70, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.82,Λ
η2 = .07. Follow-up univariate ANOVAs using Bonferroni corrections of p < .0125 showed significant differences
for all maternal adjustment, parenting, and perception of child variables, with the exception of fulfillment. In
general, effect sizes were small (.03) or less than small for personal adjustment indices; effect sizes at least twice as
large were seen on parenting experiences (Role Overload and Rejecting of Child) and perceptions of the child (Child
Positive and Negative; see Table 3).
------Insert Table 3 about here ----------
Similarly, comparisons based on exclusive child age groups showed significant overall differences for
maternal adjustment, F (35, 5378) = 5.32, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.87, Λ η
2 = .03; parenting experiences, F (20, 4249) =
19.67, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.75, Λ η
2 = .07; and perceptions of child, F (15, 3539) = 23.87, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.77,Λ
η2 = .08. Follow-up univariate ANOVAs using Bonferroni corrections showed significant differences for all maternal
adjustment, parenting, and perception of child variables, again with the exception of fulfillment. In general, effect
sizes were higher than those in the previous analyses based on age of the oldest child. In these analyses, results for
Role Overload, Child Positive, and Child Negative met or surpassed the threshold of η2 = .10 for medium effect
sizes (see Table 3).
---------Insert Figures 1 and 2 about here ----------
Figures 1 and 2 present the means for outcomes across the age-based categories for maternal adjustment
(Figure 1), and for parenting experiences and perceptions of child (Figure 2). In these figures, the darker lines
represent results from exclusive age groups (of central interest) and the lighter gray lines represent results according
to the age of the oldest child. For the former set of comparisons, also displayed are standard errors of means across
developmental stages, as well as subscripts showing which pairs of means were significantly different. Means with
the same subscript do not differ significantly from each other.
Overall, the patterns of results were similar across analyses but (as was implicit in the previously noted
findings on effect sizes) mean values showed more pronounced peaks and valleys in the analyses using exclusive
age groups, versus the age of oldest child (see Figure 1 and 2).
For mothers with children in exclusive age categories, middle school was the time when difficulty peaked
across several dimensions including emptiness, (low) life satisfaction, (low) parenting satisfaction, maternal
rejection, child maladjustment, (low) child positive, and child negative behaviors. It should be noted, however, that
in Bonferroni comparisons of means, it was only on one dimension – parenting satisfaction – that the mean value for
middle school was significantly different form mean values in all other age groups. In addition, as seen in Figures 1
and 2, within-group variability in scores was higher for the middle school period (e.g., standard errors for middle
schoolers ranged from .11 to .13 across outcome variables, whereas values for mothers of adults, preschoolers, and
infants ranged from .04 to .06).
With regard to patterns in infancy, our findings were contrary to expectations. Mothers of infants did not
report lower well-being than other groups on any of the indices examined – in fact, in comparisons of means, they
reported significantly lower levels than all other groups on rejection of child and child negative behaviors, and
significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than all other groups, across both sets of analyses (i.e. oldest child and
exclusive age groups).
Consistent with hypotheses, mothers with adult children reported relatively low levels of maladjustment
across negative personal and parenting indices. In pairwise comparisons, their mean scores on role overload and on
child negative were significantly lower than all other groups. Additionally, they fared significantly better than
mothers of middle schoolers on stress, loneliness, parenting satisfaction, parenting guilt, and child negative
behaviors (see Figures 1 and 2).
Distress of mothers of middle schoolers: A function of conflict with child? To explore whether the
apparently high distress of mothers around their children’s middle school years might have been a function of
mother-child conflict, we re-ran our central analyses on personal adjustment and parenting experiences, compared
across mutually exclusive child age groups, covarying for Child is Negative to me and Child Maladjustment (as in
prior analyses, number of children was retained as a covariate). The MANOVAs remained statistically significant
but with smaller effect sizes for personal adjustment, F (35, 5370) = 4.61, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.88, Λ η2 = .02; and
parenting experiences, F (20, 4243) = 14.97, p < .001; Wilks’ = 0.80, Λ η
2 = .05. Similarly, the univariate group
comparisons all remained significant but with smaller η2 values across outcomes, with the exception of Emptiness,
which was no longer statistically significantly different across age groups. Considered together, these findings
suggest that negative interactions with the child only partially explain why maternal distress seems to peak during
their children’s middle school years.
