Boffins say government lockdown placed a burden on women, 13% of parents depressed

The covid-19 lockdown placed considerable strain on families with loss of income, balancing work and childcare and social isolation just some of the challenges they faced.

Researchers at the University of Auckland have published the results of a study looking at the issues for families during lockdown including how they coped without wider social support. The study also looked at effects on gender equality within the home.

Study author Professor Nickola Overall says because no-one saw the pandemic coming, most research was initiated only once lockdown began, providing little opportunity to directly compare how families were functioning before and after.

But the team from the University’s School of Psychology had a unique opportunity to overcome this problem by extending an ongoing Marsden-funded longitudinal study where parents with four to five-year-old children had already completed detailed assessments of family dynamics.

During the Level 4 lockdown, 365 parents from 208 families completed these assessments again.

“It was just really lucky timing that we had completed the initial data collection and so once lockdown began, we invited these families to undertake repeated assessments so we could examine the stresses and strains of lockdown,” says Professor Nickola Overall.

The study found lockdown was challenging for many families, with nearly all parents describing difficulties with balancing work and childcare, challenges with home schooling, lack of space and personal time, being isolated, and dealing with conflict in the home.

…around 13% of parents showed clinically significant increases in depressive symptoms…

Despite most parents reporting increases in work, parenting and family stress, around 13% of parents showed clinically significant increases in depressive symptoms.

But, in the context of this resilience, parents that faced greater stress were more vulnerable to a range of family difficulties, including greater conflict and dissatisfaction in couples’ relationships and less responsive and more harsh parenting toward their children.

The study also identified protective factors. Couples who were more secure at the beginning of lockdown managed to sustain satisfying and cohesive family relationships, and parents who were able to work together as a parenting team were less vulnerable to the effects of stress spilling over to poorer parenting.

The study also found that lockdown exacerbated gender inequities, with around 50% of women doing more parenting and housework than men irrespective of employment status.

“Despite lockdown offering an opportunity for couples to share the domestic load more equally, this didn’t happen in practice,” says Professor Nickola Overall.

“Even where couples agreed that the balance of domestic labour was unfair on women, it didn’t protect women from their greater domestic burden leading to relationship problems and dissatisfaction.”

Other members of the research team included Dr Rachel Low, Dr Valerie Chang, Caitlin McRae and Nina Waddell.