When you hear the terms caregiver and caregiver stress, who comes to mind? An adult child of an aging or ill parent? The parent of a special needs or terminally ill child? What about a stay-at-home mom?
Parents caring for small children are often not included in definitions or discussions about informal caregivers. Yet they are performing the same caregiving functions, such as bathing, feeding, dressing, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and administering medicine. And they, too, are at risk for stress and burnout. As a matter of fact, some studies have shown that stay-at-home parents are actually less happy and healthy than their counterparts working outside of the home. In a 2013 New York Times op-ed piece, Stephanie Coontz described how “at all income levels, stay-at-home mothers report more sadness, anger, and episodes of diagnosed depression than their employed counterparts.” A 2014 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine showed women are significantly less stressed out at work than they are at home.
I think what may account for this discrepancy is a perceived (and in many cases real) difference in the level of support and resources available to stay at home parents of healthy children, versus those with more demanding care needs. Playgroups, parenting workshops, mother’s/father’s groups, co-op schools and other supportive resources are available to parents in most communities across the country. Drawing upon such support systems and extended family is critical for most stay-at-home parents to do their jobs. And there seems to be an unspoken cultural understanding that although parenting is the hardest job out there, we will all slog through the sleepless nights and tantrums to somehow get through them with enough adorable, rewarding moments to balance out the hard stuff and make us come out ahead.
It is indisputable that the demands of a child with cancer, a parent with dementia, or a hospitalized spouse differ from the daily demands of caring for typically developing young children in a multitude of ways. I do not want to diminish the strains these caregivers experience. Yet elements of caregiving are the same regardless of whom is being cared for. Exhaustion, sleep disturbances, isolation, and lack of time for personal care are shared among caregivers of all types. These demands exact a physical and mental toll on any caregiver, and a stay-at-home parent caring for one or more children full time with limited resources, no family support, and no opportunity for self care is certainly at high risk. Many parents of young children also end up caring for aging family members at the same time, doubling the demands placed on them and their potential for caregiver stress.
Staying at home to care for children can be a very fulfilling role that brings happiness to countless parents. But it can also be an incredibly difficult, isolating, and draining experience. Recognizing this and offering some of the same advice and resources we do for “traditional” family caregivers may give more stay-at-home parents the support they need to provide the best possible care for their children, without sacrificing their own physical or mental health. Once caregiver stress and burnout sets in, the ability to properly care for a loved one is put in jeopardy. Stay-at-home parents need breaks, resources, and support like any caregiver.