Gender effects. MANOVA analyses were conducted to examine whether effects of child developmental
stage might be offset by child gender (in main or interaction effects), again, controlling for number of children. In
Motherhood - Developmental stages
analyses according to the age of the oldest child, we considered the gender of that child, whereas in analyses using
exclusive age groups, we separately examined (a) the gender of the oldest child, as well as (b) a gender variable that
indicated whether mothers had only boys, only girls, or a mix of boys and girls (all within the exclusive age
categories). No significant main effects or interactions with gender were found in the latter set of analyses, so only
the results according to the oldest child are presented here.
In analyses of variance considering the oldest child’s gender, child developmental stage retained identical
main effect findings as in those previously reported in Table 3, with η
2 values ranging from .00 to .03 for maternal
adjustment variables, from .02 to .14 for parenting experiences, and from .01 to .09 for perceptions of child.
MANOVA main effects for target child’s gender were found for parenting experiences, F (4, 2177) = 3.03, p < .05;
Wilks’ = 0.99, Λ η2 = .01, and perceptions of the child, F (3, 2178) = 4.03, p < .01; Wilks’ = 0.99, Λ η
2 = .01, with
mothers of girls, in follow up ANOVAs, reporting significantly more parenting satisfaction, F (1, 2180) = 7.18, p < .
01, and perceiving their girls as significantly more positive towards them than mothers of boys, F (1, 2180), = 11.44,
p < .01.
-------- Insert Figure 3 about here --------
The MANOVA also showed a significant [Age X Gender] interaction effect for perceptions of the child,
F (14, 6013) = 2.19, p < .01; Wilks’ = 0.98, Λ η
2 = .00, and follow up ANOVAs showed a single significant effect,
with child maladjustment as the outcome. As shown in Figure 3, this interaction effect was based in somewhat
greater variability across developmental stages among boys than for girls. Mothers of sons reported elevations of
about +.2 of a standard deviation (SD) in the preschool and elementary school years versus -.28 SD in adulthood.
Conversely, among girls, there was a slight elevation from elementary to middle school (0 to +.1 of a standard
deviation), but scores from preschool through adulthood generally remained closer to the group average (zero)
Just as middle school encompasses the most trying developmental period for children (Eccles et al., 1993),
our findings suggest that this is also the most challenging time for their mothers. Analyses by children’s stages
generally showed an inverted “V” for maternal distress indices and a “V” shaped curve for dimensions of well-
being, with middle school representing the lowest point across multiple constructs assessed. Importantly, this does
not mean that middle school scores were significantly worse than all other age groups (in fact, they were often
similar to adjacent age groups, with the exception of parenting satisfaction). Our data simply reflect gradual but
consistent increases in maternal distress that peak when children are in middle school, just as well-being indices
reach their lowest point at that period.
As suggested at the outset of this paper, these findings probably rest in part on puberty and associated
perturbations in children’s adjustment, and in their relationships with parents. Besides hormonal changes, early
adolescence is a time when children begin to test limits and experiment with rule-breaking behaviors such as alcohol
and drug use (Steinberg, 2008). Increasingly, youth seek independence from parents and this often plays out in
behaviors that seem detached, sullen or obstreperous (Smetana, 2011; Steinberg & Silk, 2002). When we compared
groups of mothers after controlling for their reports of child behaviors of concern, as well as negative behaviors
directed toward them, differences by child age remained significant but were reduced in magnitude. This suggests
that the peak of maternal distress during middle school is only partly explained by perceptions of their early
adolescents’ overall adjustment difficulties, as well as their rude or hurtful behaviors in dyadic interactions.
Aside from early adolescent angst and parent-child dynamics, also possibly implicated is the “contagion of
stress” to mothers as their children struggle to adjust to the middle school environment. As Eccles et al. (1993, p.
94) summarized in their seminal review article, this developmental transition is especially difficult because junior
high schools bring decreased personal, positive relationships with teachers at a time when youth particularly need
connections with supportive adults. Given ability groupings and public evaluations, they also tend to emphasize
competition and social comparisons at a time when early adolescents are highly concerned about their status relative
to peers. It is entirely plausible, therefore, that as their children struggle to work through this “developmentally
mismatched” school environment, mothers become increasingly bewildered about how best to shield, support, and
protect them, eventually becoming anxious and distressed themselves.
