As any mother or father will tell you, being a parent is hard. Being successful at it is highly dependent on the personal and material resources of parents, and the emotional, mental and physical needs of children.
There is a culture of expectation around parents, especially mothers, to be “good” parents, regardless of their chidren’s needs or challenges. Some people find parenting very stressful, which can cause a form of psychological strain known as parenting stress.
What is parenting stress?
Parenting stress can involve feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, feeling trapped and exhausted, finding parenthood more work than pleasure, and experiencing difficulties in your relationship with your child.
Parenting stress can affect children as well. Children of parents with higher levels of parenting stress have poorer developmental outcomes, are more likely to experience behavioural problems and have strained relationships with them.
What reduces parenting stress?
Much of the research has focused on maternal parenting stress. This is because mothers are more likely to be primary caregivers, even though fathers have become more active in childcare.
Research on fathers and parenting stress tends not be on their parenting stress, but on their role in alleviating the mother’s parenting stress. Fathers who spend more time with their children, engaging in shared activities, such as reading and playing, have partners with lower levels of maternal parenting stress.
And when fathers take on child-related chores, such as caring for children while their partners are busy, mothers are found to report lower levels of stress.
In short, mothers’ parenting stress is lessened when their burden of care is reduced through fathers’ active participation in parenting. This is what sociologists call “role delegation”: strain can be reduced when social roles or aspects of them can be delegated to someone else.
Can the use of nonparental care reduce parenting stress?
Our research, which uses data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, looks at whether the use of non-parental care might reduce parenting stress for mothers and fathers in the same way.
It is possible that non-parental care might increase, rather than reduce, parental stress, because of the associated time demands of organising childcare. Childcare can be unpredictable and unstable, which can affect work-family schedules, creating stress. So, using nonparental care might lead parents to feel pressed for time, which can lead to poorer mental health.
Also, parents are likely to worry about their children’s health and well-being even when they are in care. The use of childcare services can add to stress financially with childcare fees costing up to $30,000 a year for some parents.
Our research also looks at whether different types of childcare are associated with more or less stress. Australian childcare varies by type, covering formal day care and informal arrangements, such as the use of family and friends.
Families also vary in the packages or patterns of usage. For example, some households may use formal-only or a mix of informal and formal childcare. Grandparent care is by far the most common form of informal care, and around 40% of grandparents look after their grandchildren at least once a week.
More time spent in childcare is more stressful for parents
Our findings show the more time children spend in non-parental care, the greater level of parenting stress experienced by mothers and fathers. This finding is true of both mothers and fathers, which is surprising, given that mothers are often responsible for managing childcare.
We argue that while a father can assume the role of primary carer, relieving mothers of full parenting responsibility, replacement care does not relieve parents of role responsibility in the same way.
We found that mothers and fathers who used informal and family care had lower parenting stress scores, indicating less stress, than parents who used other childcare packages. Most of the informal and family care provided in our sample was undertaken by grandparents.
Previous research has found informal and family care arrangements, especially grandparent care, has advantages over other child care packages. It is more flexible and considerably cheaper than formal childcare.
The use of informal and family care may lower levels of parenting stress because using one’s own family members, such as a grandparent, is similar to co-parenting, as it involves sharing practical and emotional aspects of parenting.
Childcare is critical to mothers’ workforce participation, especially impoverished women in developing economies. Yet governments struggle to provide adequate childcare support for parents.
Formal care is the most common childcare package used in Australia, yet there are numerous issues including quality, cost, and fit. And as our research shows, it does not relieve parents of the stress that informal and family care does.
However, formal childcare is beneficial to children. Research has shown that quality early childhood education is linked to better student learning outcomes at later ages. It is also linked to a better start at school: children who attended early childcare education programs have better language, reading, numeracy and social skills.
While for some grandparents, caring for their grandchildren is rewarding, is not without its challenges, and grandparents often need a balance between their own lives and care commitments. Importantly, grandparents are now eligible for a childcare benefit.
Grandparent care is not always available, especially as governments try to increase older female workforce participation. If both younger and older women need to increase their workforce participation, there will be increased pressure to use care outside the family.
Thus, governments need to acknowledge the stresses involved and ensure that families can access affordable, conveniently-located care. They must also ensure policies regarding labour force participation are complemented by a supportive and flexible high-quality child care.