With ‘Continuous Parenting,’ We Expect More of Parents Than Ever

Technology isn’t the only reason today’s parents feel pressure to be ‘always on’—here’s how we can better support them

As I paused to catch my breath a the top of the peak during a recent trail run, I pulled out my phone to take a picture of the incredible mountain views that surrounded me. But first, there it was: a text message that transported me straight back into the role of ‘mom’.

“What time do I lay the baby down again?” our caregiver for the morning asked.

While I answered, I was reminded yet again that parents are never totally off-duty — and that seems especially true due to the emergence of technology that keeps us ever-connected to our children and homes.

Even though this experience of “continuous parenting” is certainly with its benefits, the rate at which parents claim to be burning out doesn’t seem entirely coincidental: When we expect mothers and fathers to put parenting first at all times, we are not creating healthy boundaries for ourselves and we are not sending our children good messages about setting boundaries, either.

The alternative? Encouraging mindfulness around the times when parenting should take precedence — and when it is fine to move those responsibilities to the backseat.

“It is important to demonstrate for our children that it is okay to ‘switch off,’ make mistakes and move at a slower pace,” says Dr. Sophia Brock from Australian Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (AMIRCI).

Parents are more involved in their children’s lives than ever

Much has been said about the rise of “helicopter parents.” But, even for those of us who make every attempt to keep our feet on the ground, parenting consumes more of our time and energy than in generations past: According to a 2017 global analysis by The Economist, parents now spend twice as much time with their children as parents from 50 years ago. In fact, even the working moms of today have as much daily interaction with their kids as the stay-at-home moms of 1975 — and that’s not to mention how technology enables us to stay connected even when physically separated.

However, to say that technology is the only factor behind the rise of “continuous parenting” would be inaccurate, says Dr. Brock. Rather, the fact that text messages and push notifications have coincided with the emergence of the “intensive parenting model” has created a recipe for overextending ourselves.

“In order to be a ‘good parent,’ we are expected to be continuously engaged with every aspect of our children’s lives, continually prioritize their wants and needs above our own and be emotionally consumed by parenting,” she says, noting this was not historically the experience of mothers. “It is all encompassing and overwhelming.”

Attaching personal value to children doesn’t benefit either party

As former Stanford University dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims wrote in her book, How to Raise an Adult, “When I ask parents why they participate in the overprotection, overdirection, hand-holding frenzy, they respond, ‘So my kid can be happy and successful.’ When I ask them how it feels, they respond, ‘Way too stressful.’”

By conflating personal success with the success of our children, we are doing everyone a disservice, Dr. Brock tells Motherly, noting that research shows the expectation that mothers derive their happiness primarily from their children is associated with negative maternal mental health outcomes.

“Nobody can be a continuous, intensive, perfect parent all the time,” she says. “We will inevitably fail, and with that sense of failure also comes feelings of guilt.”

Simultaneously, constant engagement in our children’s lives and the hesitation to let them take healthy risks interrupts their opportunities to build resilience, a key trait for them to embody as they move into adolescence and adulthood.

“Continuous parenting is reducing the opportunities children have to engage in critical ‘free play,’” Brock says, adding this puts children at increased risk for anxiety, depression and problems with self-control and attention.

Fostering independence in our children and fellow caregivers

In the case of the mountainside text, it was a situation admittedly of my own making: I have the tendency to manage (or micromanage) the how, when and why my children go down for naps and bedtime. More than once, the words “I’ll just stay home and do it myself” have come out of my mouth — as it’s felt easier to do something that feels second-nature to me than to explain everything there was to know to someone else.

Not only does that make it harder for me to get the space I need for my own interests, but it’s also hindering the empowerment that caregivers such as grandparents, babysitters and even my own husband feel when holding down the homefront.

There is good news, though. The solution is, at least theoretically, simple: relinquish control on occasion.

“We can try to combat the pressures we are under to be continuous parents by letting go a little more, reducing our expectations, being kinder to ourselves, seeking support when needed and making sure we maintain connections to the community,” Dr. Brock says.

Parallel to that, we need to encourage independence in our children — to remind them they are able to pick themselves up all on their own. That was something that Kaitlyn, an Ontario mother who balances working from home while caring for her toddler, says she was keenly aware of fostering from an early age.

“We have designated break times — right now, that takes the form of naps, but if he skips a nap, he still has ‘rest time’ in his room,” she says. “I have very much taken myself off the hook to be a designated “provider of fun’… I never withhold anything, but I also know he’s capable of solo time because I’ve allowed him to try it out.”

Parents need to feel supported in having space, too

As commonsense at that may be, I can say from experience that society isn’t always in alignment with that — as evidenced by the mom who was shamed for texting at the airport or by the ire that was directed at Beyonce (of all people) for going on a date with her husband following her twins’ birth. Weighing that, it’s no surprise 70% of moms said they felt pressured to parent a certain way. (Fathers experience pressures in different ways, as Prince William even explained recently.)

In other words, we aren’t putting all the pressure on ourselves to continuous parent in a vacuum: The sense that this is the norm is reinforced in different ways, from the daycare’s option to stream video to the study that found 41% of parents “can’t remember” the last time the last time they had a kid-free outing.

But there is a difference between quantity of time and quality time. Just as vacations from work allow us to recharge and refocus, creating healthy breaks from the responsibilities of parenting helps us discover newfound patience, renews our enthusiasm, and, most importantly, inspires a more mindful approaches to parenting overall. Meanwhile, our children and fellow caregivers have the space to feel more empowered in their abilities. That is the kind of win-win scenario that parents deserve to experience and celebrate.