A third possibility is that the developmental trends we documented partly arise from challenges that the
mothers themselves experience, as they are transitioning to midlife. This is the time of heightened introspection and
increased awareness of mortality, as women first recognize declines in their physical and cognitive functioning
(Lachman 2004; 2015). It is also a period when marital satisfaction tends to be lowest and strife the highest
(Kerestes et al. 2012; Steinberg & Silk, 2002). As parents are having children later in today’s generation,
contemporary mothers are likely to experience these “midlife crises” around the time of their children’s pre-
The overrepresentation of highly educated mothers suggests another set of contributing factors, and that is,
the elevated distress documented among youth in upper middle class contexts. In the sample of this study, 85% of
the women had college degrees and almost half had graduate degrees (proportions comparable to those in studies
described as being on “affluent populations”; see Luthar et al., 2013). Across geographic regions and in both private
and public schools, youth in affluent communities have been found to manifest higher levels of substance use, as
well as higher rates of serious psychological symptoms, as compared with national norms, with these elevations first
documented in middle school (Luthar et al., 2013). In part, these problems are attributed to the approaching
pressures of college admissions, and children’s drive to distinguish themselves in academics as well as in
Assuming that these college-related pressures are implicated, why would distress peak during the middle
school years? In upwardly mobile settings, the pressures for “resume-building” have increasingly encroached into
junior high schools. This is starkly reflected in the rapid spread of formal college preparation programs such as,
“Naviance”, a subscription service that permits students to input data on their grades, awards, extracurricular
activities, volunteer work and more, to get a sense of the type of college they might get into (Pappano, 2015).
Originally designed for high schools, this program is now reportedly used in over 1,700 middle schools in the U.S.,
representing nearly 1.1 million youth. With this concerted, early resume-building comes a significant increase in
time pressures for young adolescents, and concomitantly, for their mothers, who as noted earlier, are the parent most
likely to manage and coordinate their various after-school commitments (Kalil et al., 2012; Lareau & Weininger,
Children’s infancy and adult years
With data spanning mothers of infants through adults, our findings contradict prior suggestions that it is the
earliest years of parenthood that are the most difficult and demanding. Previous studies have shown that parental
strains in demands of caring for an infant or very young child are great, and often coincide with marital conflict,
work-family conflict, and feelings of constrained personal freedom (see Nomaguchi, 2012 for a review).
Satisfaction with the partner relationship also has shown linear declines at the time of birth (Keizer & Schenk, 2012;
Kluwer, 2010; Twenge et al., 2003), with some rebounding when the child started elementary school.
The difference between these earlier findings and our own may lie in the span of developmental periods
encompassed as well as the breadth of domains assessed. Data on middle and high school were not available in
these prior studies, so that it remains plausible that the initial dips in relationship satisfaction documented at the
child’s birth would recur during the pre-teen years. Similarly, our findings across diverse maternal feelings suggest
that children’s infancy may in fact be trying for mothers in some respects, but rewarding in others. To illustrate, role
overload was higher among mothers of infants (and preschoolers) than mothers of teens, but so was parenting
satisfaction. Collectively, our findings suggest the value of examining, via future prospective research, whether
there are in fact pronounced dips in maternal well-being as children move from infancy and early childhood through
elementary school to puberty, followed then by gradual improvements through their children’s adult years.
Socioeconomic factors might also be implicated in the varying findings on infancy in this study versus
others. It is possible, for instance, that families in our sample generally had the financial means to allow mothers
greater flexibility in childcare options, allowing some to leave paid employment and stay home with their infants,
and others to stay employed with the backup of high-quality and expensive childcare. Thus, the birth of a child may
in fact be among the most stressful developmental periods for mothers in general, but is less so -- at least as
compared to their children’s early adolescence -- among relatively affluent mothers.
Regarding the later years of motherhood, our findings support suggestions that the “empty nest” syndrome
is largely a myth. Mothers of adult children reported the least role overload, and on measures of stress, parenting
experiences, and negative perceptions of child, they fared significantly better than mothers of middle-schoolers. As
Bouchard (2014) notes, the cumulative evidence shows that “the consequences of children’s departure on their
parents is relatively positive or at least not highly negative”. Internationally, the effect of having adult, non-resident
children on life satisfaction tends to be near-zero, and sometimes even significantly positive (Hansen, 2012).
