Sep 25
· Written By
Michelle Stephens, PhD

State of Parental Stress & Mental Health: 2023 Report by Oath Care

The modern family unit seems to be caught in a society that hasn't adapted to its evolving needs, resulting in unprecedented levels of chronic stress and parental burnout in 2023.

In a nation grappling with escalating childcare expenses and inadequate parental leave policies, coupled with a diminishing sense of community support, American parents find themselves more isolated and burdened than ever in their parenting journey. The modern family unit seems to be caught in a society that hasn't quite adapted to its evolving needs, resulting in unprecedented levels of chronic stress and parental burnout in 2023.

To better understand the escalating crisis pertaining to parental stress and mental health, a comprehensive study was conducted amalgamating existing literature with novel insights garnered from Oath Care's 2023 State of Parental Stress & Mental Health Survey, involving a diverse group of 644 parents across various genders, ages, and economic backgrounds. The participant demographic was notably encompassed by 74% mothers and a significant contingent of 26% fathers, thus facilitating a detailed examination of the distinctive nuances embedded in both maternal and paternal caregiving experiences. This investigation, pivotal in the current discourse, also delved deeply into generational contrasts, with millennials constituting a majority of the responses: 52% represented by "Young Millennials" (born 1988-1995) and 33% by "Elder Millennials" (born 1980-1987). Furthermore, despite the oldest members of Gen Z only recently embarking on their parenting journeys at 26 years, we successfully incorporated perspectives from nearly 100 individuals in this demographic, contributing to 15% of the total responses. A balanced economic representation was maintained throughout the study, with 45% of respondents reporting household incomes below $84,999, a segment of 10% in the $85,000-$99,999 bracket, and a final 42% indicating a household income exceeding $100,000, thereby providing a rich, multilayered understanding of parental stress and mental health dynamics across various income spectrums.

This comprehensive report delves deep into the nuances of parental burnout, exploring variations in the mental well-being of American mothers and fathers, analyzing which generation of parents feels the most isolated, and offering insights into the rising use of antidepressants among parents. Furthermore, it examines societal expectations and other potent factors that are fueling this surge in parental stress.

US parents are burnt out, especially the moms without breaks

It's a universally acknowledged truth that parenting is a full-time job that never stops. However, in the current climate where community support networks are dwindling and dual-income households are becoming the norm, parents find themselves more overwhelmed and drained than ever before.

This sentiment isn't just anecdotal. Recent research from the OSU College of Nursing indicates that a staggering 66% of parents confess to experiencing a state of burnout. While this pervasive exhaustion seems to permeate households indiscriminately, a deeper dive reveals a substantial gender disparity. Based on Oath's comprehensive studies, it becomes starkly apparent that mothers are shouldering a disproportionate share of this burden. The data illustrates that mothers are nearly three times more likely than fathers to report that they rarely or never  find the time to engage in activities detached from their parental or professional responsibilities. 

The perpetual cycle of exhaustion and lack of time for personal rejuvenation are glaring indicators of looming parental burnout. Shelley Kemmerer, a renowned parental burnout strategist, elaborates, “parental burnout can show up as having a short fuse. Feeling like you are just going through the motions and by the end of the day you have no energy to do anything for yourself.”

It hardly comes as a surprise that mothers find little to no time for self-care, as the bulk of childcare responsibilities continues to predominantly fall on their shoulders. An alarming statistic revealed by Oath’s survey shows that 59% of mothers feel like they are managing all childcare responsibilities single-handedly during the weekdays, a strong contrast to the 26% of fathers who report the same. Unfortunately, the disparity extends to weekends as well, with 28% of mothers taking on the lion's share of caregiving duties alone, compared to a mere 14% of fathers sharing in that experience.

The assumption that the situation balances out among working mothers is sadly mistaken. The data paints a stark picture: 28% of working mothers reported to Oath that they solely bear the brunt of family responsibilities during weekends, and a significant 41.3% continue to carry the majority of the childcare load throughout the week.

Recognizing the scant moments of solitude that parents are afforded, coupled with an absence of collective support, it becomes glaringly apparent why American parents are 13% less happy than their childless peers. Notably, this happiness deficit surpasses that of any other developed nation, illustrating a profound societal concern that requires urgent attention (Source: American Journal of Sociology).

New moms are battling a silent mental health epidemic

In an era where social media predominantly showcases the positive, magical moments of parenthood, the harsh realities that many first-time parents, particularly new mothers, encounter can be jarringly unexpected. As the virtual galleries flourish with gender reveals, monthly bump snapshots, and adorable coordinated outfits, an increasing number of new mothers find themselves in a silent struggle with their mental health.

The data presents a sobering picture - the National Library of Medicine indicates that 1 in 7 women in the US battle postpartum depression each year. Even more chilling, a recent report from the Royal College of Midwives in August 2023 reveals a harrowing trend: suicide is the leading cause of death among new mothers within the first year postpartum, underscoring an urgent need to address maternal mental health issues.

