Why are stay-at-home parents so stressed out?

A recent study proves that, biologically speaking, stay-at-home parents are more stressed out than those who work outside the home.

Jennifer admits that much of her stress as a stay-at-home mom comes from an untidy house. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski
Jennifer admits that much of her stress as a stay-at-home mom comes from an untidy house. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

There was a time, not too long ago, when my house was tidy, I took vacations, exercised daily and read novels. I wore pants that zipped up comfortably and fashionable shoes that were uncomfortable. I never yelled at my kids, checked my shirts for unidentifiable stains or checked my purse for weird smells. There was a time when my biggest stresses involved deciding where to go for lunch or whether I had lipstick on my teeth.

That was four-and-a-half years ago, when I still worked full-time—before I gave it all up to become a stay-at-home mom.

Of course, it’s easy to look back on my working days with fondness, thinking I was happier. But a study conducted in 2012 by University of Akron researchers Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske discovered that full-time working mothers reported better physical and mental health than part-time working mothers, confirming that my lower stress levels while in the workforce weren’t imaginary.

Read more: Why we need to quit calling motherhood a job>

To reach this conclusion, Damaske measured the levels of the stress hormone in study participants, taking saliva samples throughout the day from 122 employed men and women. When participants were at home, their cortisol levels spiked, biologically proving that being at home with children was more stressful than working in an office environment.

“You still know that you can quit [your job], you can look for something else, that you can leave. Those aren’t exactly strategies that you have for home, right?” Damaske told NPR.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to share my experiences as both a working mom and stay-at-home parent on HuffPost Live. Along with the other panelists (including the study’s co-author Dr. Frech, host Nancy Redd and Huffington Post Editorial Director Christina Anderson), we talked about the complicated reasons behind why we feel so much stress when we are at home with our children. Anderson hit the nail on the head when she pointed out that much of a mom’s stress comes from her reluctance to delegate household tasks to her partner—of which I’m notoriously guilty. Missing out on outside reassurances that you’re doing a good job and, of course, the overwhelming question of “Am I raising a good kid?” are other factors Anderson touched on.

Read more: If being a SAHM is so great, why am I unhappy?>

For many stay-at-home parents, the results that came out of this study is not news—the constant demands of young children are enough to test the patience of even the most zen moms and dads. I asked some of my friends on Facebook to share their experiences:

“I find the lack of privacy and personal space can get overwhelming. Always being needed is another reason you never fully relax, because you never know when you are going to need to jump up again. The pressure we put on ourselves to create a perfect lifestyle. Clean home, happy husband, intelligent, kind, stable, creative, polite children. It is stressful when you see the perfect plan you have created —Pamela Bragg-Larocque via Facebook

“I don’t feel I get downtime. My job scenery never changes in that I’m always ‘on’ and serving. Drinks, rides, lunches, library excursions, bath time and stories. Never mind laundry, dinner and cleaning! It’s a great job, I adore my kids and feel lucky I’m able to be home, but I’m tired and stressed a lot, too.” —Kelly Ennis Friis via Facebook

“I think the thing about being a WAHM is the isolation. I could go days without talking to people at times and, while I am a classic introvert, that was a bit much even for me. Of course, there are ways to deal with that problem. I could go out. I could sign up for things. But I didn’t and, as a result, sometimes I think I treat Nikki too much like my friend and not enough like my daughter.” —Chantal Saville via Facebook

“Somehow, kvetching about your boss feels like a more general experience and not such a personal divulgence,” Damaske responds when asked why we hear more people complaining about work than being at home.

My hope is that more conversations about stress and mental health (which includes “kvetching” about our kids) reduces the isolation that many of us at-home parents feel.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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