Equally, however, our findings could be viewed as supporting suggestions that the “cluttered nest”, too, is a
myth (see Boyd & Pryor, 1989). More so than in previous generations, contemporary young adults tend to remain in
the family home, or return to it, because of under/unemployment, rising college enrollment, and delayed marriage;
Motherhood - Developmental stages
rates for 18-31 year olds were estimated to be 32% in 2007 and 36% in 2012 (Pew Research Center, 2013). At the
same time, extant evidence indicates that when adult children do return home (with or without co-dependents), their
co-residence is not associated with decreased parental well-being (Aquilino & Supple, 1991; Boyd & Pryor, 1989;
Ward & Spitze, 2004). In this study, we did not specifically ascertain adult children’s residence status, but given all
the aforementioned findings, it is likely that mothers with co-resident adult children, like their empty nest
counterparts in this study, were generally more well-adjusted as compared to other age groups we examined.
Child gender: Main effects and moderating child developmental stage
In contrast to the high consistency of findings in comparisons based on children’s developmental stages,
findings based on child gender were significant in very few cases. Gender based differences were not significant for
the five mothers’ personal adjustment indices as a group. On the four dimensions of parenting and three of child
perceptions, a single significant effect was found in each case: mothers reported greater satisfaction in parenting
daughters than sons, and higher levels of positive behaviors toward them. Finally, in a lone interaction effect,
mothers reported somewhat greater variability in child adjustment over time among sons than among daughters.
Considering the sparse significant findings across the various analyses conducted, our findings suggest that
subjective experiences associated with motherhood are likely to show fewer variations by gender of child(ren) that
they do by children’s developmental stages, from infancy through adulthood.
Limitations, strengths, and future directions
Given the cross-sectional nature of this work, bidirectional associations are entirely plausible, as are effects
of unmeasured third variables. As noted earlier, for example, mothers’ concerns about their own mid-life transitions
may have contributed, partially, to their relatively low well-being manifested starting at around their children’s
There remains a possibility of some sampling biases given our web-based data-collection (Bethlehem,
2010), but at least one major source of such bias – lack of access to computers – is unlikely to have been a serious
problem given our targeted sample of upper middle class mothers. It should be noted, additionally, that web-based
sampling is increasingly and effectively used not just for research in psychology in general (Mason & Suri, 2012),
but specifically for research on the experiences of parenthood (Ashton-James et al., 2013; Rizzo, Schiffrin, & Liss,
2013). These considerations notwithstanding, our findings definitely warrant re-examination in random
The sole reliance on self-reports may be considered a limitation but this was a design feature appropriate to
our a priori goal of understanding mothers' own experiences in their roles as mothers and as women. As Spencer
has cogently argued in any study of risk and resilience, it is essential to incorporate individuals’ own reports -- or
their phenomenological experiences -- of dimensions of distress and of well-being (Spencer & Swanson, 2013; see
also Rutter, 2013).
Mothers of middle- and high-schoolers were less well-represented in our sample than others age groups.
Their less frequent participation may partly be because of high time demands on these mothers given youths’
multiple after-school activities, as we have discussed earlier. This said, there is a need for replicative evidence on
the patterns documented across the pre-teen and adolescent years. Also needed is examination of patterns among
diverse samples of mothers, including those of very low SES and among relatively affluent samples, subgroups such
as women from different ethnic backgrounds, single versus partnered mothers, and those with same- versus
Offsetting potential limitations are several strengths of this work, including a sample size large enough to
illuminate mothers’ adjustment across mutually exclusive categories of children’s developmental stages (i.e., with no
dilution of effects deriving from children across multiple age groups in any given family). As we expected,
between-group differences on maternal adjustment had larger effect sizes when comparing exclusive child age
groups, than in comparisons based on the age of the oldest child in the family, suggesting the value of using
exclusive age groups in future research in this area.
Additional strengths of this study are that survey completion rates were high, and that our methods entailed
sophisticated multivariate analyses involving multiple imputation for missing values. With findings “replicated”
across multiple conceptually related variables (Maner, 2014) spanning mothers’ personal well-being, facets of
parenting, and perceptions of the children, findings showed that the challenges of motherhood increased steadily
from infancy through the middle and high school years, and then showed a decline once the children were adults.
In future research, we urge more concerted attention by developmental psychologists to factors that affect
maternal adjustment. Too often, there is an implicit assumption that “developmental” implies a focus restricted to
children and adolescents (with work on older adults being in the domain of gerontology). This assumption is at odds
with the incontrovertible fact that that motherhood is a stage that spans several decades, and to use Havighurst’s
(1948) terms, necessitates discrete -- and arguably among the most weighty -- “stage-salient” developmental tasks.
