8 Socially-Constructed Parenting Roles and Why They’re Problematic

Do you think parenting is hard? It’s okay. You can say it.

Parenting is hard. It’s physically hard (all the messes and sleepless nights!) but also emotionally hard because it’s so important.

But hard doesn’t have to mean grueling or joyless. And often that is what parents feel under the weight of the responsibility and the intense scrutiny parents are placed under to live up to different cultural stories about parenting.

These cultural stories are the explicit and subtle messages we are bombarded with about how things should be. These caricatures are almost impossible to achieve but we often internalize them.

And when we fail (as we inevitably due) to achieve these “ideal” standards, they become a source of stress and anxiety for us.

We can’t completely turn off these cultural stories. But we can be aware of them and not let them dictate our lives.

So let’s look at some of the cultural stories we are being told about parenthood in order to question their validity and identify how they affect our lives.

1. Brain Developer Mom

This mom makes every situation an intellectually stimulating one for little Joe and Angelique. They listen to Mozart, take every “Mommy and Me” class, and attend every local zoo/museum/farm. Their kids speak 3 languages and are already doing practice tests for the SATs at age 12.

This story even mocks this idea – moms aren’t supposed to be so intense. But, as we will see in most all of the cultural mom stories, while joking about this mom on one hand the other hand is expecting this type of parent if they want their kids to succeed.

Do you feel pressure to make sure your child is engaged in learning activities? Do you feel guilt if you are doing less than another mom?

Is it any wonder? The Brain Developer Mom story is set up to be a lose-lose. You’re either told “geez, let your kid be a kid!” or “what? your kid doesn’t know Mandarin?”

2. Protector Mom

AKA Helicopter Parent, this mom is hyper cautious about anything that could pose a potential danger to her child. Her go-to phrase is “be careful.” And not just in physical situations.

Protector Mom acts as a shield to her child keeping any harmful thought or emotion – especially disappointment or sadness.

Once again, as with Brain Developer Mom, we have the conflicting messages that we shouldn’t be this overprotective bubble for our kids and we also are responsible if we “let” anything bad happen to them.

Do you feel uncertain where the line is between vigilance and smothering? Are you anxious about giving your child too much freedom?

Of course you are! The Protector Mom story simultaneously tells us to back off and always anticipate anything negative.

3. Martyr Mom

This mom gives everything to her kids. She is completely selfless – sacrificing all of her needs to those of her children.

She lovingly blames her kids for everything in her life she can’t do – “I can’t work out/meet for coffee/join bookgroup/sleep, because I have kids.”

This mom also hoards all the work and responsibility. After all, only she can do it right because she’s the mom. No one else (dad, siblings, the child themselves) can be trusted with this all important task of “mothering.”

Of course, we aren’t supposed to be martyrs. Society looks down on women perceived to practice “intensive parenting” as martyrs even when they are not.

Just look at the stir caused by the Time magazine cover last year featuring Jamie Lynn, a young mother still breastfeeding her 3 year old son. It was meant to be controversial with the title “Are You Mom Enough?”

And for every person crying that Jamie Lynn’s form of attachment parenting is the only way to raise kids, there is another person calling it anti-feminist to be so child focused.

Do you ever feel pulled between the “give everything to your child” and “I just can’t do it!”? Do you feel scrutinized by others for the level of “intensity” in your parenting methods?

It would be more strange if you didn’t. Parenthood places a woman in the public square for patriarchal judgment unfortunately.

4. Crunchy Mom vs. Fast Food Mom

Crunchy Mom’s (referring to “crunchy granola” or, as Urban Dictionary puts it, “a person who is into all that all natural crap and eats tofu and does yoga and hugs trees”) story is of a mom obsessed with the health of her child and what goes into or onto their body.

Most parents are concerned about their child’s health but the cultural story is of a mother that does this at the exclusion of any other concern and sets up an all or nothing mentality. If you can’t completely feed your child organically grown green smoothies with hemp seeds then why even try!?

It divides us into caricatures – organic tofu vs. McDonald’s every night.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the decisions you are expected to make “right” every day? When you “fail” to meet these high expectations do you want to throw your hands in the air or hide the evidence?

How could you not? All the messages we receive tell us that we are at fault for a myriad of problems.

5. Controlling Mom vs. Laissez-faire Mom

This cultural story is also told in debates like Tiger Mom vs. the Lazy Western Mom. The Controlling Mom has very well behaved kids that excel in school and extracurricular activities. They are well behaved and mom rules with an iron fist.

