STRESS
August 25, 2014

My Mom, The Prison Guard

Being a working parent is always stressful. The job you have can add to it. Would you rather have a mom who is an attorney or school teacher?

Being a parent is stressful enough, and now a new study warns us that parents who work in certain fields may feel even higher levels of stress.

It's one thing when your job demands that you be gentle and caring; but what about those people whose work requires that they enforce rules or argue with others? The disconnect between work lives and home lives can be a very big gap to bridge.

The good news is that being aware of this divide may help parents deal with the stress more effectively, and employers support their employees in more helpful ways.

If you spend your day teaching school, the shift to being a parent is not nearly as great as it would be if you spent your days litigating cases in court.

Are certain occupations more stressful because of their associations in our culture? For example, some jobs are more impersonal, while others are more personal; some might be seen as stronger and some as weaker.

“We know that one source of stress for parents is the time and energy bind,” study author Mark Walker said in a news release. “But what I wanted to examine was the extent to which discrepancy between the cultural meanings of a person's occupational and parental identities could impact the psychological well-being of working parents. What we found is, in fact, it does.”

In other words, if you spend your day teaching school, the shift to being a parent is not nearly as great as it would be if you spent your days litigating cases in court. People who held certain types of jobs — those researchers said were viewed as being more impersonal, weaker or aggressive — were more stressed than people who had jobs that are associated with strength, caring, and goodness.

What’s important here is that this latter set of attributes is also the one with which parenting is associated.

People who have jobs that are culturally more “frowned upon” would feel that tension, the authors suggest, and it might affect them profoundly.

“If a person is constantly met with skepticism,” says Walker, “he or she can begin to feel stressed because that skepticism will take a toll over time.” Those parents are always swimming upstream trying to convince people they are, for example, a legitimate parent or a legitimate attorney.

So are attorneys and meter maids just doomed to a life of greater stress than teachers and doctors? Not necessarily.

Being aware that your profession is more stressful because of its cultural connotations is an important first step. Using known stress management techniques is definitely another. Your employer should theoretically also be aware of the connection, and do his or her part in helping with it.

“If employers are aware that parents working in a given occupation are more at risk of experiencing psychological strain,” says Walker, “they could potentially provide more targeted mental health resources for those in 'at risk' occupations.”

Parents in occupations that have little in common with parenthood don't have to switch jobs to get in the parenting groove. Do what we know works: Try exercise, meditation, yoga, talk therapy, or a beloved hobby. The bottom line is choose whatever method works for you — just make sure it’s a healthy one.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Iowa and presented at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in August 2014. It hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so its findings should be considered preliminary.

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