Critical indices of maternal well-being must, therefore, be systematically examined as “dependent variables”
(Luthar, 2015; Luthar, Crossman, & Small, 2015).
Our findings also carry implications for future interventions. Most existing, widely used parent-based
interventions are focused on early childhood, addressing children’s developmental needs and capacities from zero to
three, and concomitant directions for parents. The challenges of the preteen and teen years are not nearly as
systematically addressed. Results of this study suggest that across sociodemographic contexts, there is value in
working with mothers as their children traverse the major transitional period of entry into middle school. Research-
based knowledge could help women to prepare for forthcoming stressors not just within their own families, but also
collectively as a school community, offering mutual help and support. A corollary and equally useful message to
disseminate would be that things will probably get a great deal easier with time. Simply knowing research findings
of high well-being among mothers with grown children could help assuage the distress that peaks around children’s
In conclusion, results of this study underscore the need for systematic attention to the well-being of mothers.
We hope that this initial exploration, showing distinct, patterns of equanimity versus distress by children’s
developmental stages, will spark further research on mothers as people, and not just as caregivers. For the sakes
of mothers themselves and the children whom they must nurture and guide, developmental scientists must
afford more concerted attention to what might help women best negotiate the prolonged, challenging life stage
of motherhood. .
Motherhood - Developmental stages
Ashton-James, C.E., Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E.W. (2013). Parents reap what they sow: Child-centrism and parental well-being.
Social Psychological Personality Science, 4, 635-642. doi: 10.1177/1948550613479804
Aquilino, W., Supple, K. 1991. Parent-child relations and parent's satisfaction with living arrangements when adult children live
at home. Journal of Marriage and Family, 53,13-27. doi: 10.2307/353130
Balaji, A. B., Claussen, A. H., Smith, D. C., Visser, S. N., Morales, M. J., & Perou, R. (2007). Social support networks and
maternal mental health and well-being. Journal of Women's Health, 16(10), 1386-1396. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2007.CDC10
Barrett, J., & Fleming, A. S. (2011). Annual research review: All mothers are not created equal: Neural and psychobiological
perspectives on mothering and the importance of individual differences. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and
Allied Disciplines, 52(4), 368–397. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02306.x
Bethlehem, J. (2010). Selection bias in web surveys. International Statistical Review, 78, 161–188. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-
Bouchard, G. (2014). How do parents react when their children leave home? An integrative review. Journal of Adult
Development, 21, 69-79. doi: 10.1007/s10804-013-9180-8
Boyd, M., & Pryor, E. (1989). The cluttered nest: The living arrangements of young Canadian adults. The Canadian Journal of
Sociology, 14, 461-477. doi: 10.2307/3340653
Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd edition). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., & Mermelstein, R. (1983). A global measure of perceived stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior,
24, 385-396. doi:10.2307/2136404.
Collins, W. A., & Russell, G. (1991). Mother-child and father-child relationships in middle childhood and adolescence: A
developmental analysis. Developmental Review, 11(2), 99–136. doi: 10.1016/0273-2297(91)90004-8
Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The Satisfaction with Life Scale. Journal of Personality
Assessment, 49(1), 71-75. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa4901_13
De Pisapia, N., Bornstein, M. H., Rigo, P., Esposito, G., de Falco, S., & Venuti, P. (2013). Sex differences in directional brain
responses to infant hunger cries. NeuroReport, 24(3), 142–146. doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32835df4fa
Eccles, J. S., Midgley, C., Wigfield, A., Buchanan, C. M., Reuman, D., Flanagan, C., & Mac Iver, D. (1993). Development during
adolescence: the impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents' experiences in schools and in families. American
Psychologist, 48(2), 90-101. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.48.2.90
Eckstein, N. J. (2004). Emergent issues in families experiencing adolescent-to-parent abuse. Western Journal of Communication,
68, 365–388. doi: 10.1080/10570310409374809.
Eisenberg, N., Hofer, C., Spinrad, T. L., Gershoff, E. T., Valiente, C., Losoya, S. H., et al. (2008). Understanding mother-
adolescent conflict discussions: concurrent and across-time prediction from youths' dispositions and parenting.
Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 73(2), vii–viii– 1–160. doi:10.1111/j.1540-
Enders, C.K. (2010). Applied missing data analysis. New York: The Guilford Press.
