Not long ago, I met a wonderful 92-year-old woman. She was married during the Depression and lost her husband during World War II when he stepped on a land mine. Though she was a young widow with four small children, she picked up the pieces of her shattered dreams and went on to live a rich, interesting life. When I asked how she handled the stress of her earlier years, she seemed puzzled. Instead, she talked about grief, hard work, and the compassionate people who helped her out. "I wouldn't say I've had a stressful life," she told me.
I was speechless. My friends and I complain endlessly about feeling stressed out 24/7. We have terrific children, comfortable homes, and nice husbands—the worst thing that happened to us last year is that the Red Sox didn't survive the playoffs. We're healthy. Maybe none of us is rich, but we never have to say no to Starbucks either. I couldn't help but wonder: Is raising a family today really more stressful than it's ever been? Or are we just a generation of whiners?
I decided to check in with some experts, and it turns out the answer to both those questions is ... yeah, sort of. "For the average middle-class American family, it can be more stressful to raise kids now," says Kirby Deater-Deckard, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in Blacksburg. In large part, that's because we all have more choices in our lives, each one exponentially increasing the need to make decisions.
My 92-year-old friend didn't have to struggle with work choices, at least not in quite the same way we do. Today, working outside the home means relying on a caregiver, or more likely, multiple caregivers, says Dr. Deater-Deckard. Surrendering control to that day-care clock creates constant pressure, as women fight rush-hour traffic to make a 6 p.m. pickup.
Parents who decide to stay at home grapple with a different set of headaches. "We have lots of financial stress because I'm not working," says Heidi Davis, a mother of four boys from Livonia, New York. "My husband and I are constantly discussing money. Instead of focusing on what we don't have, I try to remind myself that I made this choice and that our kids are benefiting from it. But it's a constant struggle."
And then there are the lunatics like me who try to do it all. I remember writing a work memo during a preschool performance of Peter Pan and managing to miss practically every moment my son was on stage. Maybe he could fly, but my heart was sinking, and the memo had to be completely redone anyway. Some days, I feel like I'm failing at motherhood—and at my job.
Sure, some things—microwaves, dishwashers, cell phones—have made life today easier. Parents are more connected with each other than ever. Even during those isolating months of maternity leave, moms can connect with each other on social media and easily learn about parenting must-haves, like a great bottle warmer or well-fitting diapers (we like Huggies Little Movers Diapers that contour to your baby as she moves to keep her dry). But in spite of all the conveniences, the world has gotten busier and more complicated. Today's workplace demands more of us, and the average American is spending more hours on the job than ever before. Modern technology has made us accessible anytime and anywhere, giving us little opportunity for true downtime. And the modern media have crammed our psyches with endless information. "We're constantly bombarded with instant images of earthquake victims, political scandals, or a murder in the next town," says Parents advisor Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. "No wonder we're stressed."
Even the dawn of the hands-on daddy creates additional stress for women. "Having a super-involved partner is great when you really like the way he's doing things," says Dr. Deater-Deckard. "But it can be awful when you don't. You feel compelled to manage that person's behavior, on top of everything else. And all that anxiety adds up."
In fact, it's this cumulative effect that interests researchers most. In the early days of studying stress, experts focused on the major stressors that, thankfully, affected relatively few families: serious health problems, homelessness, poverty, natural disasters. Next, researchers probed more common but still wrenching domestic stressors, such as divorce, the death of a parent, or loss of a job.
Soon, though, stress experts realized that even women who weren't dealing with such major issues were walking around with permanently clenched jaws and knotted shoulders, leading experts to the "daily-hassles" theory of parental stress.
"The housework is endless," says Amy Maxwell, an at-home mother with two preschoolers in Springfield, Missouri. "Dishes are always dirty. Laundry is never folded, and my kids seem determined to kill each other before kindergarten." Add those daily hassles together and they make us feel as beat up as if we were living in the jungle 30,000 years ago, fighting off animals with sticks.
That said, stress experts also agree that sometimes we're our own worst enemies, making parenthood much harder than it has to be. We have ridiculously inflated expectations: Isn't every Christmas supposed to be better than the last? Shouldn't every family strive for a showcase home, two new cars, and a really fat college fund? Worst of all, many of us buy into the pressure of "keeping up" as soon as the baby is born, running red lights to make it to Mommy & Me or infant swim class. "I'm amazed at how often I try to make a playdate for my 4-year-old and am told that the child is 'booked up' all week," says Dr. Domar. "It's pathetic."
Whether the complication du jour is our own fault or the price we pay for living in the modern world, there is a more inspiring way to see this stress mess. "Stress can be healthy and productive," says Dr. Deater-Deckard. "We can learn from it. It makes us resilient. And it can make us better mothers and fathers."
I, for one, intend to rise to the challenge of trying to make the most of my stress. I don't want to be one of those worn-down women who—when the kids go off to college—can only recall a dull blur of pediatrician's offices and shoe-store temper tantrums. I want to remember when my kids learned to blow bubbles, tell a knock-knock joke, or say, "I wuv you, Mommy."
My motives are 100 percent selfish. It's probably true that the more I dial down the household stress, the healthier my kids will be. But that's not why I'm doing it. It's better for me. After all, motherhood is my ride too, and I want to enjoy as many of the glory moments as I can. So I'm on a one-woman campaign to relax. Here's what I'm doing.
It's those times when I'm able to step back and realize that the spontaneous moments with my kids are richer, deeper, and more interesting than anything I could have planned in all my stressing and worrying about what was best for them.