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Study Suggests It Doesn't Get Better for Moms

Photograph by Twenty20

And you thought middle school was a challenge! Did you ever stop to consider what it did to your mom? A new survey found that among well-educated women, parenting a middle-schooler is the hardest phase of parenting, even beating out the sleepless nights and endless days of newborns and babyhood.

Like any study that makes a great headline, though, the results may be a bit overstated. Details buried a little in an NPR piece about the findings raise some questions and should also keep moms of newborns or 3-year-olds who had been counting on the whole "it gets better" idea from throwing in the spit-up-soaked towel.

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The paper, "What It Feels Like to Be a Mother: Variations by children's developmental stage," was published in the journal Developmental Psychology. It's based on the findings of Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla of Arizona State University. The pair used an internet-based survey of 2,247 American mothers who were relatively well-educated and asked questions that assessed the women's well-being, such as stress and life statisfaction, their perceptions of how their kids behaved (including how they behaved toward their mothers) and feelings of guilt. They then classified the respondents according to the life stage of their kids: infancy, preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and adult.

The data revealed different well-being patterns for the mothers, depending on the life stages of their children. In infancy, the mothers reported high levels of overload and also high levels of positive kid behaviors. Not surprising: life with babies is hard but they are so freaking cute.

Moms of adult kids reported low levels of overload and, again, high levels of positive behavior from their kids—also easy because they're so freaking cute. Or, well, maybe not cute but out of the house! They miss us and want to be nice!

It's the middle where the real news is. Mothers still reported behing overloaded—damn middle-schoolers can't drive themselves to the orthodontist or, you know, anywhere! Also, the kids are testing boundaries and initiating trial runs of separation, as well as learning that being rude to mom is a safe place to try out their new attitude.

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The thing is, not all moms reported this, so the number of moms that had this kind of pattern was only slightly higher than that of the moms with babies (because they're indeed cute but can also grate on your nerves, depending). And, again, the surveys were of well-educated moms, who can sometimes put too much of their time and self into the high-stakes middle years.

One of the author's, Luthar, said that this feeling of isolation and loneliness that middle school moms had reported feeling could be offset by a group meeting of moms. Which, sure—but then who's going to help with math/mean friends/trips to the ortho?

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