Older Mothers Can Get Really Stressed Out If They Don’t Receive Care from Their Favorite Kid


It’s a fact that moms have favorites, like the son who became a dentist in St. Paul and visits every year for Thanksgiving, or the daughter who makes a lot of money as a bank president and can provide ritzy cruise ship vacations. These are some of the filial qualities that speak to a mother’s soul. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that, as mothers age, they become less tolerant of their second or third favorite kids (the basement-dwelling kids who never quite fledged, the kids that became community theater directors), so much so that, when mothers require care in their old age, receiving that care from any child other than the golden child can be extremely stressful.

A new study from Purdue University suggests that mothers prefer to be cared for by the child with whom they have the strongest emotional bond. According to study author Jill Suitor, a sociology professor at Purdue,

Most mothers have a preference for which child they turn to in a crisis, confide in, and prefer as their future caregivers. And when mothers received care from the adult child who was not their first choice, they reported more depressive symptoms, such as sadness, loneliness, and sleep disturbances.

Curiously, pressing their favorite (as in, favorite to gossip and hang out with) child into service failed to markedly improve a mother’s psychological well-being. Moreover, care from a not-so-favorite child was sometimes even worse for a mother’s mood than being on her own — the mothers that Suitor evaluated demonstrated more pronounced depressive symptoms when they received care from a non-preferred child than when they received no care from their children. Suitor’s research was based on interviews with 234 women that took part in a larger study of multigenerational families that began in 2001 when the mothers were between 65- and 75-years-old with two adult children still living. All 234 women that Suitor interview for this particular branch of the broader study reported the need for care due to illness or injury within the previous two years.

During the first round of interviews, 75 percent of participating mothers named a specific child they would prefer provide care if they became sick or disabled, because, no matter what your mom says, she has a favorite and it has absolutely nothing to do with how awesome the last birthday present you gave her was. The mothers’ initial answers were then compared with their kids’ actual caregiver roles seven years later, revealing that moms who hadn’t been granted their first-choice caregivers were, on the whole, far less satisfied (though they all appreciated their kids’ help, of course). From the interviews, Suitor discovered that second-string caregivers caused the mothers more stress because those caregivers didn’t have the social and emotional characteristics mothers either expected or wanted from someone who they were now forced to spend an awful lot of time around. Suit explained,

This matters because it makes people comfortable, and this is especially important when people are under a lot of stress and in situations where they relinquish control to another person. And who do you want to give up control to? To someone who has the same outlook on life and who you think is very much like you, and, therefore, can respond to your needs and be a source of reassuring support.

The results of this study closely mirror findings from an earlier study Suitor did with co-author Karl Pillemer, professor and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging suggesting that, as people age, they tend to cut a lot of bullshit out of their lives. They consolidate their relationships, focusing on friends and family members with whom they have especially “close and comfortable relationships.” The less intimate a relationship between a mother and a particular child is, the more fraught caregiving becomes. Imagine it: would you want to be cared for by the kid you could confide in and have an Omar Sharif marathon with, or by the kid who still, at thirty-seven, picks his nose at the dinner table and has a weird taxidermy habit that no one ever discusses?

Suitor added that children can also incorrectly predict which of them their mother wants to receive care from. Though children can pretty much always (at least 80 percent of the time, anyway) tell which of them a mother favors, they have a harder time figuring out which of them would be mom’s preferred steward.

Absent ‘favorite’ can stress out older moms [Futurity]

Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

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