The UK government has set out strategies to help families recover from COVID-19, prioritising re-engaging pupils in school, supporting parents into employment and helping families access mental health support. But were parents adversely affected by the pandemic – and if so, which parents suffered most? Boqing Chen and colleagues from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at University College London looked at Millennial parents and found some fathers were hit particularly hard compared their peers without children. In this blog they outline their findings and their implications for policymaking in this area.
We know the pandemic led to some mental health issues for younger adults. But what effect did it have on parents? Parents of young children – even those with good incomes and family support – are likely to suffer from stress, lack of exercise and poor sleep. And the pandemic piled on extra pressures: schools and nurseries closed along with group activities and playgrounds. About a third of parents had to change their work patterns to take care of children, struggling to keep them safe and busy at home.
We wanted to look more closely at the pandemic experiences of different groups of Millennial parents (those born in the eighties through to the mid-nineties).
We used Next Steps, a cohort study that follows a large sample of people born around those times. The study, which already had information on participants’ mental health, family, and finances collected when they were in their early teens and mid-twenties, was able to put a special set of questions to them about the psychological effects of the crisis enabling us to look and compare what was going on in their lives before, during and across the pandemic.
We looked at whether the age and number of the participants’ children were linked to their mental state, along with work, financial and relationship status, and gender. Younger parents, particularly mothers with more than one child, are known to be particularly at risk, and their experiences are also likely to be affected by work, housing, relationships and whether they have had higher-level education.
We expected to find:
- higher distress among parents compared with non-parents, particularly women;
- higher distress among parents with children aged two or more;
- higher distress among parents who were more vulnerable through financial and relationship circumstances.
Next Steps is a nationally representative study of 15,770 individuals born in 1989–90, and at the time of the pandemic its participants were around 30 years old. Around 2,800 parents in the study were interviewed in Autumn 2020 and almost 2,900 in Spring 2021.
At that time, around a quarter of the men and half the women were parents. Around half the parents had one child, and a little more than half had a youngest child under two.
In the Autumn of 2020, after the first wave of COVID, but before the second, the data did not show any overall differences between men who were parents and those who were not, though mothers did have better mental health scores if they had one or two children under the age of two.
In the Spring of 2021, we didn’t detect much difference between parents and non parents. The only exception was for fathers living with three or more children, who reported much worse mental health compared with other men.
Looking at parents’ work and financial circumstances before the outbreak, we saw that some fathers (compared with their peers without children) reported more distress if they were working. There was also some evidence that fathers who were living less than comfortably before the pandemic suffered more stress during the crisis than other men in the study.
Overall, we did not find strong evidence for a general pattern of worse mental health among parents at this point. But significantly we did find fathers with one child or with children under two had worse mental health if they also worked: working parents had to deal with reduced hours, remote work and new caring responsibilities due to school closures, and this may have required them to change their work and family life balance.
We also found some differences across parent groups: mothers of young children reported better mental health in Autumn 2020, so maybe benefits resulting from childbirth outweighed the pressures of childrearing during the pandemic – we know that happiness generally increases before and around childbirth and then decreases in the next two years.
Other studies have suggested parents who applied for benefits during the pandemic and who had difficulty paying bills suffered from worse mental health – these parents may also have been more likely to lack affordable food sources, to live in unsafe neighbourhoods with under-resourced schools, and to have difficulty getting high quality childcare. The fact that our fathers were more vulnerable may suggest the pressures of the “breadwinner” role are especially strong among new Millennial fathers compared to those with older children.
Our findings support the argument that some parents’ experiences of the pandemic may be different from those of other groups among Millennials. While parenthood was not a major risk factor, the financial insecurity which came with the pandemic did lead to many young fathers feeling distressed.
Our research therefore supports the argument that policymakers should prioritise working parents in Covid recovery programmes. We need to continue to monitor the mental health of this group in the longer-term, and more studies are needed to corroborate our discovery that some fathers may have been particularly adversely affected. We believe research is needed to explore the gender and age-related effects which may have put new generations reaching adulthood at risk.
Parenthood and psychological distress among English Millennials during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic: evidence from the Next Steps cohort study, by Boqing Chen, Anne McMunn and Thierry Gagné, was published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in November 2022: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-022-02392-x