You’ve excelled at everything in your life thus far. You’re a budding expert in your field. You dazzle your peers and faculty with your mad research skills. You’re a superstar in your field. So why would becoming a new parent be any different? According to recent research, feeling pressure to be a “super-parent” can exacerbate mental health conditions in new parents.
This research comes from a new study on perinatal mental health disorders. Carrie Wendel-Hummell presented her study’s findings at the meeting of the American Sociological Association in August 2014. Wendel-Hummell, a PhD candidate at the University of Kansas, conducted interviews with new fathers and mothers who had experienced at least one prolonged symptom of a perinatal mental health condition. Perinatal refers to the time period during the several weeks before, during, and after having a baby. She discovered that low-income parents reported several stressors associated with access to childcare, transportation, and housing. Not only were they suffering in poverty but also attempting to care for a newborn. Among middle-income parents, both mothers and fathers expressed stress over the expectation of being perfect parents. If parents did not achieve perfection, they felt like failures. According to Wendel-Hummell, mothers who felt like failures internalized their guilt. Also, this research demonstrated that fathers tended to feel left out of the loop. When everyone is asking about how mom and baby are doing, people are forgetting that new fathers need support, as well.
What does this research mean for graduate students? Graduate students’ low-income combined with their high need for achievement can set the stage for them to feel like failures when they become parents. Graduate students typically have achieved a great deal of academic success. They are up-and-coming in their fields and constantly feel pressure to outdo themselves. However, parenting can be very unpredictable—feeding and sleeping schedules, temperament, and developmental milestones can vary from baby to baby. Because of this, grad students may feel like they are doing something wrong when something doesn’t go as planned.
You mean you read What to Expect When Expecting cover to cover, and you still can’t get your baby to stop crying? It’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up. Talk to other parents who have been in your shoes. Seek out help when you need it, and don’t try to go it alone. It’s not worth it to yourself or your child to be the silent sufferer. Just because your life isn’t 100% perfect doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. You’ll have days when your baby coos and smiles on cue and your advisor approves your manuscript with no changes. Then you’ll have days when you feel like a rock star because you took a shower. It’s all part of the process, so enjoy the ride!