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Tiredness is an occupational hazard of being a parent. The Parenting Research Centre in Australia recently published research about parental fatigue, suggesting some mothers are so tired they may be mistaking fatigue for depression. Workingmums interviewed research fellow Rebecca Giallo about the research.
The Parenting Research Centre says fatigue is having a damaging effect on parents’ health and wellbeing and their ability to care for their children. Their research of 1,400 parents shows more than 70% of parents with children under seven said being tired stopped them parenting as they wanted to. It also shows links between high levels of fatigue and anger, frustration and low parental involvement in play and learning activities. Workingmums.co.uk asked Rebecca Giallo, a research fellow at the Centre, about the research.
Workingmums: What led to your interest in parental fatigue?
Rebecca Giallo: Research at the Parenting Research Centre is focused on understanding the extent to which parents experience fatigue, what is associated with their fatigue, and how it affects their wellbeing, relationships, daily functioning, and parenting experiences. This is an important area of research as fatigue is a commonly reported health concern for women, with approximately 60% of mothers reporting fatigue in the postpartum.
Although it is a common health concern, the effects of fatigue on parents’ wellbeing, relationships and parenting are not well understood. This work is important because we know from research in road safety, aviation and military, that fatigue can have a significant impact on important functions such as concentration, attention, memory, and decision-making. There is also some research suggesting that fatigue may be a risk factor for depression. We need to better understand our fatigue may impact on depression and other wellbeing difficulties, particularly in the early postnatal period.
WM: What kind of ways do you see forward for helping parents manage their fatigue?
RG: Our survey research with over 1,400 parents indicates that there is a relationship between high fatigue and inadequate social support, poorer diet, and poorer sleep quality. These are potential areas for parents to focus on when thinking about how to prevent or manage fatigue.
We are also currently undertaking a rigorous trial of a new approach to managing fatigue in the early parenting period. The ‘Wide Awake Parenting – How to manage exhaustion and fatigue’ provides important information to parents about what fatigue is, and how it can affect their wellbeing, daily functioning, relationships and parenting.
It also encourages parents to think more strategically about their wellbeing, opportunities to ‘charge up’, and how they can use their precious energy more effectively. The most important part of preventing and managing fatigue is having a plan about ‘charging up’ and ‘using energy more efficiently’ rather than leaving it to chance.
Every family is different, and how they do this will depend upon their own circumstances and what resources and support are available to them. A few tips for parents, however, may include: setting realistic expectations of themselves and about what they can achieve, breaking things down and prioritizing what is important and what needs to be done, letting go of the things that are not as important, planning for some time out and self-care, and taking the time to be restful.
WM: I understand you also do research on fathers. Have you looked at the impact of fatigue on parents’ relationships and consequently on their children?
RG: Research with fathers to understand their wellbeing and parenting experiences has been slow to emerge in general. There is increased recognition that fathers also experience wellbeing difficulties in the postnatal period with approximately 10% of fathers reporting depressive symptoms. Our research has shown that fathers’ also experience moderate levels of fatigue, and this is related to their wellbeing, stressful parenting experiences, and irritability.
WM: Is more involvement in childcare by dads likely to improve things? Do you distinguish between mothers’ and fathers’ fatigue?
RG: There are many ways that families can work together to prevent and reduce fatigue. Sharing childcare and household workload is just one way. Both mothers and fathers experience fatigue, and how individuals prevent and manage fatigue is likely to be different for everyone.
We have conducted focus groups with a small number of mothers and fathers about their experiences of fatigue. Further work in this area is needed. However, our early findings indicate that mothers and fathers may manage fatigue differently. For example, fathers reported that they engaged in exercise and saw work as an opportunity for respite. The fathers in the study said that they tried to establish a routine or roster with their partner, and found that changing their expectations of themselves and their children helped. Mothers in the study tended to take a break or have ‘time out’, enlisted the support of those around them to nap, or enjoy social activities. Going to bed early was considered important as was taking turns with their partners to care for the children.
WM: Do you take into account if mothers are working or not and whether that is full-time or part-time work?
RG: Preliminary findings from our survey indicates that working mothers report lower levels of fatigue than mothers undertaking unpaid work at home. This may be because the tasks of raising children can be demanding and exhausting, particularly when caring for small babies, or caring for a child who has sleeping difficulties. Paid work outside the home may provide mothers with an opportunity to nurture themselves and engage in activities in roles outside of being a parent. The opportunities for charging up and taking breaks during the day may also be more possible in a paid work setting.
In our future work, we will also be interested in finding out more about how returning to work in the postpartum period is related to fatigue, and the extent to which access to parental leave and other favourable work conditions such as flexible work hours is associated with fatigue and other wellbeing difficulties.