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What Mom Wants

Winter 2012 | By Stacey Mickelbart. Photo by Hanna Monika Cybulko/Bigstock.com.

If you have siblings, you've probably suspected at times that your mother has a favorite child. And chances are that in at least one area—who will serve as her caregiver if and when she needs one—she does.

J. Jill Suitor, professor of sociology and a faculty associate of Purdue's Center on Aging and the Life Course, studies the relationships between parents and their adult children, including whether parents are perceived to favor some adult children over others and the impact this may have on family life. In her most recent study, conducted with long-time collaborator Karl Pillemer of Cornell University and Purdue doctoral student Megan Gilligan, she focused on older mothers who required care after a serious illness or injury. The team found that mothers who received care from a non-preferred child were more likely to report depressive symptoms, including feeling sad or lonely, or having trouble sleeping.

While this result might seem intuitive, on the other hand, mothers who received care from a preferred child didn't report a corresponding positive bump in psychological well-being. Gilligan suggests that receiving care from a preferred caregiver in some ways simply meets a mother's expectation of what should happen, whereas receiving care from a child who is not her first choice has a stronger negative impact during what is already a stressful time.

Suitor Mothers
Purdue doctoral student Megan Gilligan (left) and J. Jill Suitor, professor of sociology, studied the psychological well-being of two groups of mothers who received care from adult children—those who had help from their preferred caregiver, and those who did not. Photo by Andrew

The research, published in The Gerontologist, was funded by the National Institute for Aging. The data collection took place in two parts, beginning with interviews with 566 mothers with multiple children from 2001 to 2003. At that time, 75 percent of mothers in the sample named particular children whom they would prefer as caregivers should the need arise. From 2008 to 2011, a second round of interviews was conducted with 234 of those same mothers who had required care. Mothers indicated which child had provided care and answered quantitative questions on depressive symptoms as well as qualitative interview questions.

While much of the literature on caregiving focuses on the financial and time resources each child can contribute to caring for mom, Suitor explains that in their results, resources didn't seem to play much of a role in mothers' preferences or responses to care. Mothers generally preferred care from a child they felt emotionally close to and who shared their values. Thus, when siblings discuss care decisions with their parents, they should probably place less emphasis on having the perfect conditions and focus more on relationships.

Suitor hopes to share the results not only with families, but also with the medical practitioners involved when serious illness and injury occur. While practitioners often check with a patient's family to see if someone will be available to help with follow-up care, said Suitor, "I think we feel that maybe the more important question to ask is 'Who's going to be there to help mom?' and to try to find out from Mom what her preferences are. Then the practitioner can be the person who helps make sure this happens, because Mom probably isn't going to say, 'Oh, gee, so you're going to be the one to take care of me? I'm not so sure about that. Is your sister available?'"

Gilligan also hopes the findings will help families understand that it's not unusual for mothers to differentiate between their children and have certain preferences. Suitor agrees. "If you get people thinking about these issues, it helps them to anticipate what they might experience and think about problem-solving ahead—and that's actually a very good thing."


Well, as the "caregiver" child of my family, I think this adds to the excuses that my siblings use as to "why" they can't/won't contribute. If you look into this further, you may find that more often than not it is the "baby of the family," possibly because they are the last child to have a "close relationship" with parents, mothers in particular. Yes, I am the "baby," so please don't encourage their self-centered laziness - I NEED HELP!


From the editor:

In the original paper in Gerontology, the authors do not note if there were any patterns in which child, oldest to youngest, was most often preferred as a caregiver. They do note, however, that mothers' responses about their preferences "emphasized socioemotional characteristics" of the parent-child relationship: "Specifically, both quantitative and qualitative analyses revealed that mothers strongly preferred children as caregivers with whom they shared a common outlook on life as well as a common set of life experiences. Not surprisingly, their concern with experiential similarity also led them to prefer daughters more than sons (Suitor & Pillemer, 2006)."

I followed up with Professor Suitor, who told me that mothers do more frequently prefer their youngest children as their caregivers. However, she notes, "neither age nor birth order predict which children are likely to fill this role." She also said, as in the paper, that daughters are named as preferred caregivers far more often than sons, and that they are more than twice as likely to acutally provide care when the need arises. I don't know the gender of the anonymous commenter above, but found this additional information interesting.

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