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What is Intensive Mothering?

In intensive mothering, the mother takes better care of the child than herself.

In intensive mothering, the mother takes better care of the child than herself.

Intensive Mothering Definition

Have you ever known of a mother who puts herself before her children? It's not that uncommon. How about spending so much time caring for her child that she starts to get a little sick? I guess it happens sometimes, especially in today's society. Well, what if she will not allow her husband or partner to get involved because she thinks the spouse will not do the right job? That's a little extreme, isn't it?

And yet this is not an uncommon way of raising a child, especially in this country. It's called intensive mothering, and I'm sure you all know a mother who sounds like the one described above.

Sharon Hays, who wrote the 1996 essay The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, described "intensive mothering" as being self-consciously committed to child-rearing. It involves being dedicated to her child to the point that she takes much better care of her child than herself, even if it means cutting back hours, or even setting aside a whole day for the child to do whatever he or she wants. Children need consistent nurturing by a single caretaker who will expend an abundance of energy, time, and resources for the child; this may also require research on what the child needs at every stage of development. Intensive mothers see themselves as the primary caregiver for the child; men cannot be relied upon for that. Intensive mothering, overall, is "child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive." Children come first, period.

Basically, the ideology conflicts with that of the workplace, and the "dominant ethos of modern society." In fact, intensive mothering cannot be compared with work. It is the dominant ideology of how to appropriately raise a child in the United States today. Many American mothers tend to believe in intensive mothering; the ideological revolution encouraged middle-class, white women to stay at home and care for children, especially.

This seems unfortunate to me because, though I believe women don't need to prove themselves by entering the work world against their will, it seems like there must be something in society that causes women to feel so strongly about their methods of raising a child. It's like the ideological revolution needs to be reversed so that women don't feel pressured to raise their children in such a way. Certainly, it's a good idea to care deeply about your kid and his or her well-being, but that doesn't mean dedicating your life to it so that it's unhealthy.

Have any of you ever known a mother like this? Did she burn out? It seems to me like such mothering could even cause resentment by a mother if the child does not seem to appreciate all that the mother has done, and the consequences could be horrendous. When I see mothering like this, it never really lasts after the first couple of years or so, but the mother in the essay continues with this though the child has entered elementary school.

Additional Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


glassvisage (author) from Northern California on January 24, 2017:

Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your own experiences!

Nicole K on January 23, 2017:

Thanks for posting such an interesting hub! I agree that if a mother takes better care of her child than herself, to the point of neglecting her own hygiene and personal needs, etc, then something is not right. Sometimes I find myself needing to remember this in my own mothering. I have two sons, and when we get ready for church, I usually make sure they are dressed and ready to go before I get myself completely ready. Then I get ready to go. It was funny last Sunday, because my son was all ready to go, and he said "OK Mommy, get your shoes on"... and I laughed, because I was still in my PJ's! I still obviously had to get dressed and do my hair really fast, throw some makeup on, etc. Taking care of your own needs when you have a toddler and a baby can be a balancing act, for sure! However, I have learned (and am still learning) how important it is to care for your own needs as a mother. I like the phrase, "You can't pour from an empty cup." It's so true. If I skip my own breakfast, I will run out of energy and feel faint, and I won't be able to care for my kids properly. I have to feed myself nutritious food, take care of my own hygiene (granted I shower about every other day but that's pretty normal as a mom), take care of my self-care and spiritual needs, etc. To neglect myself would be harmful not only to me, but eventually to everybody else in the household, including my kids! I would hope every mom would realize this principle.

glassvisage (author) from Northern California on September 28, 2011:

Prickly, I agree. It's great for the father to be involved if possible.

Prickly Flower from Netherlands on September 28, 2011:

Of course fathers can't take care of children, everyone knows that! Just kidding. One of the main problems in these mothers seems to be the anxiety to let the control being taken away. Oftentimes, men can take care of their children just as well. they just do it differently than you might. But so does your neighbour, your friend, your sister. Several times I have seen fathers just giving up and leaving the main care of their children to their wives as they made it very clear to him all the time that he was doing it all wrong, instead of leaving him to develop his own parenting style and appreciating his own unique take on things. Shame really, as dedicated and involved fathers can only add to a healthy upbringing.

Valerie F from Idaho Falls, ID on September 05, 2009:

I think intensive mothering is a result of less intensive fathering. Oftentimes, a mother establishes the rules and routines, sets the bedtimes, does the chores, and if she takes a day off, she too often comes home to find that dad let the kids stay up late playing video games and beating up on each other instead of doing homework, eating junk food for dinner, et cetera. If a woman feels the father of her children is not as effective a caregiver as she is, it could be for a good reason.

Crazichic4life on February 19, 2009:

I need for my mother to read this some of the statements are so important that mothers across the globe need to realize

katyzzz from Sydney, Australia on February 18, 2009:

Glass Visage, I do know of some children who have been so smothered that they have lost out on any chance for adulthood, tied to those apron strings ( or umbilical cord) for ever. So sad, but balance is required, but any and every parent will make mistakes, it follows as the night the day, just don't get on the fringes I say.

