READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

Our culture understands motherhood to be one of the most fulfilling roles of a woman's life, if not the apex of fulfillment. Of all the roles we play, parenting is considered to be the one which promises the greatest personal and social rewards. There's little scientific evidence, however, to support this cultural trope; in fact, the preponderance of the evidence absolutely negates it. A major study reported in 2005 by Ranae J. Evenson and Robin W. Simon confirmed what other studies had found before: unlike other adult roles such as marriage and employment, parenthood did not appear to confer any mental health advantage. To the contrary, childless adults were far less likely to suffer from depression than their peers with children. In addition, they discovered that mothers with minor children were the group most likely to be depressed, a finding they attributed to the emotional benefits of parenting being "cancelled or exceeded" by the emotional costs associated with the role. Not surprisingly, single parents were more likely to be depressed than their married peers, because of decreased economic and social resources. Fathers were less likely to be depressed than mothers, unless another factor was added in, such as unemployment. Most important, the incidence of depression increased depending on the mother's experience of parenting, which the researchers categorized in the following way: the demands and normative expectations associated with the role; the perception of her ability to satisfy the role expectation; her self-evaluation as a parent; the quality of her relationship to her child or children; the stressfulness of the role; the availability of social and economic resources; the emotional gratification and sense of purpose and meaning derived from motherhood. It's extraordinary that of the seven measures of the experience of parenthood, only one – social and economic resources – doesn't have to do with the idea of motherhood. Unlike all the other relationships each and every one of us has in our lives – sometimes messy, fractious, or in need of "work" – the mother/child relationship is also supposed to be both beatific and instant. The concept of "bonding" – despite its lack of scientific basis – has become a contemporary cornerstone of "good" mothering, a way of guaranteeing that every single supposed seed of instinctual nurturance in the new mother will burst into flower. What would accomplish this miracle of nature? Just some quiet moments right after birth – the so-called "critical" moments – with the infant pressed against her mother's flesh.

Popular books on parenting and, even more specifically, mothering have given further ballast to the idea of "instinctual" mother love, while reinforcing the notion that the mother's ability to "bond" instantly with her child at birth is both a reliable predictor of the child's future ability to thrive and a mother's ability to parent. No less an authority than Dr. Spock, who presided over the rules of parenting beginning at the end of World War II, began to promote the idea of instant "bonding" by the mid-1970s. "Rooming-in" as well as breastfeeding became obligatory for any women who aspired to be a "good" mother.

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