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The parenthood penalty in mental health

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Parenthood, a journey often painted with strokes of joy and fulfillment, casts a shadow of mental health challenges. Our study, weaving together quasi-experimental research designs and administrative data from Austria and Denmark, reveals that parenthood is linked to an increased likelihood of being prescribed antidepressants, with mothers shouldering a heavier load of the mental health toll.

In Austria, nine years post the birth of their first child, mothers experience a 5-percentage point spike in the probability of being prescribed antidepressants attributable to parenthood. Fathers, in contrast, see a mere 2.1-percentage point increase. Denmark mirrors this trend, albeit less starkly, with women and men experiencing a 2.7- and 0.8-percentage point increase respectively.

It is unlikely that this gender disparity is a byproduct of varied help-seeking behaviors or postpartum depression. The mental health impacts of parenthood echo across diverse populations, unswayed by the health of the child or cultural backgrounds. Yet, they resonate more profoundly among younger mothers and families with lower educational attainment.

In the pursuit of promoting work-life balance for young parents, parental leave policies have frequently been extolled as a comprehensive remedy. However, our study reveals that mothers who were beneficiaries of extended leave durations encountered intensified mental health challenges. This observation is contrasted by the unaffected mental well-being of fathers, highlighting a distinct gender-specific response to extended parental leave. This dichotomy underscores the intricate gender dynamics embedded within the experience of parenthood and raises pivotal questions regarding the efficacy and design of parental leave policies.

The conclusions drawn from our study suggest a potential need to revisit and reassess the structure and implications of parental leave schemes. It hints at the benefit of a more detailed scrutiny that takes into account the complex and gender-distinct effects of these policies on the mental well-being of parents. The evidence presented could be seen as an indication of the importance of adopting a comprehensive and evidence-based stance in crafting policies, with a focus on being responsive to the varied experiences and requirements of both mothers and fathers.


© Alexander Ahammer, Ulrich Glogowsky, Martin Haller, Timo Hener 

Alexander Ahammer is Assistant Professor at Johannes Kepler University Linz and IZA Research Affiliate

Ulrich Glogowsky is Professor at Johannes Kepler University Linz 

Martin Halla is Professor at Vienna University of Economics and Business and IZA Research Fellow

Timo Hener is Associate Professor at Aarhus University


Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.


Related IZA World of Labor content:

Parental leave and maternal labor supply by Astrid Kunze

Maternity leave versus early childcare—What are the long-term consequences for children? by Nabanita Datta Gupta and Jonas Jessen 

Do joint custody laws improve family well-being? by Martin Halla


Foto by Kinga Lopatin on Unsplash