Why mothers of tweens – not babies – are the most depressed

'Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.'

Mothers of tweens are more depressed than those with babies.
Photo by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash
The joys of motherhood quite literally wax and wane over time.

If you had to guess, you might think that one of the most trying times for mothers is bringing home a new baby, given the sleep deprivation and the adjustment that comes with taking care of an infant. But some might be surprised to learn that our latest research shows the most challenging period of mothering comes during children's middle-school years.

We studied more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers with children ranging from infants to adults, and examined multiple aspects of mothers' personal wellbeing, parenting and perceptions of their children. Our findings show an inverted-V shape in feelings of stress and depression, with mothers of middle-school children ('tweens' aged 11 or 12) consistently faring the most poorly, and mothers of infants and adult children doing the best.

As it turns out, despite the exhaustion and feelings of overload during the infancy period, mothers experience a great deal of satisfaction and fulfilment in caring for their babies. But as puberty approaches, mothers find less and less positivity in interactions with their children, and the challenges of parenting become far more complex.

From the perspective of mothers, there's a great deal of truth to the saying: 'Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.' During the tween years, several factors come together in a perfect storm. One, the kids are dealing with puberty and all that this implies – hormones, acne and changing bodies on the one hand and, on the other, the draw toward experimenting with alcohol, drugs or sex. Children are also coping with the transition to a relatively impersonal school environment, with large buildings and different teachers for each class, as well as the increasing academic and extracurricular pressures – think standardised testing and college preparation (yes, it starts that early, now!). Finally, children this age are starting to figure out who they are, separating from their parents and looking toward their peer group for acceptance. This often comes with testing limits, as well as starting to take risks.

That is an enormous amount of change to deal with simultaneously. And as children struggle to negotiate all of these major challenges, so too must their mothers as primary caregivers.

Mothers are essentially the 'first responders' to children's distress, and now they must figure out how best to offer comfort and reassurance, as the old ways – hugs, loving words and bedtime stories – no longer work. They also have to walk a very fine line in setting limits. Decisions about what to allow and where to draw the line bring confusion and even fearfulness. We want our children to talk to us about everything and to be supportive, but worry about how to do that without seeming to condone bad or dangerous stuff. Even for confident mothers, it's a time of second-guessing ourselves, worrying about whether we made the right judgment calls, and feeling guilty about the firm stands that we do take.

And then, of course, mothers face the often-drastic change in the child's persona, as behaviours in everyday interactions can change rapidly from one day to the next. The adoring, happy first-grader is morphing into an unpredictably sullen adolescent: affectionate and thoughtful one day, and implacably closed-off the next.

That tweens roll their eyes at their parents is not news. What is new is evidence, in our study, that these behaviours can be deeply hurtful to mothers. Women who saw their children as rude and rejecting were among those who felt most distressed.

A central take-home message from our findings is that the big 'separation' from offspring, the one that really hurts, comes not when children leave the nest literally, but when they do this psychologically – in their complex strivings to become grown-ups, in their tweens.

On top of the emotional strain, the tween years also come with rising demands on time and energy, particularly for relatively well-educated mothers. In terms of sheer number of hours, college-educated mothers spent increasingly more time on their children's extracurricular activities compared with well-educated fathers, or less well-educated mothers. Besides the time, there is the huge psychological toll associated with planning, organising, attending and travelling to and from events, often with inflexible deadlines, and often for more than one child on a given day.

And all this comes at a time when many mothers first experience the signs of approaching middle age, with declines in physical and cognitive abilities, and increased awareness of mortality. It also is a period when, according to studies other than our own, marital satisfaction is the lowest and strife the highest.

It's no wonder that middle-school mothers are so stressed.

To cope with the coming onslaught, they must be prepared, and books and online resources can certainly help. But middle-school mothers must also refuel themselves through close, reliable, authentic friendships. In an earlier study, we showed the strong protective potential of these relationships in buffering women through the challenges of motherhood. So mothers should treat it as an imperative, and not an option, to connect with supportive friends, and stick with this resolve especially during the middle-school years. They should use each other as sounding boards. Reach out when feeling frail or exhausted, or just plain fed up. And have fun together.

Finally, as mothers work through middle school, they can take heart: it does indeed get easier. Middle-schoolers become high-schoolers, and then adults, and our data clearly show that the happiest mothers are those whose children have grown into adulthood. The 'empty nest' is largely a myth. It also helps to remember this constantly (seriously, put a sticky on the refrigerator if you must): we're not just caregivers. We're people too. Aeon counter – do not remove

Lucia Ciciolla & Suniya Luthar

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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