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When 'Super Mom' is super sad: Pressures haunt new parents

Rachel Hillestad hasn't perfected the art of French braiding her daughters' hair. She doesn't serve organic, free-range chicken for dinner. And for her four kids' first day of school, she didn't photograph them posing with cute chalkboards listing their ages and heights, as she saw some of her friends doing.The Kansas City mom feels guilty about all of it — her perceived shortcomings as a parent
SUPERMAN, Christopher Reeve, 1978. © Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection
SUPERMAN, Christopher Reeve, 1978. © Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett CollectionWarner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

Rachel Hillestad hasn't perfected the art of French braiding her daughters' hair. She doesn't serve organic, free-range chicken for dinner. And for her four kids' first day of school, she didn't photograph them posing with cute chalkboards listing their ages and heights, as she saw some of her friends doing.

The Kansas City mom feels guilty about all of it — her perceived shortcomings as a parent. And because she has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, that guilt translates into torturing herself with the same self-critical thoughts over and over: "You're not a good mom," and "Your kids don't know you love them."

Rachel Hillestad and family
Rachel Hillestad says the pressure to be a Super Parent makes her hear critical thoughts like \"You're not a good mom.\"Today

"It's basically just a lot of negativity in a loop tape. To get that to stop with OCD is very hard," she said.

New research suggests a dark side to the “Super Parent” — pressure so great it can create stress that contributes to mental disorders in moms and dads. The new study focuses on factors before and immediately after birth, like the pressure to breast-feed, but experts say similar pressure can extend well past the diaper years.

"It's always stressful to be a Super Parent. Stress is always a risk factor for depression and anxiety, and it's especially stressful if people don't have the supports that they need," Carrie Wendel-Hummell, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Kansas, told TODAY.

From the latest bestselling parenting book to your local PTA president's Instagram feed, it's never been easier to find examples of what raising children should look like. And while that virtual peer pressure can prove intimidating for the average parent, those who've experienced mental illness — which affects nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — speak of consequences more dire than just bruised egos.

"The Pinterest society of looking at all these pictures of people who have perfectly decorated homes and reading on Facebook about children who are always perfectly dressed and way ahead of all developmental milestones — it puts a lot of pressure of mothers, especially those who feel vulnerable and not fully confident in themselves," said Katherine Stone, the founder of Postpartum Progress, a blog and nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of maternal mental illness.

Katherine Stone
Katherine Stone overcame postpartum depression but says she has continued to struggle with the pressure from \"mom rock stars.\"Today

Stone speaks from personal experience. After her own recovery from postpartum depression, the Atlanta mom continued to battle anxiety as her children grew older. One summer, she suffered an anxiety attack after feeling "overwhelmed by this idea that I should have activities for them all day."

She wrote about the attack on her blog, describing how her husband had to shoo their two children out of the room as she collapsed into heaving sobs.

"I look at the moms who celebrate summer. Who have all sorts of plans and activities. Who home school. Who do crafts. They’re like mom rock stars. And I feel ashamed. So ashamed and defective that I’m not them," she wrote.

It's not just moms who are burdened by "rock star" pressure. Lorne Jaffe, a stay-at-home father in Queens, N.Y., admits to succumbing. It happens, for instance, when he learns that another father in his circle of friends has constructed a movie-themed Bento box lunch for his child.

Lorne Jaffe
Lorne Jaffe has struggled with depression since childhood and says that seeing \"perfect\" Dads sometimes makes him despair and withdraw.Today

"I look at that and go, 'I gave my child grapes and he does this,'" said Jaffe, whose struggle with depression dates back to childhood. "When you have depression, it's about constantly battling the negative thoughts and constantly battling the comparison. And it's so tiring."

Jaffe says he sometimes feels so overwhelmed by those comparisons that he withdraws from his daughter to spend time alone. Hillestad says that she, too, at times withdraws from her children as she grapples with feelings of inadequacy. As someone who strives to be a better mother, it's the opposite of what she wants to be doing.

"I'm sitting here thinking about what a bad mom I am when I should be playing with my kids and engaged with my kids," she said.

Researchers in recent years have implicated social media in spurring envy and depression. Hillestad, Jaffe and other parents confirm that Facebook and Pinterest account for much of their exposure to maddeningly unattainable images of parental perfection.

But parenting advice guides and other informational sources also inspire expectations that new parents, especially those battling mood disorders, have trouble living up to. Reading countless books and articles touting the benefits of breast-feeding made Jennifer Marshall of Ashburn, Va., intent on nursing her first-born child. Marshall, who has bipolar disorder, managed to keep her condition under control and stay off medication during her pregnancy.