The Laissez-faire Mom lets her kids run wild and lets them do what they want. The kids tend to be energetic and mom looks on fondly.

You have to choose one: iron fist or shrug of the shoulder. But either way you are doing it “wrong”.

Do you struggle with being too controlling or not controlling enough? Do you feel guilty when you are too strict with your kids? Do you feel frustrated when your kids won’t listen?

We receive a LOT of conflicting information in this area from Supernanny to Dr. Sears. So it’s no wonder we’re confused!

6. Executive Mom vs. Housekeeper Mom

This one is another false dichotomy set up around the working mom vs. the stay-at-home mom (which is its own controversy).

The story of the Executive Mom is that she loves her work and is empowering her kids by working outside (or inside) the home. This mom can’t ever feel she hates her job, wishes she were home, or desire more flexibility at work. She is privileged to be working and should make up for it by being a Brain Developer Mom in her off hours.

And of course, DOOM to her for “abandoning” her children.

The story of the Housekeeper Mom is that she lives for her kids (sometimes like Martyr Mom) and also embodies the 1950s ideal housewife. Her floors are spotless, all the laundry is done, and a homemade, six-course meal is in the oven.

This mom can’t ever feel that being a mom is hard, that she would give anything for some adult interaction, or desire someone to do all that laundry. She is very lucky to be able to be home with her kids so shame on her if she hasn’t prepared the perfect Pinterest-inspired playdate snack with all her free time.

And of course, DOOM to her for “abandoning” her feminist principles.

Do you ever feel (if you work) that you’d rather be home? or vice versa? How about, if you like where you are, do you ever feel guilty about not doing it “better”? Do you berate yourself for not being the perfect housekeeper? Do you agonize over missed meetings at work or missed soccer games at home?

That’s the problem with these cultural stories. There’s no room for divergence or blending. Just a lot of shaming – for either path.

7. Babysitter Dad

Most of the cultural messages about parenting fall onto the mother due to patriarchal gender roles. The mother’s are “supposed” to be natural mothers who have all the answers and bear all the responsibility.

In turn, this creates the cultural narrative of the Babysitter Dad. This dad couldn’t tell you his kid’s shoe size, pediatrician’s name, or even birthday. He will “watch” his kids every so often if mom needs to go somewhere – maybe.

When he actually ventures out of the house with kid in tow, he is lauded as Super Dad for showing an inkling of parenting chops.

But should he do this too often, he’ll lose his “man card” with his buddies.

Do you ever feel like you are treated as a parent stand-in by family and friends (or even your own spouse)? Do you ever find yourself just slipping into the role of babysitter dad because no one expects more?

No wonder since we seem to think men are “inherently” not good at being a caregiver so should keep the kids away as much as possible.

8. Mr. Mom

The only other story available to dads, so the cultural story goes, is of Mr. Mom. Any deviation from Babysitter Dad – like being an involved, active dad – is called Mr. Mom.

The reference is to the 1983 comedy Mr Mom, starring Michael Keaton, who becomes a full time dad after getting laid off. His bumbling attempts at parenting and housework created the framework for his spiraling depression at being “unemployed.”

My husband was a stay-at-home-dad for 2 years and people always asked him “did you get laid off?” or “are you having trouble finding work?”

Some were directly implying that he should be working but most simply assumed that if a man was home caring for his kids, it must be because he has to.

Do you feel you have to hide your true parenting involvement? Do you worry that you are perceived as a failure as a “breadwinner” because you are an involved parent?

What a narrow space we give dads to explore their role as a engaged parent!


Once you are aware of the stories that paint you into an uncomfortable box you can let them go! You can learn to recognize when you are falling into a prescribed role and take the time to check in to your authentic voice and forge your own path outside the lines.

When we parent from our own voice and not the prescribed roles we remove much of the anxiety of parenting and are able to embrace and enjoy our relationship with our kids.

The more you practice the harder it is to get sucked into the cultural stories and the easier parenting feels.

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Paige Lucas-Stannard is a parenting educator and writer and the founder of ParentingGently.com, which offers resources to help progressive parents find their authentic voices and implement respectful, values-based (and fun!) parenting in their homes including her new book, Gender Neutral Parenting: Raising kids with the freedom to be themselves. Follow her on Twitter @babydust, on Facebook, and on PinterestRead her articles here.