How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect the mental health of women and men in different family configurations in Germany? To answer this question, Nicole Hiekel and Mine Kühn, both researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock, Germany, used survey data from pairfam – the German Family Panel – to examine three mental health conditions: stress, exhaustion, and loneliness. They compared the values one year before the pandemic with those in spring 2020. Their study has now been published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Just as stressed as single parents during the pandemic: two-parent families
The results of the study show that the situation of partnered parents has worsened. Their level of stress and exhaustion in spring 2020 during the first COVID-19 wave in Germany was at a similarly high level as that of single parents. Accordingly, the pandemic has increased mental health disparities between parents and nonparents.
Additionally, gender differences emerge, with mothers reporting significantly higher levels of stress, exhaustion and loneliness in the survey than fathers living in the same type of family. “Before the pandemic, we didn't see differences in mental health between mothers and fathers living in partnerships. Now, gender inequalities are emerging that put partnered mothers of children aged six and under at a particular disadvantage,” says Nicole Hiekel.
Pandemic highlights another dimension to social inequality: mental health
“Because our study is based on data collected during the first lockdown in spring 2020, we expect the current impact of the pandemic on mental health to be even greater than our results indicate,” says Mine Kühn.
As for why mothers of young children in particular have been severely impacted, Nicole Hiekel says, “We suspect that families' care and support networks have been greatly weakened by closed schools and daycare centers, as well as by social contact restrictions.” Mine Kühn stresses that these shortfalls were compensated for within families primarily by mothers.
Sharing care work equally protects mothers' mental health
Additional data analysis by the two authors shows that, in particular, partnered mothers of children aged six and under who shifted their employment home during the initial pandemic period report significantly higher stress and strain symptoms. This is true when compared to all partnered fathers, as well as when compared to mothers of older children and to mothers who did not work in a home office.
Preliminary results from a follow-up study by the two researchers show that partnered mothers who continued to share caregiving duties equally with their partner in the spring of 2020 showed no changes in their mental health compared to before the pandemic. In contrast, mothers who took on the majority of childcare before the pandemic and continued to shoulder the bulk of caregiving during the initial lockdown reported a significant increase in feelings of stress.
The authors urge policymakers to pay particular attention to the well-being of mothers in future pandemic response efforts, and to strive to avoid further exacerbating existing gender inequalities.
This Policy Insight was originally published by MPIDR here.