Aya Katz from The Ozarks on February 13, 2009:

I agree that most mothers want what is best for their children. However, I don't think the big issue facing most mothers today is whether to overindulge their childrens' whims or not. The big issue is how much total time can be devoted to mothering.

Ashley Joy on February 11, 2009:

Most mothers put their children first, but some do overboard with the intensive parenting. Kids do need some room to grow on their own and become their own person.

C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on February 10, 2009:

I am with London Girl. There is a point to anything becoming excessive and there is also the fact that children need to learn about the entire tribe or clan. Then there is the thing about the Mother needing time for herself.... BALANCE is a key factor and FAMILY needs to be taught from the beginning.

My own Mother was very attentive but she also took some time for herself, not a lot when we were very small but, back to BALANCE! Interesting subject. Something to think about with society seeming to be so screwed up!

anjalichugh from New York on February 10, 2009:

Excess of everything is bad. However, I have seen such women from close proximity and I discovered that there was some emotional quotient lacking in their own childhood which they subconsciously tried to make up for, by giving more-than-required care and attention to their own children. Such manifestations are, generally, triggered off due to deep rooted insecurities or out of a desperate attempt to hold on to what one has. Reasons can differ on case to case basis, though.

A good hub.

LondonGirl from London on February 09, 2009:

There needs to be balance. Of course, babies and toddlers need love, attention, and caring, but I don't think it's good for children to feel the absolute centre of the universe.

Personally, if my son needed changing, feeding, or water, as a baby and toddler, that was a priority.

Now he's older, again, if he wants a drink, that's important. But if I'm cooking dinner, and he wants me to play with him, he's got to wait.

glassvisage (author) from Northern California on February 08, 2009:

Thank you all for your input! I think it's safe to say we all agree on a reasonable degree of balance... and of course, Aya, your response could be its own Hub that you could publish for your collection! :) But I truly appreciate the feedback.

I agree that the first few years are different than the rest. I found it interesting that intensive mothers feel that only a woman could take on that primary caregiving role, and that fathers cannot. I also agree that everything should be in the best interest of the child, but intensive mothering seems so extreme that there must be some other interest in mind... possibly pressure from society?

Earth Angel on February 08, 2009:

Great Hub GlassVisage!!

I know many such women, and one Mr. Mom, who have a bit of a compulsion about their children!! Anything, including caring for a child in a non-healthy way can become addictive!!

Healthy parenting can only come from healthy adults!! To the extent the parent(s) haven't "worked out their own stuff" prior to having children, their dysfunctions will be magnified in child raising!!

Intentions play a big role in how parents raise their children!! If a parent if "fear based," their involvement will be much different than if they are "love based!!"

I know many who love their kids and are glad they have them yet who blame having children on the lack of progress in their goals!! "I was going to write a book but now that's out the window with the birth of the little one(s)" Often, it is an excuse!!

I think people sometimes subconsciously want to live through their kids!! Too afraid to take a leap of faith on their own "to go to medical school," they have visions of having a child that will fulfill their life long goals of becoming a doctor!!

GREAT Hub!! Thanks for sharing!!

Blessings always, EarthAngel!!

fishskinfreak2008 from Fremont CA on February 08, 2009:

Some interesting ideas here. Former head of Business Education at Sha Tin College Sara Wilson would probably do this, considering the fact that she would whine for hours over a Diet Coke. Thumbs up

Aya Katz from The Ozarks on February 08, 2009:

Glassvisage, you raise some interesting points. I think that it makes sense to distinguish what happens in the first three years of life, from the gradual process of separating and individuating that happens afterwards,

Children in the first three years of life really do best when they have a single, primary caretaker. That caretaker need not necessarily be the mother. It could be the father. It could be a grandmother. It could be a nanny. But it helps the child to learn how to be a human being if whoever it is stays in the child's life consistently during that period. Attachment is tremendously important, because most infants can't develop properly without it.This is why day care in the first three years is not a good idea. A very young child needs a person to count on, not an institution.

Five loving, dedicated people who cut up the day into equal parts and spend time with an infant or toddler cannot fill the same function as a single person who is there almost all the time. One of the reasons autism is on the rise is that so few children have twelve hours with a single caretaker each day.

Now, that's just for the first three years. After that, sending the child to preschool to learn how to socialize with peers for a few hours each day is fine. By Kindergarten, the child is ready for even longer periods of separation from the primary caretaker. Eventually, the child becomes increasingly independent, and the caretaker can take on completely different responsibilities.

If a mother or other primary caretaker doesn't start letting go and backing off when the child needs that, then the relationship can be smothering for the child.

However, in the first three years, the focus should be on the child's needs, not those of the adults in his life. The idea that responsibilities can be shared equally like clockwork falls apart when you consider the needs of the child. This doesn't mean the child makes the decisions. The grownups do, and they do so in terms of setting appropriate limits as well as providing nurture and care.

I don't think it makes any sense to let a very young child tell you what to do all day. But it does make sense to do what you think is best for the child.

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on February 08, 2009:

I know of an unhealthy situation like the one you describe. In my opinion, a mother's attention and love are very important. But it's also desirable for babies and young children to have plenty of contact with other family members and other caromg adults.