While Helping American Families, Let’s Not Forget About Parents’ Well-Being
By Aimzhan Iztayeva | October 5, 2021
Aimzhan Iztayeva is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota.
The policy context in which American parents care for their children is hardly parenting-friendly. The absence of paid parental leave, universal childcare, and accessible healthcare highlight the privatized nature of family and caregiving in the U.S. – that is, the idea that family is a private matter and that family members should take care of their own.
Leaving parents alone to provide care contributes to stress, fatigue, and burnout. Limited access to resources like therapy and counseling compound this lack of universal support. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the U.S. has the largest subjective well-being penalty for parents among 22 OECD countries and the largest “happiness gap” between parents and non-parents. And the pandemic only further exacerbated the pressures on parents.
With good reason, much of the media coverage on parental burnout has focused on mothers over the last 18 months. Yet, mothers are not alone in facing tremendous pressures during the pandemic. In my interview study with custodial single fathers in the Midwest, I discovered how the men’s emotional burden of providing care alone has intensified significantly during the pandemic.
Men’s emotional burden of providing care alone has intensified significantly during the pandemic. At the same time, their struggles are often left invisible to policymakers.
At the same time, male gender and the norms of hegemonic masculinity encourage men to deny or ignore their deteriorating psychological well-being, meaning their struggles are often left invisible to policymakers. Given the extent to which mental health problems can affect physical health and parental well-being has implications for children’s life outcomes, single fathers’ experiences illuminate aspects of parental well-being that need urgent policy attention.
A Starting Point: The American Families Plan
Last month, the U.S. Senate endorsed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that is meant to provide Democrats an opportunity to approve major investments outlined in the American Families Plan, in addition to other spending targets. A signature policy goal of the Biden Administration, the proposal outlines a $1.8 trillion spending and tax credit plan, a bulk of which focuses on providing direct support to families with children. In particular, the plan envisions investing into affordable high-quality childcare, providing federal paid parental leave, and ensuring that families pay only a portion of their total income for childcare services.
Parents in general, whether married or single, stand to benefit greatly from the policy measures outlined in the American Families Plan with regard to childcare. The pandemic has dealt a striking blow to the childcare sector. Many childcare providers have been suffering due to reduced revenues and have been forced to take on debt, spend down savings or cut costs to stay afloat. It is estimated that 4.5 million childcare slots could be lost permanently. Affordable and accessible childcare is necessary to mitigate parental stress by ensuring stable care arrangements and lessening the financial burden of such arrangements.
The American Families Plan also improves the affordability of health insurance and extends coverage to those currently uninsured. For single parents, many of whom live below the poverty line, affordable health insurance is key in providing and maintaining their access to adequate healthcare. Three billion dollars will be distributed to state programs addressing mental health and substance use disorders under the American Rescue Plan. As of now, it is unclear how exactly these funds will be distributed, and which local services will be targeted. My study findings as well as existing research suggest that local mental health programs and services for parents may be a particularly important area for investment.
Lessons from Single Fathers
For many participants in my study, the transition to single fatherhood was an emotional shock in and of itself. In part, such shock comes with the loss of the social support network. Many divorced single fathers talked about a strong feeling of loneliness and isolation as a sizeable portion of their social network was lost in the separation from their partner. In general, men tend to have smaller social networks with less emotional depth than women, and they frequently rely on their romantic partners for social support.
Fathers I interviewed often desired having a social network comprised of other custodial single fathers. Men who managed to create such a network reported feeling more supported given the common bond of the joys and struggles of single fatherhood. But social distancing measures further added to the emotional burden of isolation that many men struggled with prior to the pandemic. It is thus important to allocate funding to local programs and services that create settings for single fathers to create friendships with men in similar situations.
Policy efforts need to address the extent to which norms of hegemonic masculinity can prevent fathers and men in general from acknowledging their deteriorating psychological well-being.
Policy efforts need to address the extent to which norms of hegemonic masculinity can prevent fathers and men in general from acknowledging their deteriorating psychological well-being. It is key to not only encourage men to seek social support and help for mental health concerns but also ensure they do not drop out of treatment prematurely. Public campaigns like “HeadsUpGuys” and “Real Men, Real Depression” have been found to increase male uptake of psychological treatments.
It is particularly important to support programs that seek to help minority men. A recent study by the CDC found that only 26 percent of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black men reported they received mental health treatments in the past in contrast to 45 percent of white men. Norms of masculinity emphasizing emotional control and denial of vulnerability only partially explain this disparity. Men of color face additional barriers to accessing available services such as higher exposure to poverty and violence, lack of economic opportunity, and higher rates of incarceration.
Lastly, single parents who share custody with their ex-partners can benefit from programs that facilitate coparenting. An overwhelming majority of my interview participants reported having conflicted coparenting relationships with ex-partners. These relationships have intensified even further during the pandemic as coparents had to establish a shared understanding of appropriate health safety measures in addition to other issues. My interview findings, as well existing research, suggest that coparenting relationships can improve with the help of parenting consultants and/or family therapy sessions. However, such solutions can be expensive. For example, a local service in Minnesota offers coparenting sessions for $200 per hour and a similar price for developing a parenting plan. It is critical to ensure the affordability of such options, particularly for low-income single parents.
Supporting Parents Requires a Shift in How We Think About Caregiving
If our goal is indeed “to build back better,” helping American families requires reconsidering the way we think about caregiving. Our society benefits from the caregiving that parents perform at home as children grow up to make contributions as workers, taxpayers, and voters. Yet, we leave these same parents alone to deal with the difficulties that parenthood brings. The experiences of single fathers I interviewed illustrate how the challenges posed by parenthood and the pandemic can seep into parents’ psychological well-being and highlight the importance and urgency of addressing this issue.
The American Families Plan is a first step. But supporting parents requires both a broader policy outlook and employers’ buy-in. The policy attention needs a holistic focus on parental well-being in addition to childcare infrastructure and parental leave. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, employers need to put efforts towards reimagining workplace culture that promotes and supports care and well-being for everyone. For instance, such efforts can include onsite daycare and psychological services, health training, and routine practices to set boundaries and take breaks.
Caregiving is both a public and a private responsibility. Recognizing this will give the U.S. a much better shot at closing the parental happiness gap.