As alarming as these statistics appear, the actual scenario might be even more grim. It is estimated that nearly half of all women grappling with mental health issues go undiagnosed by healthcare professionals, a situation markedly pronounced in the Black community. Despite similar levels of education and income, Black mothers are twice as likely to encounter maternal mental health issues compared to white mothers, yet only half as likely to receive appropriate treatment, a critical disparity highlighted by the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance.

While it seems that new mothers are at the epicenter of this mental health crisis, data from Oath Care's survey indicates that new fathers are not far removed from similar concerns. While a higher percentage of mothers identified mental health as one of their top three challenges, the gap is narrower than anticipated, with a significant 19% of fathers (compared to 30% of mothers) also acknowledging mental health as a pressing concern in their parenting journey.

In the same survey exploring the utilization of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) among parents, Oath discovered that 30% of parents started taking SSRIs either while pregnant or post-childbirth while 11% said that they haven’t tried medication but are interested in it.  (Note: This data excludes individuals who were already on SSRIs before becoming parents).

The reason behind this uptick seems to stem from the tumultuous emotional journey that parenthood often embodies, a journey that seems to take many by surprise with its intensity, particularly new mothers. Oath's findings reveal that mothers are nearly twice as likely as fathers to confess feeling overwhelmed or anxious about the hurdles of parenting. Moreover, a greater proportion of mothers reported experiencing a sense of numbness or emotional detachment, which is a red flag for parental burnout. This explains why a substantial number, especially among new mothers, may look to SSRIs to provide a deeply necessary lifeline. 

Further, the study highlighted a noteworthy pattern: despite experiencing heightened challenges, mothers are also more proactive in seeking support compared to fathers. They are three times more inclined to participate in online forums for parenting advice (25% vs. 8%), and a remarkable 45% have consulted a mental health professional at least once in the past year, as opposed to 25% of fathers who sought similar help.

Parents today feel lonely, isolated and judged by their own village.

With warring parenting ideologies, parenting often comes with heightened scrutiny and criticism, leaving many parents feeling persistently judged by others. Be it decisions surrounding screen time, feeding choices, disciplinary approaches, or sleep schedules, parents find themselves at the receiving end of unsolicited opinions, with Oath's research highlighting that a significant portion of parents feel scrutinized in these areas - 39% for screen time choices, 39% for feeding decisions, 35% for discipline methods, and 31% feeling shamed for their infant's sleep schedule.

A deeper analysis by Oath uncovers a disheartening source of this judgment - their own families. Over 55% of parents pinpointed extended family members as the principal critics of their parenting approaches, contradicting the traditional notion of family being a stronghold of support and encouragement. The cycle of judgment, unfortunately, extends beyond family circles, with nearly 25% experiencing critique from their romantic partners and 21% feeling judged by their circle of friends.

Yet, judgment isn't the only emotional battle parents are facing; an increasing number are grappling with loneliness and a sense of isolation. Over a third of respondents disclosed that their interactions with other families were sparse, happening less than once a month. Furthermore, studies from reputable institutions like the Harvard Graduate School of Education have underscored the severity of this issue, indicating that a substantial 51% of new mothers with young children are navigating through "serious loneliness."

Leslie Shrock, the noted author of parenting guides like 'Bumpin': The Modern Guide to Pregnancy' and 'Fertility Rules,' articulates this prevailing sentiment, "I don’t believe that parents were ever supposed to do it all on their own. We now live in this very isolated state where, especially as moms, we’re just kind of expected to be able to do it all and do it all well. And get up every day. And rinse and repeat. It’s not only not okay, it’s not fair. None of this is fair. This is not how we were meant to raise kids.” 

Parenthood was not meant to be done alone and parents today desperately need more ways to connect, find meaningful support and share their feelings. Despite a glaring need for open dialogues and shared experiences, Oath's data reveals that a significant 24.5% of parents have not discussed their parenting emotions with anyone in the past two weeks. Alarmingly, over 10% confessed to having no one

The data echoes a collective cry for enhanced connectivity and support among parents, with 55% expressing a desire for more frequent gatherings with other families. It underscores a pressing need for societal initiatives that foster connections and provide substantial support networks.

Parents - especially moms - aren't getting enough sleep.

Welcoming a new baby often marks the end of uninterrupted sleep. But the exact extent of this sleep deprivation? According to data gathered by Oath, one third of new moms endure disrupted sleep every single night, a pattern that doesn't necessarily improve as the child grows; a striking 20% of mothers with children over one year old still find themselves waking up seven nights a week.

This perpetual state of fatigue has become a staple in the lives of many parents, with a significant 57% naming exhaustion as the emotion they experienced most frequently, even slightly edging out feelings of love, which came in at 50.6%. While sleepless nights might be anticipated, the sheer depth of the sleep deficit and its associated ramifications often catch new parents off guard.

