Who mothers mommy?

Suniya Luthar, ASU, who mothers mommy
Suniya Luthar, a foundation professor of psychology at ASU. Photo by Tac Coluccio.

It may come as no surprise that a mother who is feeling good about herself and her life has the best shot at raising children who feel the same way. But two Arizona State University researchers took that assumption a step further by trying to understand how best to ensure mothers feel happy in the first place.

Suniya Luthar, a foundation professor of psychology at ASU, and postdoctoral scholar and research associate Lucia Ciciolla asked more than 2,000 Arizona mothers who may be exposed to external pressures—such as stressful jobs or family issues—what it took to make them happy.

The result of their research, “Who mothers mommy? Factors that contribute to mothers’ well-being,” was recently published on the Developmental Psychology website devpsy.org.

Four factors contributing to well-adjusted moms stood out in the researchers’ findings: unconditional acceptance, feeling comforted when needed, authenticity in relationships and friendship satisfaction.

“I’m not talking about people with whom you [go out for] happy hour,” says Luthar, a Tempe mother of two grown children. “What you need are one or two people to whom you can reach out when you are really feeling frail or fragile.”

Luthar emphasizes that it’s not the men in women’s lives from whom they need to draw this essential support—it’s the women: “Husbands don’t do for wives what wives do for husbands. Men do not offer the same kind of ‘tending’ that women do.”

Luthar’s research on mothers is a byproduct of the research she has conducted on children who face adversity. She found that those who fare best are those who share a strong, supportive bond with the primary parent. Mothers are most often that parent, so Luthar began researching what it takes to help mothers do well themselves.

“My research has been on resilience in childhood—and resilience depends on the quality of children’s relationships with the person who takes care of them,” says Luthar.

Authenticity in relationships also plays an essential role in keeping mom happy and grounded in her tasks when it comes to raising children.

Luthar says it is vital for women to have these relationships; but it is also their responsibility to cultivate them.

“You don’t get that overnight. That is the sort of relationship that takes time and effort and energy,” says Luthar. “If you don’t have that, get working on it. It may take two or three years before you can…develop that bond with a woman you wouldn’t think twice about calling when you are crumbling or in an emergency situation.”