parent stress
August 19, 2014

Some Jobs Cause Working Parents More Stress

Sara Agnew, Office of Strategic Communication, University of Iowa

UI research looks at conflict between identities as parents and workers

Some working parents are carrying more psychological baggage than others—and the reason has nothing to do with demands on their time and energy.

The cause is their occupation.

According to University of Iowa researchers, parents who hold jobs viewed by society as aggressive, weak, or impersonal are likely to be more stressed out than parents whose occupations are seen in a light similar to parenting—good, strong, and caring.

“We know that one source of stress for parents is the time and energy bind,” says Mark Walker, a doctoral student in sociology at the UI. “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,” he adds.

Walker presented his study “More Than Maxed Out: The Impact of Role Meaning on Psychological Well-being for Working Parents” on Saturday, Aug. 16 at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco.

Though the results of the study might appear gloomy, researchers say the bright side is identifying this new layer of stress could be the first step in helping harried parents find relief.

“I think the research is important in that it gives a name to something that I think many working parents experience but couldn’t quite put a finger on,” says Walker, who's from Brigham, Utah. "I think identifying the issue as a social problem rather than an individual one, or even worse: an imaginary problem, could be helpful to working parents in and of itself.”

Walker’s premise for the study was the fact that for every role people play in their lives—be it parent, church member, or professor—there is an identity. And attached to that identity is a “cultural meaning” which is how society views that identity.

“We use cultural information to define those identities,” he says. “How people treat us and react to us is based on that cultural information.”

For his study, Walker merged data on the cultural sentiments attached to parental and occupational identities with a traditional large-scale survey on work-family conflict and came up with a three-dimensional graph on which various occupations were plotted.

What Walker discovered is others often encounter parents whose occupations don’t align with being a mother or father with doubt.

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

Among occupations that create more psychological baggage are salesperson, laborer, receptionist, police officer, or politician. Those that align better, in terms of societal perception, to parenting include teacher, physician, registered nurse, principal, and professor.

Mary Noonan, an UI associate professor of sociology and co-author of the study, says the findings warrant a closer look by sociologists.

“I used to think the whole conflict was about time and energy and not so much this internal conflict about identity,” she says. “These are pretty exciting results.”

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