Gender Differences in the Social and Economic Burdens of Parenting and Psychological Distress

By Bird, Chloe E. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Gender Differences in the Social and Economic Burdens of Parenting and Psychological Distress


Bird, Chloe E., Journal of Marriage and Family


In a representative national sample of 1,601 adults aged 18-59, parents with children younger than age 18 living in the household reported higher levels of psychological distress than other adults. Mothers reported the highest distress levels. I hypothesized that children provide tradeoffs for their parents' distress. Social and economic burdens associated with parenting increase psychological distress for people with children. The model was supported for both men and women and was not moderated by the number of children in the household. I found that children were associated with lower psychological distress levels.

Key Words: child care, depression, gender, marital quality, parenthood; social support.

It is an interesting paradox that although Americans place a high value on having children and parents speak of loving their children and enjoying the time they spend with them, most studies show minimal positive effects of children younger than 18 years old on parents' physical well-being and insignificant or small, inconsistent effects on parents' psychological well-being (Gore & Mangione, 1983; Gove & Geerken, 1977; Kessler & McRae, 1982; Lovell-Troy, 1983; McLanahan & Adams, 1987; McLanahan & Adams, 1989; Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990; Umberson, 1989). For example, compared with persons without children, parents of children under 18 report lower levels of life happiness and higher levels of agitation; yet, parents also report higher levels of life meaning (Umberson & Gove, 1989). Time-use studies offer a partial explanation of these paradoxical findings. They indicate that parents experience a trade-off between enjoyable time spent with their children and an increase (particularly for mothers) in the amount of time spent doing things that they do not enjoy, such as housework (Berk & Berk, 1979). Thus, there is a trade-off between the positive experiences of parenting and the burdens and responsibilities that come with it. Such a trade-off between the positive and negative effects of children and parenting results in the apparent near-zero association if, on average, the positive and negative effects cancel each other out. A thorough examination of the structural burdens associated with childrearing and their impact on parents' psychological distress may reveal an underlying, positive effect of parenthood on distress. If this is the case, then structural burdens of parenting potentially could be reduced, thereby improving parents' psychological well-being. Moreover, such an examination will shed light on whether gender differences in the social and economic burdens of parenting produce greater psychological distress in mothers than in fathers.

I examine parenting stressors and their implications for mothers and fathers, compared with persons without children under age 18 living at home. First, I examine how parenting affects adults' exposure to particular social and economic resources and stressors and whether this exposure is likely to differ for men and women. Second, I examine whether these positive and negative aspects of parenting differentially affect men's and women's psychological distress. I focus on two aspects of parenting-social and economic burdens as measured by economic hardship, responsibility for child care, and difficulty arranging child care-and on two social resources-marital happiness and emotional social support, both of which are affected by the presence of children and may buffer parents from the social and psychological consequences of parenting burdens.

EFFECTS OF PARENTING ON ADULTS LIVES

Having children increases parents' exposure to particular stressors, such as economic hardship, and creates new stressors, such as responsibility for caring for children and, for employed parents, arranging for child care for the time that they are at work. In addition, raising children affects parents' social resources. The demands of parenting may decrease resources for coping with stress by lowering marital happiness, which, in turn, increases distress.

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