Miriam Liss and Holly Schiffrin ’94 already had an interest in child development when they arrived at the UMW Department of Psychology as professors several years ago. Schiffrin had a degree in child development, Liss in clinical child psychology.
What cemented their desire to conduct research on how parenting can affect mental health, though, were the births of their own children. They focused on the many ways women walk the tightrope of work and family life, at first managing breast-feeding and diapering and later juggling dance classes, music, and sports.
“The interest specifically in parenting has evolved as I’ve become a parent and really struggled personally with the issue of how to juggle work and parenting,” said Schiffrin, mom to two daughters ages 5 and 9.
Liss, mother of a 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, has found herself reading every parenting book she could get her hands on, including critical analyses of mothering.
“That kind of kept me sane and helped me take a step away from worry about how my kids were achieving,” Liss said.
In the competitive marketplace that is mothering, both women found it common for fellow mothers to put their children’s needs first. The psychology professors even found themselves in the familiar camp of questioning whether, when it came to raising their children, they were doing it right.
“I think, ‘My daughter: She’s only doing gymnastics. Should I add dance?’ ” Liss said. “Yet I don’t want to overschedule.”
Schiffrin noted that the mother of a girl in her daughter’s dance class would become upset when Schiffrin’s daughter would advance a level. That mother would then clamor for her child to be promoted as well. Schiffrin wondered if this was teaching her own daughter to rely on a mother’s intervention to get ahead in life.
As they navigated the world of the working mom, both saw evidence of mothers following “the belief we can shape our children into these emblems of perfection,” Liss said. And they found themselves pondering, what does this do to mothers?
A plethora of research looks at parenting through a mental health lens, but what Schiffrin and Liss found lacking was a quantitative way to measure how mothers felt. The two developed a scale to measure intensive parenting attitudes and found a strong link between parental pressures and mental health.
Published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, a study Liss and Schiffrin co-authored with then-undergraduate student Kathryn Rizzo ’12 sought to find out how “intensive mothering” affected the mental health of mothers. Such intensive mothers believe mothers are the more essential parents, that children’s needs come first and that children should be considered “sacred, delightful, and fulfilling to parents.” When the study revealed such a parenting style can actually lead to maternal depression and stress, the resulting flurry of media coverage this past summer underscored the hunger for information on the best way to mother.
Schiffrin was on a family vacation to Disney World when the story broke, so Liss dealt with on-camera interviews and calls from print reporters in the initial week. Stories about their research appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, at Time.com and Forbes.com, and in other national and international media.
“The summer was quite a whirlwind,” Liss said. “I’d never had to close my door and say, ‘I’m talking to a reporter. Don’t bother Mommy.’ But it was exciting. It made me feel like people think this is important.”
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Other research collaborations between the two working moms include a study on “helicopter” parenting, or those parents who constantly hover in order to solve their children’s problems. One of their studies looked at “swooping-in behavior” in which a parent fixes a problem for a child before the child has a chance to fix it. Among college-age students, they found the students were more depressed and more anxious when they felt their parents were helicoptering.
“It’s developmentally appropriate to intensely monitor a 2-year-old,” said Liss, who like Schiffrin has had parents of her adult students intervene in matters of grades or classroom assignments. “It’s not developmentally appropriate to intensely monitor a 20-year-old.”
One beauty of working as professors and researchers in the psychology department, both Liss and Schiffrin said, is the tradition of involving students directly with research projects.
“UMW is very special in that it gives students the opportunity to work closely with faculty and produce publishable work,” Liss said. “Not many schools give students that opportunity. I’ve published a lot of papers with student co-authors.”
Schiffrin said that while bigger schools might have undergraduate students doing data entry, those in the UMW psychology department are “dealing with the meat of the work.” Involving students directly in research “takes the need to educate students and the need to produce research and brings them together,” she said.
Much of their research – from the studies on intensive mothering and helicopter parenting to one on the guilt and shame mothers feel when they are not measuring up to the self-imposed standard of a supermom – is taking shape as a book. The idea is to find a work-family balance and not be over-extended in any one area, whether it’s leading all the children’s carpools or staying too late at the office.
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The focus on parenting in much of Liss and Schiffrin’s research leads them both to examine their own styles from time to time.
“I try really hard not to be crazy, developmental-psychologist mom,” Schiffrin said. “I try to just have kids.”
Could all parents benefit from self-examination from time to time?
“Everybody could, but you don’t want to do it in a hyper-neurotic, constantly questioning ‘Am I doing it right’ way,” Liss said. “We’re so critical of ourselves.” And those intensive mothers tend to be the type to constantly examine their parenting style.
“I’m a big fan of mindfulness, being in the moment, trying to be in the here and now instead of constantly wondering ‘Am I doing this right?’ ” Liss said. “The goal is not to be telling parents they’re doing something wrong. Parents tend to be so hard on themselves.”
Schiffrin agreed, calling for “that happy medium.”
“When you obsess and have lots of anxiety over ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ and over minute details that probably don’t matter much, then that’s not good for you or your child,” Schiffrin said. “All things in moderation.”