Dr. Harvey Karp, a renowned expert on parenting and pediatrics, urges parents to give themselves the grace to adapt to this new phase, “It's important for parents to cut themselves some slack and recognize that sleep deprivation and the new responsibilities that come with a new baby can lead to some unexpected experiences."

Among these unexpected experiences is a notable spike in negative emotions. The survey revealed that 43% of parents reported sleep deprivation being one of their top triggers for experiencing negative emotions. While the emphasis often lies on the necessity of vital quality sleep for maternal mental health, it is equally crucial to note that new fathers are not immune to the adverse effects of sleep deprivation. Dr. Harvey Karp emphasizes that "About a quarter of partners develop postpartum depression because they are experiencing sleep deprivation as well."

Thus, it stands imperative for society to recognize and address the pervasive issue of sleep deprivation in new parents, fostering an environment that supports both mothers and fathers as they navigate this significant, albeit exhausting, chapter of their lives.

Is parenting getting harder for each new generation?? 

The parenthood journey is constantly evolving with each generation facing unique challenges. Millennials, for instance, have marked a significant departure from the parenting styles of the boomer generation, notably in the amount of time spent with their children. According to a 2016 study by the University of California, Irvine, millennial parents allocate twice the amount of time to their children as parents did half a century ago. In a notable shift, today's fathers are investing almost four times as much time with their children as they did in 1965, increasing their daily involvement from 16 minutes to an average of 59 minutes.

Though the study didn't encompass boomer parents, the substantial increase in time millennials are dedicating to their children, often with significantly less external support, suggests that parenting might be a more demanding task for this generation.

As we shift our focus to the emerging cohort of Gen Z parents, it is evident that the digital realm significantly influences their parenting dynamics. Gen Z parents, having grown up alongside social media, spend considerably more time on these platforms compared to millennials. Our research highlighted that a staggering 85% of Gen Z parents use social media for over an hour daily, a figure that greatly eclipses the 18% reported by millennial parents.

However, this digital connectivity seems to come at the expense of real-world interactions. Almost half of Gen Z respondents (48%) revealed that they engage with other families less than once a month, a trend that is noticeably more prevalent than among millennials at 33%. Moreover, Gen Z parents find scant time for themselves, with 46% seldom indulging in activities unrelated to work or children, compared to 18% of millennial parents.

This generational shift appears to be exerting a considerable strain on the younger cohort of parents. The data indicates a rise in antidepressant usage among Gen Z parents since embracing parenthood, with 41% resorting to medication, compared to 28% of millennial parents. Although this trend might reflect a decreased stigma surrounding mental health, it also raises pressing questions about the potential repercussions of increased social isolation and frequent social media engagement on the mental well-being of Gen Z parents.

As we navigate these evolving dynamics, it becomes imperative to delve deeper into understanding the intricate factors influencing the mental health of this new generation of parents, aiming to foster a supportive environment that accommodates the unique challenges they face.

Community support proves critical to reducing stress and isolation in modern day parenting.

While still in its early stages, Oath's unique approach has already demonstrated its potential in reducing parental stress. Through Oath's platform, which serves as a leading research tool, we've gained unparalleled insights into the experiences of parents. Our data reveals that 70% of Oath members have seen positive shifts in their mental well-being since joining. Additionally, a staggering 87% felt significantly more supported with Oath compared to other online parenting groups, underlining Oath's effectiveness in fostering an understanding and non-judgmental environment. Moreover, Oath's 'virtual village' model has been a lifeline for many, with 93% of members feeling more connected and less isolated on their parenting journey after joining Oath Care.

Recent studies underscore the escalating complexities and challenges woven into the modern tapestry of parenthood, highlighting the necessity for innovative support systems that accommodate the varied strains faced by today's families. In response to this, experts advocate for the integration of platforms like Oath Care to foster digital community support while also nurturing real-life villages for meaningful connections. Moreover, it's vital to delve into and address familial mental health issues both before and during the child-rearing journey, since parenthood has a tendency to bring up past traumas. Society bears a responsibility to create nurturing environments where parents, particularly mothers who are navigating an unprecedented burden of expectations and responsibilities, can find solace, assistance and understanding. In this context, Oath Care stands as an invaluable companion, providing a sanctuary of judgment-free support and expert counsel. Here, parents can bond, share their struggles and victories, and impart personal insights, embarking on the intricate journey of modern parenting together - bolstered by a renewed sense of strength and connection.

About Oath Care

Oath Care is a judgment-free community platform bringing together AI-technology, medical experts and peers to create a modern support system that enhances the emotional well-being of young families. The Oath model decreases parental stress through an innovative combination of features enabling parents to connect with parents going through similar things, find shame-free emotional support, receive quick, personalized guidance from medical specialists, avoid conflicting advice and medical misinformation and track stress levels to monitor their unique triggers and stress patterns.

Michelle Stephens, PhD
Michelle Stephens, PhD

Michelle is the co-founder and Chief Nursing Officer of Oath Care and clinical researcher focused on understanding stress reactivity during early childhood through cardiac measurements of the autonomic nervous system.