Feldman, R., Weller, A., Leckman, J.F., Kvint, J., Eidelman. A.I. (1999). The nature of the mother’s tie to her infant: The
formation of parent-infant bonding in healthy and at-risk dyads. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 929–
939. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00510
Green, R. J., & Hill, J. H. (2003). Sex and higher education: Do men and women attend college for different reasons?. College
Student Journal, 37, 557.
Hansen, T. (2012). Parenthood and happiness: a review of folk theories versus empirical evidence. Social Indices Research, 108,
29-64. doi: 10.1007/s11205-011-9865-y
Havighurst, R. J. (1948). Developmental tasks and education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Heatherington, L., Tolejko, N., McDonald, M., & Funk, J. (2007). Now why’d he do that? The nature and correlates of mothers’
attributions about negative teen behavior. Journal of Family Psychology, 21, 315–319. doi:10.1037/0893-322.214.171.1245
Kalil, A., Ryan, R., & Corey, M. (2012). Diverging destinies: Maternal education and the developmental gradient in time with
children. Demography, 49(4), 1361-1383. doi: 10.1007/s13524-012-0129-5
Keizer, R., & Schenk, N. (2012). Becoming a parent and relationship satisfaction: A longitudinal dyadic perspective. Journal of
Marriage and Family, 74, 759-773. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00991.x
Kerestes, G., Brkovic, I., & Jagodic, G.K. (2012). Predictors of psychological well-being of adolescents’ parents. Journal of
Happiness Studies, 13, 1073-1089. doi: 10.1007/s10902-011-9307-1
Kluwer, E. S. (2010). From partnership to parenthood: A review of marital change across the transition to parenthood. Journal of
Family Theory & Review, 2(2), 105–125. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00045.x
Lachman, M.E. (2004). Development in midlife. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 305-331.
Lachman, M. E. (2015). Mind the gap in the middle: A call to study midlife. Research in Human Development, 12, 327-334.
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lareau, A., & Weininger, E. (2008). Time, work, and family life: Reconceptualizing gendered time patterns through the case of
children's organized activities. Sociological Forum, 23(3), 419-454. doi: 10.1111/j.1573-7861.2008.00085.x
Leckman, J. F., Feldman, R., Swain, J. E., Eicher, V., Thompson, N., & Mayes, L. C. (2004). Primary parental preoccupation:
Motherhood - Developmental stages
circuits, genes, and the crucial role of the environment. Journal of Neural Transmission, 111(7), 753–771. doi:
Löve, J., Hagberg, M., & Dellve, L. (2011). Balancing extensive ambition and a context overflowing with opportunities and
demands: A grounded theory on stress and recovery among highly educated working young women entering male-
dominated occupational areas. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 6(3).
Luthar, S.S. (2015). Mothering mothers. Research in Human Development. 12, 295–303. doi: 10.1080/15427609.2015.1068045
Luthar, S. S., Barkin, S. H., & Crossman, E. J. (2013). “I can, therefore I must”: Fragility in the upper-middle classes.
Development and Psychopathology, 25, 1529–1549. doi: 10.1017/S0954579413000758
Luthar, S.S., & Ciciolla, L. (in press). Who mothers Mommy? The phenomenological experience of motherhood. Developmental
Luthar, S. S., Crossman, E. J., & Small, P. J. (2015). Resilience and adversity. In R.M. Lerner and M. E. Lamb (Eds.).
Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (7th Edition, Vol. III, pp. 247-286). New York: Wiley.
