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Is Parenting Stress Increasing for Mothers in Australia?

Adults who are not caring for children are frequently reported to be ‘happier’ than those with children at home.* Considering the financial and emotional responsibilities of parenthood, this comparative happiness trend may be unsurprising; and it has been reconfirmed in a recent Stress and Wellbeing survey conducted by the Australian Psychological Society.  Adding to what we know about parenting stress, the survey indicated that an increasing number of women are significantly stressed by financial worries and family issues.

Professor Lyn Littlefield, Executive Director of the APS, noted this as a new trend and said that in past surveys, it would have been men who would report finances as their main concern. Now, more women than men are listing finances as their highest stressor. Professor Littlefield said  “I think more and more women are responsible for earning part of the family income and there are also more single women and single parents who have to earn their own income – women are now sharing the burden as much as men.”  

Women ‘Feel’ Stress Differently

Australian women also report that they feel stress differently; the APS survey highlighted that women’s levels of ‘perceived’ stress are higher than men, even though their symptoms on measures of wellbeing like anxiety and depression, are not so different. Professor Littlefield explained that “Women focus more reflectively on how they feel, how they are managing or how they think they are managing”.  More evidence that mothers experience parenting stress differently, comes from a survey by Lifeline and an Australian medical insurer, in which it was reported that stress appears to be negatively impacting family relationships; 47% of mothers said they often take their stress out on their children and then feel guilty about it, compared with 31% of fathers. That same survey suggested that women are more affected by stress, “with 64% of mums feeling stressed about being a great parent compared with 45% of dads.”

The Best Ways to Manage Parenting Stress

Managing stress effectively is part of good parenting and self-care.  In the APS survey, Australians were also asked about how they dealt with their feelings of stress; Professor Littlefield pointed out that we are not always choosing the most effective methods.  40% of those surveyed said they used alcohol to manage stress with 19% saying this helped them, and 64% used food to soothe their stress but only 25% found that effective.

So what are some of the more effective parent stress management tips? Coping with parenting stress is partly down to preparation, but also best done with the help of people that care about us and the help of experts such as psychologists and family doctors. Professor Littlefield advises:

  • Preparation is a good thing. Before and after you become a parent, try to learn as much as you can about how children develop and what their needs are. Learn about “how as a parent you might meet those needs because the quality of your parenting really impacts on your child’s psychological development and wellbeing. And to prevent stress, the more you know about what to expect and what raising a child will be like, the better.”
  • Have a support structure around you. Try especially to “spend time with friends who have kids who have been through the same stages.”
  • Have reasonable expectations and “don’t expect it to always be easy – you are not a failure just because things are not easy. Children bring a lot of happiness but they also bring stress as well, and of course sole parents are more stressed than parents in a two parent family.”
  • Don’t ignore feelings of stress or feel you are alone. Instead of trying to mask the stress with short term relief strategies like alcohol, shopping or eating, it is “much better to talk to someone who cares about you, to try to work out what is stressing you and problem solve what you can do about it.” And if this doesn’t work you should,
  • Get professional help “because chronic stress is a problem for your health and relationships … you can learn from your G.P. or psychologist about how to deal with stress or reduce it.”

A guide to understanding and managing stress is available on the APS website.

* See for example information covered in this New York Magazine article and in in this American Sociological Association release. 
image freedigitalphotos.net David C Dominici