THE BLOG

Stressed Parents: Why Are Women More Anxious Than Men?

01/07/2014 15:53 | Updated 31 August 2014

'Dear Sebastian,' the letter began. 'Thank you very much for my Birthday Present. I love 'Angelina Ballerina' books. Love Yore God Daughter Eleanor'.

As any mother reading this would expect, the likelihood of my husband sending the present himself, or knowing that his goddaughter liked Angelina Ballerina, is that of me going ten rounds at the pub. (That last bit wasn't intended to be a gender stereotype. I am teetotal.)

For the truth is, while women have made huge strides in the workplace, many men have not found the same inspiration at home. Domestic responsibilities, by which I don't just mean childcare but the million tiny acts of kindness, arduousness and remembering that make up life at home, are largely still done by mothers. Rather than scrupulously dividing these little labours, many women just get on with it.

For some, the pressure of trying to achieve perfection both at home and work is proving too much. In the early days of my career and motherhood I wanted to make good on the bounties of feminism while also taking traditional roles into the modern age. I wanted to be independent and successful and to work long hours, but I also wanted to have the same bond our ancestors might have had with their children, forged by constant closeness, uninhibited by twelve-hour-a-day jobs. Fair play to those who have managed to excel in all their roles. I found it health-threatening.

Over the past seventeen years I suffered two breakdowns and have had a long-running battle with depression. This was the subject of my memoir, Black Rainbow. With its publication, I lost the option of concealing my mental health track-record from other mothers at the school gates (should I wish to keep it secret from them in the first place). But in most cases the responses have been encouraging. They have also been alarming: many have confided that they too suffer from high levels of anxiety and depression.

The World Health Organisation assures us that "Overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women." But there's no denying more woman come forward to talk about their depression.

Figures put together by the mental health charity SANE show that in 2013 almost 475,000 women were referred for counselling or behavioural therapy compared to only 274,000 men. Earlier surveys according to the Mental Health Foundation suggest that anxiety is almost twice as common among women as men. You could well say this reflects men's traditional reticence to admit to their problems, or that men manifest stress differently from women. You could equally come to the conclusion that women struggle more than men.

What then is the answer? I have been forced by mental ill-health to impose limits on the way I live. I've replaced life in an office with freelance writing and voluntary work in prisons and hospitals supporting those with poor mental health: I am entirely the beneficiary, given the well known benefits of trying to help others.

I have also been forced to reassess my relations with others: we know women are especially vulnerable to depression given the pressure they put on themselves to maintain friendships and other relationships. My new attitude to all important relationships, including that with my husband and friends, but especially with my children, is to aim to replace 'good' with 'good enough'. In 1965, when women had yet to become a sizeable presence in the workforce, mothers spent 3.7 fewer hours per week on childcare than in 2008, even though women in 2008 were working almost three times as many paid hours, according to American research. (1)

These women were like I used to be, ferrying children to ballet classes, watching every match, supervising homework and responding to every need of the priceless modern child. I've learnt that not only can I not manage; my hothousing parenting and ensuing stress may not have pleased my children, either. A 1998 survey of American children conducted by the Families and Work Institute found that 10 per cent of the surveyed children wanted more time with their mothers, 15.5 per cent wanted more time with their fathers, but 34 per cent said they wished their mothers were less stressed. (2) I've certainly been trying to put less pressure on myself of late. It won't magically stop me getting in a flurry about birthday presents. But maybe, from now on, I'll get my husband to have more of a hand in picking them.

References:

1) All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior, Virago (2014)

2) Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents by Ellen Galinsky, William Morrow (1999)

Rachel Kelly's memoir Black Rainbow: How words healed me - my journey through depression is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Its accompanying app, also called Black Rainbow, is available for download on the Apple App Store for £1.49. All author proceeds of the book and app are being given to the charities SANE and United Response. Follow Rachel @rache_Kelly or go to www.black-rainbow.co.uk