The COVID-19 pandemic and associated public health measures have added a whole new set of challenges for parents. Their social support systems diminished, economic security threatened and access to essential services limited.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a substantial impact on parents, with documented increases in mental health difficulties, alcohol consumption and suicidal thoughts.
Yet we know little about the specific effects of COVID-19 on parents with a newborn and we know even less about its effects on their relationship and parenting experience.
Our research explored this very question and shows that the pandemic may not only have negative consequences for parents with a newborn.
Survey of parents with a newborn
Since September 2018, we have been collecting a representative sample of Québec parents (1,900 parents of newborns between the ages of 0-6 months) for the Project Couples Parentaux: Project on Parental Couples. This project investigates the role of interpersonal trauma and couple relationships on parents’ experiences over time.
As a part of this larger-scale study, we were interested in understanding the associated effects of the pandemic on mothers and fathers with a newborn.
We examined parental outcomes (parental alliance, self-efficacy and stress), relational outcomes (romantic attachment and relationship satisfaction) as well as life satisfaction.
We were interested in comparing how parents recruited for our study during the first lockdown (spring 2020), when more severe measures of social distancing were in place, differed from those pre-COVID (spring 2019).
An improvement in parental and relational outcomes
Surprisingly, parents in our sample were doing significantly better on most parental and relational outcomes in spring 2020 than in spring 2019.
Fathers reported less avoidant attachment and parental stress while mothers displayed better life satisfaction. Both fathers and mothers also reported better relationship satisfaction and stronger parental alliance.
Parental and relational outcomes spring 2019 vs. spring 2020
Mothers’ perception in their ability to be effective and reliable caregiver is the only thing that seemed to decline during lockdown. This could be explained by the fact that 45 per cent of mothers in our sample had other children at home and may have had to act as educational figures as well. The added burden of managing at-home learning may have left these mothers feeling less effective.
It is also possible that for new mothers, being isolated and having less instrumental support from others (like advice from family and friends) brought on insecurity with regards to caring for their newborn.
Overall, the stay-at-home order appears to have been mostly beneficial for parents, who reported improvement in their co-parenting experience despite the many challenges they faced. These positive effects however were only noted during the lockdown period.
It is possible that the lockdown offered parents an opportunity to spend more time together and to adjust to the arrival of their newborn. Indeed, many parents no longer had to commute to and from work as well as to and from school and/or daycare.
More than 90 per cent of parents reported spending more positive and quality moments with their partner and child since the beginning of the pandemic and 85 per cent reported feeling more invested in their parental role.
Appreciation of family relationships during COVID-19
It is also possible that parents were able to sleep more during lockdown. For example, with parents working from home and older children going to school online, the whole family was likely able to sleep later than usual in the morning. This can make a tremendous difference for sleep-deprived parents of a new baby.
How to better support parents after COVID-19?
Finding time for both work and family care is a significant challenge in most contemporary households. Québec’s policies on parental leave are often presented as a model for the rest of Canada, with a non-transferable five-week paternity leave for fathers. However, recent studies have shown that fathers still experience resistance at work and that most do not take continuous weeks off.
Our results are in line with others who have shown how the strengthening of connections within the nuclear family is a key benefit of the pandemic.
Having the emotional and instrumental support of both partners during the first months of welcoming a baby may narrow the gendered childcare gap and act as a buffer for some of the negative aspects related to parenthood.
As we hopefully near the end of the pandemic, parents will soon breathe a sigh of relief. They will be able to reengage in self-care activities, reconnect with loved ones and slowly adjust to somewhat of a “new normal.”
While most of us want to forget about this period, it provided an opportunity to collectively learn and grow.
Our observations highlight the undeniable benefits of both parents having the flexibility to adjust their work patterns to meet the needs of their growing family (working from home, reducing their commuting time and scheduling flexibility).
Organizations and policymakers should be sensitive to the fact that for most parents — pandemic or no pandemic — life is challenging and hectic. Offering enhanced flexibility to parents and simply giving them the time to be together as co-parents will not only reap benefits for individuals and their families, but for our society as a whole.