Fathers often feel that intimidated by motherhood, or think that “maternal instinct” means caring for a child is easier and more natural for a woman. And while mothers around the world will tell you that they cherish the special bond with their child, women are also becoming more comfortable telling the truth about being a mom: it’s not always natural, and it’s never easy. This is the “motherhood paradox” and it takes a heavy mental toll.
This paradox manifests in many ways. It’s common and totally normal for new moms to feel anxious and unhappy while caring for a new child, and the first weeks and months of are exhausting. These physical and emotional pressures can cause a range of mental health challenges, from the “baby blues” through to postnatal depression or worse.
Making matters worse, women also often bear the mental load of ‘lead parent’. How does this happen? It starts while mom is on maternity leave, when she typically establishes care routines, divides up new household responsibilities, and first learns the likes and dislikes of the new baby. Suddenly, mom has baby superpowers that dad finds intimidating. Feeling a bit out of place at home, he figures he can do his part by working hard. Quietly, a cycle is born where ‘mom knows best’ on childcare and household work, and the man’s notion of fatherhood is tied to his status as the family breadwinner. Over time, these mindsets harden. Is it any surprise, then, why many mothers today still find themselves working Arlie Hochschild’s “second shift”?
The good news? There’s a growing scientific and cultural understanding that men taking parental leave can lead to better mental health outcomes for mothers.
We already know that parental leave creates more gender-equal households and fathers who more confidently care for their child. While that is great in its own right, there is also growing evidence showing that fathers who participate more in childcare have partners who are less likely to be stressed and depressed after birth.
This link is also something more and more people instinctively understand. In 2018, Promundo and Dove Men+Care surveyed over 1,700 men and women and found that the vast majority of people believed that longer parental leave for fathers would improve mental health for mothers. It just makes sense. If dad can be home and own some (or equal) parenting responsibilities, mom’s mental load will be lighter.
The bottom line: Women who want better mental health outcomes for mothers should champion parental leave for fathers.