Can grandparental support improve the mental health of single mothers?

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In a recent study in Population Studies, researchers explored the role of grandparental support in protecting mothers from depression.

Their results indicate that grandparental support may matter more for single mothers, while the role of grandmothers is more significant than that of grandfathers.

Study: Grandparental support and maternal depression: Do grandparents’ characteristics matter more for separating mothers? Image Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.comStudy: Grandparental support and maternal depression: Do grandparents’ characteristics matter more for separating mothers? Image Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

Background

Mothers often bear a larger share of childcare responsibilities compared to fathers, especially among single parents due to various circumstances such as widowhood or separation. In many cases of parental separation, children tend to primarily reside with their mothers, even when custody is shared.

Separated mothers may need the support of family members as they navigate the challenges associated with single parenthood.

Grandparents can be a significant source of support for families with young children, particularly if they are younger, retired, healthy, and live close to their children and grandchildren.

Having a strong support system is known to be protective against depression, but few studies have explored the association between grandparental support and maternal depression.

Single mothers may be more likely to develop symptoms of depression and emotional stress than those who are partnered. Therefore, such investigations affect parental well-being, childcare, and related social policies.

About the study

In this study, researchers explored whether maternal depression differed based on the characteristics of grandparents, if these differences were greater for separating mothers compared to partnered ones, and whether grandparent characteristics lead to different trajectories in maternal depression when they are separating.

Focusing on mothers of children aged less than 12 years, the authors measured depression by using antidepressant purchases as a proxy, though this could underestimate mild depressive symptom prevalence.

The mothers were all born in Finland from 1945 to 1995. Mothers who were followed for at least three hours between 2000 and 2014 and whose children could be linked to at least one grandparent were included in the study.

The dataset included information on three generations – children, biological parents, and maternal and paternal grandparents.

Mothers were classified as non-separating if their union had not been dissolved during the child’s 13th birthday. In contrast, separated mothers lived with their children for a year after a parental separation. Maternal age, income, education, employment status, and area of residence were included as controls.

The grandparents’ characteristics were age, union stability, geographical proximity, and health. Lower age, stable unions, greater geographical proximity, and good health were beneficial and hypothesized to be associated with lower maternal depression.

These effects were also predicted to be greater for separating mothers compared to non-separating ones and grandmothers compared to grandfathers.

Findings

Grandparents were less than 70 years old on average, and separating mothers were more likely than non-separating ones to have parents who were still working.

Non-separating mothers were less likely to live close to their parents but more likely to live close to their parents-in-law. Separating mothers were likelier to have parents or in-laws who did not live together.

Mothers were more likely to use antidepressants if their children’s grandparents were older, in poor health, or were not employed.

They were also more likely to have bought the medication if they did not live close to their children’s grandparents or if their parents did not live together. All mothers were significantly more likely to use antidepressants if their parents were in poor health.

As predicted, these differences were more pronounced for mothers who were separating from their partners, who were also significantly more likely to use antidepressants.

Maternal grandparents, particularly the grandmother, had a particularly important role to play in reducing maternal depression.

The use of psychotropic medications by mothers showed similar trends to antidepressant use, suggesting that the results were robust to multiple mental health treatments.

Conclusions

The findings demonstrate how multigenerational support exchanges can have important implications for mental health.

Grandparents provide support and resources for their daughters as they bring up their children, reducing mental stress and depression during this critical time.

These contributions are even more significant during periods of upheaval, such as maternal separation from their partner.

A limitation of the study is that it uses antidepressant and psychotropic medication use as a proxy for depression; however, this may underestimate actual depression prevalence since it may not capture less severe symptoms.

For children whose parents were separated, the dataset did not include information on the father’s involvement after separation. Exchanges of support between generations were also not directly measured.

Focusing only on Finland, the results of this study cannot be easily generalized to other populations. Future research can shed further light on these gaps.

Journal reference:
Priyanjana Pramanik

Written by

Priyanjana Pramanik

Priyanjana Pramanik is a writer based in Kolkata, India, with an academic background in Wildlife Biology and economics. She has experience in teaching, science writing, and mangrove ecology. Priyanjana holds Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Centre of Biological Sciences, 2022) and Economics (Tufts University, 2018). In between master's degrees, she was a researcher in the field of public health policy, focusing on improving maternal and child health outcomes in South Asia. She is passionate about science communication and enabling biodiversity to thrive alongside people. The fieldwork for her second master's was in the mangrove forests of Eastern India, where she studied the complex relationships between humans, mangrove fauna, and seedling growth.

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