After Marshall gave birth, things changed. She hadn't predicted how interrupted sleep patterns — think middle-of-the-night feedings — would impact her mental health.

Jennifer Marshall of Ashburn, Va.
Jennifer Marshall of Ashburn, Va., felt pressure to breast-feed her son but thinks the interrupted sleep is what helped land her in the hospital with pospartum psychosis.Julie Fischer McCarter / Today

Four weeks after her son's birth, she was hospitalized with postpartum psychosis, a rare illness that causes delusions.

"I did feel that pressure from society — as a mom, you should have it all together, you should be able to breast-feed," she remembered. By the time of her hospitalization, Marshall said, "I was doing well breast-feeding, but my mental health was completely disoriented."

Stress over breast-feeding was something several new mothers mentioned in interviews with Wendel-Hummell, who presented the results of her small qualitative study of mental illnesses in the weeks before and after birth this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Other concerns included feeling as though they had to hold their infants and interact with them constantly, rarely taking moments for themselves to rest.

"One mother spoke about holding her baby the entire time she was writing her dissertation, realizing (only later) that it would have been OK for her baby to be playing on her own or in the swing and so on," Wendel-Hummell said.

New fathers, meanwhile, often mentioned the difficulties of trying to be involved in their children's lives while continuing to succeed at their jobs.

"Fathers are performing more child-rearing labor and housework than they ever have in modern history but their breadwinning pressures are very strong," Wendel-Hummell said. As has long been the case for mothers pursuing careers, "it's difficult to combine all these roles successfully."

Sara Vancil
Sara Vancil says one of the most damaging beliefs is that \"unless you're happy 100 percent of the time, you're not a good mom.\"Today

Wendel-Hummell said that some new parents are especially vulnerable to the idea that they should be "Super Parents" because they read up and come up with “idealized but unrealistic expectations for themselves." Among those expectations: that new parents should be happy.

"Even if the message from social media or your friend or world at large is more nuanced, what you home in on is that belief that unless you're happy 100 percent of the time, you're not a good mom," said Sara Vancil, a mother who participated in the study.

The Kansas study isn't the first to highlight the relationship between social pressure and new parents' distress. A 2012 study from Ohio State University found that "parenting perfectionism" led to lower confidence in mothers and greater stress in fathers.

"What we found was that societal-oriented parenting perfectionism was bad for a parent's adjustment," said Ohio State professor Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan. Parents who eschewed societal pressure to focus on their own individual goals, no matter how ambitious, fared better. "You can keep striving to meet unrealistic expectations or you can adjust your standards."

Solutions for Would-Be Super Parents

Experts say there are simple steps all mothers and fathers, whether suffering from mental illness or not, can take to counteract nagging feelings that they're falling short of societal ideals.

  • Talk to other parents instead of just scrolling past their social media updates, said Dr. Nicholas Covino, president of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. "If you have eight moms or dads that have a similar experience to yours, then you've found a new norm."
  • Be honest. Hillestad, Marshall and Jaffe all engage with other parents by blogging about their parenting challenges and mental health issues. "I post negative stuff, I post the hard stuff, the honest stuff," Jaffe said. His readers, he said, respond with their own stories. "It makes you feel like you're not alone."
  • Take advantage of local government and school district programs in which early childhood educators or social workers perform home visits to offer advice and reassurance. "When people are feeling incompetent as parents, they don't necessarily need medication or somebody focusing on their mental health," Wendel-Hummell said. "They need somebody saying, 'You're doing a good job. You are a good parent.'"
  • Find the upside of social media: It’s a great place to find help. "It doesn't matter where you live, you can find tribe of people or parents, asking same questions, who’ve been through the same things that could encourage you," said Stone, of Postpartum Progress.

Stone, for her part, says she's come to terms with the fact that she'll never be the mom who entertains her children with intricate arts and crafts projects filling up Pinterest boards. Instead, she takes pride in the things she is good at.

"I'm a really good bedtime reading mom. I am great at bedtime," she said. "Anything related to glue and pipe cleaners is not going to happen."

Her healthy attitude is good for her kids, too, she said.

"This idea that we should be trying to be and do all things for our kids ends up making us not very good parents because we're unhappy and miserable," she said. "Being happy and healthy is multitudes better for your children than you attempting to prove you can do everything perfectly."