Maner, J. K. (2014). Let’s put our money where our mouth is: If authors are to change their ways, reviewers (and editors) must
change with them. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(3), 343-351. doi: 10.1177/1745691614528215
Mason, W., & Suri, S. (2012). Conducting behavioral research on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Behavior research methods, 44, 1-
23. doi: 10.3758/s13428-011-0124-6
Morris, J. E., & Levine Coley, R. (2004). Maternal, family, and work correlates of role strain in low-income mothers. Journal of
Family Psychology, 18(3), 424-432. doi: 10.1037/0893-3126.96.36.1994
Nelson, A. M. (2003). Transition to motherhood. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, 32(4), 465-477. doi:
Nomaguchi, K.M. (2011). Parenthood and psychological well-being: Clarifying the role of child age and parent-child relationship
quality. Social Science Research, 41, 489-498. doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2011.08.001
Panfile, T. M., Laible, D. J., & Eye, J. L. (2012). Conflict frequency within mother–child dyads across contexts: Links with
attachment security and gender. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(1), 147–155. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.06.001
Pappano, L. (2015). Is your first grader college ready? Education Life, The New York Times. Retrieved from
Pew Research Center. 2013. A rising share of young adults live in their parents’ home. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center
Social & Demographic Trends project, August. Retrieved from: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/01/a-rising-
Prinz, R. J., Rosenblum, R. S., & O'Leary, K. D. (1978). Affective communication differences between distressed and
nondistressed mother--adolescent dyads. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 6(3), 373–383. doi:
Ramey, G., & Ramey, V.A. (2010). The rug rat race. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 129-176. Retrieved from:
Rizzo, K.M., Schiffrin, H.H., & Liss, M. (2013). Insight into the parenthood paradox: Mental health outcomes of intensive
mothering. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22, 614-620. doi: 10.1007/s10826-012-9615-z
Rohner, R. P., Saavedra, J., & Granum, E. O. (1978). Development and validation of the Parental Acceptance Rejection
Questionnaire: Test manual.
Rotkirch, A., & Janhunen, K. (2010). Maternal guilt. Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 90-106.
Russell, D , Peplau, L. A.. & Ferguson, M. L. (1978). Developing a measure of loneliness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 42,
Rutter, M. (2013). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and Psychopathology, 24(02), 335–344. doi:
Sheldon, K. M., & Hoon, T. H. (2007). The multiple determination of well-being: Independent effects of positive traits, needs,
goals, selves, social supports, and cultural contexts. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8(4), 565-592. doi: 10.1007/s10902-
Smetana, J.G. (2011). Adolescents, families, and social development: How adolescents construct their worlds. West Sussex,
England: Wiley-Blackwell, Inc.
Spencer, M. B., & Swanson, D. P. (2013). Opportunities and challenges to the development of healthy children and youth living
in diverse communities. Development and Psychopathology, 25(4), 1551-1566. doi: 10.1017/S095457941300076X
Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78-106. doi:
Steinberg, L.D., & Silk, J.S. (2002). Parenting adolescents. In M. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting (2nd ed., Vol.1).
Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Swain, J. E., Lorberbaum, J. P., Kose, S., & Strathearn, L. (2007). Brain basis of early parent–infant interactions: psychology,
physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48, 262–287. doi:
Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K., & Foster, C.A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of
Marriage and Family, 65, 574-583. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00574.x
Ward, R. A., & Spitze, G. D. (2004). Marital implications of parent–adult child coresidence: A longitudinal view. The Journals of
Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59(1), S2-S8. doi: 10.1093/geronb/59.1.S2
Motherhood - Developmental stages
Warner, J. (2005). Perfect madness: Motherhood in the age of anxiety. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Warner, J. (2006a, November 30). The most-troubled moms. Opinionator, The New York Times, retrieved from
Warner, J. (Executive Producer). (2006b, November). “Privileged” mothers. The Judith Warner Radio Show [Radio broadcast],
Warner, J. (2009, January 29). The myth of lost innocence. Opinionator, The New York Times, retrieved from
Wilcox, W. B. (2010). When marriage disappears: The retreat from marriage in middle America. In W. B. Wilcox & E. Marquardt
(Eds.), The state of our unions: Marriage in America 2010 (pp. 13-60). Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project &
Institute for American Values.
Zung, W.W.K. (1965). A Self-Rating Depression Scale. Archives of General Psychiatry, 12, 63-70. doi:
Zung, W.W.K. (1979). A rating instrument for anxiety. Psychosomatics, 12, 371-379.
Motherhood - Developmental stages
Sample characteristics: Demographics
Variable n% Variable n%
Education Mother's age (yrs)
High school 366 16.3 21 to 30 301 13.5
College 587 26.2 31 to 40 875 39.1
Some grad school 244 10.9 41 to 50 685 30.6
Master’s 644 28.8 51 to 60 283 12.7
Doctorate 399 17.8 61 or older 92 4.1
Family income Marital status
Less than $50,000 277 12.5 Legally married 1915 85.7
$50,000 to $75,000 344 15.5 Not married 319 14.3
$75 -100,000 416 18.7 Partner: Male 2029 97.5
$100-200,000 678 30.5 Female 50 2.5
$200-500,000 366 16.5 No. of Children
>$500,000 118 5.3 1 782 34.8
Ethnicity 2 926 41.2
Black 84 3.9 3+ 536 23.9
White 1917 88.3 Age Oldest Child
Hispanic 87 4 Infant 230 10.2
Asian 84 3.9 Preschool 619 27.5
Employed 1488 67 Elementary 407 18.1
Not Employed 738 33 Middle 191 8.5
Community High School 253 11.3
City 665 29.7 Adult 493 21.9
Suburb 1358 60.6 Age of Child (exclusive groups)
Rural 211 9.4 Infant 228 10.1
Region Preschool 456 20.3
Northeast 647 55.8 Elementary 185 8.2
Midwest 161 13.9 Middle 64 2.8
South 155 6.9 High School 87 3.9
West 196 8.7 Adult 271 12.1
Note. Total number of survey respondents, n = 2,247. Across demographic data, n’s ranged from
2,172 to 2,236. For the subset of the sample from whom we collected regional data (about half-
way through overall data collection), n = 1159.
