It does not always take a clinical diagnosis to realize what is causing psychological distress. Any working mother of young children is certainly very aware of the factors that create stress in her life. Raising young children can be quite demanding and can exhaust nearly all emotional and physical resources. Likewise, holding down a full-time job requires a commitment of time, effort, and mental and physical energy. For women who have professional and parenting obligations, the combination of dual stressors can be quite overwhelming. Juggling family time and career can increase cortisol levels and create mental health challenges for mothers that affect their productivity on the job and their parenting at home. Leah C. Hibel of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University in Indiana believes that the morning hours, a time during which working mothers must attend to their children’s needs and ready themselves for the workday, might be a ripe time for capturing stress levels and examining how these elevations in cortisol could affect tasks conducted throughout the day.
To gather this information, Hibel and her colleagues evaluated 56 working women with children under the age of 4. She assessed their cortisol awakening response (CAR) levels 30 minutes after they awoke on 4 consecutive days, two working mornings followed by two nonworking mornings. Hibel found that parenting stress resulted in elevated cortisol levels for all the mothers on workdays but not on nonworkdays. She also discovered that the participants with the most job and parenting stress had the highest cortisol levels on workdays when compared to mothers with only one form of stress. This can result in a depletion of emotional resources that could cause mothers to parent less effectively. In fact, some research suggests that parents who are emotionally taxed and highly stressed parent more harshly than parents with less stress. Hibel added, “The current findings highlight the importance of creating family friendly policies to reduce the mental, physical, and physiological burden of juggling work and family, especially for mothers with young children.”
Hibel, L. C., Mercado, E., Trumbell, J. M. (2012). Parenting stressors and morning cortisol in a sample of working mothers. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029340
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