Abstract: More Than Just Stressed out: How Intensive Mothering during the Covid-19 Lockdowns May Have Harmed Kids (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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More Than Just Stressed out: How Intensive Mothering during the Covid-19 Lockdowns May Have Harmed Kids

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Laveen A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Anne Blumenthal, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Ashley Forward, BA Student, The University of Michigan
Qingyang Hu, BA Student, The University of Michigan
April Merriweather, BA Student, The University of Michigan
Eden Rotonda, BA Student, The University of Michigan
Abigail Young, BA Student, The University of Michigan
Rachel Yum, BA Student, The University of Michigan

The social and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns in spring 2020 exposed the fragility of family life in the United States. Though that fragility was unequally borne by marginalized families, there is growing evidence that even high-income parents were under strain. The strain on families may have been particularly acute in families with young children because of the particular supervision and care requirements associated with preschoolers, toddlers, and babies. Parenting stress is linked to an increased probability of risky parenting behaviors. However, little work has explored how mothers, who typically shoulder the burden of care of young children, understood the stress caused by the pandemic. This study aimed to describe how diverse mothers of young children experienced managing their child(ren)’s behaviors and parental stress at the beginning of the “lockdown” period of the pandemic.


Quantitative and qualitative data for the larger study (N = 720) were collected in two waves from Midwestern American mothers children under age six in April/May and May/June of 2020. This sub-study focuses on the qualitative data gathered from open ended questions posed to parents, asking them to: describe how their child’s behavior had changed since the beginning of lockdown, describe the most stressful event during the past week, and how their actual parenting actions might have differed from their ideal parenting actions. To analyze these responses, we bundled each respondents’ answers to these questions for both waves, along with key socio-demographic variables. Text was then analyzed using a flexible coding approach (Deterding and Waters, 2018). After index coding and memoing, we conducted a thematic analysis of over 8,000 coded excerpts.


A main thematic finding emerged. Diverse mothers, in terms of employment status, race, class, age, etc., reported feeling that they need more patience. This expectation of patient parenting was also expressed alongside admissions of: problematic parenting (e.g. spanking), unsupported parenting (e.g. stressed out and working from home with a missing husband), or anxiety-focused parenting (e.g. unrealistic engagement guilt). Mothers’ ideas about patience are shaped by social scripts regarding “intensive mothering”—engaged, emotionally focused, and effortlessly calm mothering (Hays, 1996). However, unlike how others have shown (Dow, 2019), we did not find a race/ethnicity difference in how mothers drew on the script of needing to be patient. Instead, we found that in a time of crisis, when the safety net was slow to respond, if it responded at all, and mothers were forced to shoulder the majority of child care burdens (Calarco et al., 2020), a script embedded in white middle class motherhood norms emerged among diverse groups.


Many have argued that the demands of intensive mothering are untenable for women. But our findings suggest that the beliefs embedded in intensive & engaged mothering also have negative consequences for children. We ultimately argue that when women draw on these scripts without contextualizing their stress within the extraordinary circumstances that occurred during the lockdown, their help seeking behaviors may be restrained and children may be harmed.