Cronbach’s alphas and Pearson product-moment correlations for variables examined in relation to maternal adjustment
α1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.
Motherhood - Developmental stages
1. Anxiety .83 --
2. Depression .85 .77 --
3. Stress .90 .68 .73 --
4. Emptiness .84 .55 .67 .60 --
5. Loneliness .95 .50 .58 .51 .62 --
6. Fulfillment .83 -.36 -.53 -.41 -.58 -.47 --
7. Life Satisfaction .91 -.46 -.59 -.58 -.62 -.54 .50 --
8. P-Satisfaction .87 -.27 -.35 -.31 -.37 -.30 .34 .37 -
9. P-Guilt .83 .43 .45 .51 .44 .38 -.27 -.33 -.26 -
10. P-Role Overload .89 .38 .40 .46 .36 .40 -.18 -.27 -.26 .45 --
11. Rejecting Child .78 .27 .28 .31 .30 .24 -.21 -.21 -.43 .38 .27 --
12. Child Positive .90 -.15 -.21 -.15 -.16 -.13 .21 .21 .29 -.12 .04a-.23
13. Child Negative .84 .25 .27 .28 .27 .22 -.19 -.25 -.27 .28 .16 .54
14. Child Maladjustment .89 .25 .27 .31 .24 .25 -.19 -.23 -.28 .29 .25 .48
Note. n = 2247. a With this exception, all values are significant at p < .05.
Motherhood - Developmental stages
Developmental trends in maternal adjustment, parenting experiences, and perceptions of child:
Comparisons by age of child in one of six developmental groups according to (a) age of oldest child and
(b) exclusive age groups
Age of oldest child Exclusive child age groups
Personal adjustment F Age η2 Age F Age η2 Age
Stress 4.78** 0.01 5.75** 0.02
Emptiness 3.95** 0.01 5.02** 0.02
Loneliness 3.46** 0.01 5.27** 0.02
Life Satisfaction 13.14** 0.03 9.51** 0.05
Fulfillment 0.71 0.00 1.82 0.01
Parenting Satisfaction 8.05** 0.02 9.55** 0.04
Parenting Guilt 13.25** 0.03 10.08** 0.04
Role Overload 71.23** 0.14 52.87** 0.17
Rejecting of Child 28.33** 0.06 23.60** 0.08
Perceptions of child
Child Maladjustment 6.59** 0.01 7.22** 0.03
Child positive to me 41.59** 0.09 29.10** 0.10
Child negative to me 30.71** 0.07 32.73** 0.11
Note. Partial η2 of .03, .10, and .30 reflect small, medium, and large effect sizes respectively
(Cohen, 1988). *p < .05; **p < .01.
Figure 1. Mother’s Personal Adjustment by children’s developmental level: Mean scores with standard errors. Note: The darker line
represents results from exclusive age groups and the lighter gray line represents results according to the age of the oldest child. Standard
errors of means are shown for the former as well as pairwise comparisons; means with the same subscript do not differ significantly from
each other. X-Axis labels represent Infancy, Preschool, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, and Adulthood.
Figure 2. Mother’s Parenting Experiences and Perceptions of Child, by children’s developmental level: Mean scores with
standard errors. Note: The darker line represents results from exclusive age groups and the lighter gray line represents results
according to the age of the oldest child. Standard errors of means are shown for the former as well as pairwise comparisons;
means with the same subscript do not differ significantly from each other. X-Axis labels represent Infancy, Preschool,
Elementary School, Middle School, High School, and Adulthood.
Figure 3. Interaction effects between children’s developmental period and gender of children.