But the European women I spoke with rarely invoked expert views, instead talking about traits they wanted to instill in their children (stability, independence, kindness) and wanting them to feel safe and loved. Take Sara, a mom in Sweden: When I asked her what being a good mother meant, she told me, “Having time with them. I think that’s the most important part. Yeah, just being with them.”
In the United States, women are often expected to put child-rearing ahead of their own needs as an all-consuming labor of love. Yet squaring these high standards with modern economic realities is tough. Today 71 percent of mothers work, and most do so full-time. Though women in the United States are constantly told that they can have a successful career and a rewarding family life, with next to no work-family policies to support them, “having it all” is mostly a pipe dream. In essence, mothers are encouraged to reach for the stars while wearing straitjackets.
How can women provide the type of intensive mothering they believe is expected of them while also working for pay? Most of the time, they can’t. That’s what makes expert advice so appealing to overworked, primarily middle- and upper-class moms. Professionals insist that they possess the elixirs to make the balancing act work. Poor women may find professional advice irrelevant, out of reach, or out of touch. The unsavory truth is that you need time and money to access and implement the advice of parenting experts—resources in short supply for mothers in poverty.
Read: ‘Intensive’ parenting is now the norm in America
I asked Makayla, a black public-relations executive based in Washington, D.C, what being a good mother meant to her. “My husband and I just went through a parenting boot camp for three Saturdays,” she said. “It’s all about encouraging your kids.” The stubbornness of their 3-year-old son had left them feeling impatient and exhausted. The class reminded them that their son was “no different from any other kid”—they simply needed to refine their approach. The professionals reassured her: His behavior was just “what kids do.”
When I asked Gloria, a Latina sales director with two young children, the same question, she also talked about expert advice. “I have all these parenting books,” she said. “I give my kids choices like, ‘You can have either an orange or an apple.’ I’m okay with either one. They learn how to decide.”
Moms told me they wanted to be more organized, calmer, better at multitasking and temper-tantrum wrangling. So they read books, listened to podcasts, signed up for classes, and joined support groups. One lawyer and single mother with twins said her parenting listserv is full of discussions about specialists to hire for potty-training or lactation help. A white engineer with two young children said she and her husband follow a “respectful parenting” philosophy that she learned about on Facebook. “I read tons of things,” she said. “I have this parenting idea and I know how I want to implement it.”