BroadAgenda Research Wrap is your monthly window into academia. We scour the journals so you don’t have to.
This month’s research wrap comes to you from the covid recovery bed. While the ‘mild to moderate’ version I had caught felt like someone had sucked all energy out of my body, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the fact that my kids are now old enough to fend for themselves, and that the most labour-intensive parenting years are starting to be behind us.
And in the series of crappy silver linings, the plague was kind enough to jump from one person to the next only every couple of days so that no one was looking after others while going through their worst days.
Recent research shows that caring for others remains as one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to gender equality. The weird thing is that this holds true regardless of the individual’s own values and the level of gender equality in the society more broadly.
A 40-country study on gender equality and maternal burnout (Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 2022) provides a fascination account of the paradoxical effect gender equality has on mothers’ wellbeing.
That is, high egalitarian values at the individual level and high gender equality at the societal level are actually associated with higher burnout levels in mothers.
On one hand, this is hardly surprising. As the old cliché goes, instead of ‘having it all’ we somehow just ended up ‘doing it all’. But on the other hand, it provides an extremely timely reminder of the importance to keep care labour at the front and centre of the gender equality debates. As the authors note:
“The results suggest that gender equality backfires on mothers when equality is achieved in many areas such as education, employment, health and political empowerment, while inequality still prevails in parenthood. The results point to the need to implement social policies to achieve the same degree of gender equality in parenthood as in other areas.”
However, it’s not exactly a bed of roses for fathers either. As a study (Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 2021) on the facilitators and barriers to fathers’ participation in a health intervention during the early years of their parenting journey notes, early fatherhood is now recognised as a significant determinant of men’s health, and mental health issues are common during the first six years of their children’s lives.
According to the study, approximately 10% of fathers report symptoms of depression, while 18% report elevated symptoms of anxiety and/or stress. What’s more, the statistics for their physical wellbeing are not exactly encouraging either.
A whopping 10% of Australian fathers of young children aged 4-5 report at least one health issue, 12% report poor overall health, and 70% are overweight or obese.
The researchers identified both individual and program related facilitators and barriers to fathers’ participation in support programs. At the individual level, fathers noted three motivating factors: The desire to make social connections; wanting to learn how to be a batter dad and a partner; and the support and encouragement from their partners to attend. From the program perspective, factors such as the accessibility of the program, and in particular organising programs outside of business hours; having a male facilitator, preferably a father himself; the advocacy of other fathers; including a group fitness/exercise component; and marketing the programs clearly as exclusive to fathers, were noted by the participants.
In terms of the barriers, fathers mentioned being time-poor, in particular as it related to their work commitments, as a significant deterrent; the reluctance to sacrifice family-time – especially for those in a two-parent relationship who wanted to give the other person a break from caring duties after their own paid labour; and general apprehension to go because they weren’t sure what it would entail.
The program related barriers included travel (the location of the programs), lack of awareness of the programs available; and traditional gender roles. One father noted that the society still perpetuates the idea that men are more stoic and therefore do not need additional support services, which in turn can also result in lack of appropriate programs targeted at fathers specifically.
And things get more complex still when you start moving beyond the heteronormative parental gender binary. A study on transgender parents’ mental health in Australia (International Journal of Transgender Health, 2021) noted that research on the topic has been scarce in Australia, and they sought to bridge the gap by examining how trans adults contextualise and experience issues around their mental health.
The researchers used online surveys and one-on-one interviews with 66 trans parents aged 24-67 years old. The results showed that many participants experienced significant mental health challenges, such as depression and suicidal ideation, which made parenting more challenging. While gender affirmation as well as family and social support had a positive impact on mental health, the majority of the study participants noted that they had to educate their therapist, felt pigeon-holed by their gender identity, or had concerns about confidentiality.
While the results were concerning, one of the key takeaways is the importance of appropriate training for mental health and associated health services to be competent in treating trans parents.
To put the onus on the patient to educate the very people responsible for helping them is nothing short of a failure. And at the information age, it is inexcusable.
In general, all the studies discussed above are exactly the kind of research we need right now to shift the dial on gender equality. They highlight the areas we need to zero in, and provide clear ideas as to how to do this. But at the same time, they are also undeniably infuriating. How is it possible, that after decades of research and advocacy, we still fail at the basics?
I’ve written about my own experiences with infertility in the past. I’ve experienced first hand the strange divide that can exist with parenting related issues. While I received exceptional care over the years as I tried to become a parent, my partner was often nothing but a mere afterthought. Of course, the physical dimension was strictly related to my body only, and as such it was perhaps inevitable that the care then also focused on the identified ‘problem’.
However, getting pregnant, carrying the baby – while obviously necessary for the actual creation of life – are only a fraction of the parenting journey. Quite often, there is more than one person involved, and regardless of their gender identity, or any other identity attribute for that matter, they need and deserve to be supported.
That’s the very least we can do if we want to talk about genuine gender equality.