Stressful, tiring — and rewarding: New study reveals what parents really think about raising children

No one ever said parenting was ever easy. Then, a pandemic came along and challenged parents in all sorts of new and aggravating and stressful ways. So the Pew Research Center decided it was a good time to ask how parents are feeling.

“Most parents say being a parent is harder than they thought it would be,” said Juliana Horowitz, the associate director for social trends research at Pew. Yet, “similarly large shares say they’re doing an excellent or very good job parenting their children.”

The study, titled “Parenting in America Today,” surveyed thousands of parents about what they’re experiencing.

In all, 87% of respondents said being a parent is one of or the most important aspects of who they are. About 64% said they do a very good or excellent job as a parent. Yet, 62% say it’s either a lot or somewhat harder than expected.

It should probably be no surprise, but many parents also find it tiring (41%) and stressful (29%) all or most of the time — moms more so than dads, especially if they have children under the age of 5. That’s in part because moms more than dads find being a parent an essential part of who they are.

So what do they worry about and who is doing the worrying? More often than not, one parent is more worried than the other.

“Mothers tend to be more likely than fathers to say that … they’re extremely or very concerned about several things happening to their children at some point, including struggling with anxiety or depression, being bullied,” said Horowitz. “Lots of different things that we asked about, we consistently see mothers being more likely than fathers to express concerns that these things might happen to their children at some point.”

Parents were also asked about their aspirations for their children, and more than anything, they tended to “prioritize their children becoming financially independent and having jobs or careers they enjoy over family aspects like getting married or having children of their own someday,” said Horowitz.

In fact, only 2% of parents said their kids being financially independent and having careers they enjoy was not too important or not important at all.

In contrast, the number of parents who thought it was extremely or very important to get a college degree only registered at 41%, and only about 20% of parents thought it was very or extremely important to get married or have kids.

Though their intentions are good, and they feel like they’re doing well, how else do parents feel? In a word, judged.

“Parents are more likely to say they feel judged for how they parent their children by a family member than by their friends or other parents in their community or people they interact with online,” said Horowitz.

However, “fathers are actually more likely than mothers to say they feel judged by their spouse or partner, among those who are married or living with a partner, whereas mothers are more likely than fathers to say they feel judged by other parents in their community.”

She added, “So both mothers and fathers are feeling judged for how they parent, but the source of the judgment is coming a little bit from different places.”

But for all the stresses, worries, fears and judgment, chances are if you have a kid there are also lots of moments you find it all very rewarding. If so, you are definitely not alone for thinking that way — at least according to 80% of the respondents who also said that was the case either all or most of the time.

“For anyone who has juggled parenting, it might not be surprising to find that there are these very positive aspects of parenting” despite all of the challenges “mixed in,” said Horowitz.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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