Consistent with cognitive theories of psychological distress, our study showed that individuals’ sense of control was a significant predictor of mental health outcomes for mothers and fathers during the first year of parenthood. Specifically, having a sense of control predicted lower levels of self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms 6 months into parenthood. Also, increases in one’s sense of control during the transition predicted decreases in anxiety and depressive symptoms over the course of 14 months. We demonstrated that sense of control is a cognitive construct that can be conceptualized into two components, namely, one component that is stable and another malleable component that shifts with context, with both parts contributing uniquely to reports of psychological distress. When both components are considered simultaneously, the malleable aspect of control is the most important predictor of depression over time. Overall, our results suggest that having a sense of control is a protective cognitive factor for individuals in dual-earner, working-class households who are potentially at risk of depression and anxiety during a difficult life transition.
The finding that control can be composed of a stable, enduring component as well as a malleable component vulnerable to outside stressors is important because measures of control typically are based on one-time assessments that are then used to predict concurrent and later outcomes. Such an approach is problematic because it is difficult to interpret the meaning of a one-time assessment of control—is it an accurate measure of one’s enduring control, or is it an uncharacteristic value for that person that, because of situational influences, deviates greatly from one’s enduring control? Predictions of new parents’ post-partum well-being from an enduring measure of control may be offset by the degree to which new parents experience gains or losses of control during the transition to parenthood. To illustrate, two expectant mothers who are equally high in their enduring sense of control might be expected to fare well psychologically during the months following childbirth; however, contextual circumstances may undermine one mother’s control during the transition, causing a decline in well-being over time. Imagine that one mother has to unexpectedly alter her work shift to accommodate a hectic childcare schedule: She may subsequently experience a decline in her sense of control, leading her to cope less well than the mother she initially resembled in terms of control. Such an example may explain why enduring control became a less powerful predictor of depression for new parents once the changing components of control were taken into account.
Our finding that personal control changes, at least for some individuals, during the transition to parenthood and that such change holds implications for mental health are particularly compelling when considering potential interventions for new parents. Few efforts have been made to extend traditional prenatal education programs to include psychoeducational components, although a handful of studies show how such programs can be expanded to promote adult well-being (e.g., Matthey, Kavanagh, Howie, Barnett, & Charles, 2004
). Incorporating cognitive restructuring techniques into prenatal courses would be a cost-efficient approach to increase perceptions of control for expectant parents that would likely benefit them in terms of mental health. Because having a sense of control increases one’s tendency to take action, teaching working parents ways to enhance and maintain their personal control may also serve them well in other domains, such as the workplace or relationships.
Having access to interventions is also an obvious need given the high numbers of women and men scoring within the clinical range of depression and/or anxiety across the transition to parenthood. Our results show that the sense of control explains some of the variability in emotional outcomes for new parents; thus, those who are equipped with this cognitive resource may be the parents who score lower or within the nonclinical range on measures of depression and anxiety. Although it was beyond the scope of this investigation to classify parents as high or low on any of the identified variables of interest—this would require an alternate analytic approach such as group-based modeling—doing so would be a profitable next step. Being able to categorize individuals in terms of their perceptions of control would also provide important information as to whether there are limits to the benefits of control. For example, Shapiro et al. (1996)
suggested that having control may not be helpful to someone who has little opportunity to exert control in the environment. However, Ross and Sastry (1999)
reviewed several studies that contradict the possibility that too much control can be problematic. Thus, efforts to change or control an event may be moderated by its perceived or actual controllability, although as yet little empirical evidence supports this notion.
Although our main goal in this study was to understand the relation between individuals’ sense of control and mental health outcomes, this was not done without accounting for other influential contextual variables. Variables were chosen that would theoretically influence one’s perception of control and/or one’s experience of depression or anxiety, namely family income, marital status, weekly work hours, and whether the pregnancy was planned. Consistent with expectations, having a higher family income or a planned pregnancy was beneficial in some cases for new parents’ levels of depression and anxiety, likely because these situations afford greater actual control. Although being married was associated with increased levels of depression for mothers, married fathers reported lower levels of postnatal depression and anxiety compared with unmarried fathers There is ongoing controversy in the literature regarding the health benefits afforded to men and women by marriage, and our findings are consistent with the view that marriage is more advantageous to men’s mental health than women’s The fact that marital status resulted in increased depression for our working mothers may reflect the effects of role strain: The literature suggests that work does not benefit women as much as it does men because of the strain of meeting work and family obligations (Steil, 1997
). Work hours was the only structural variable that predicted the rate of change of depression for fathers: Specifically, as work hours increased, depression increased. Given the dual-earner, working-class sample of interest, it is not surprising that work-related variables negatively impact functioning.
The results of this study should not be interpreted without acknowledging the limitations. Although the implications of this research draw attention to the importance of bridging the gap between empirical research and applied clinical intervention, this goal can not be fulfilled adequately without extending these community-based findings to a clinical sample of at-risk individuals. It is possible that the associations between control and clinical levels of psychological dysfunction operate differently. This research should be extended to include alternate measures of control, including those that tap perceived control specific to parenting situations, as well as interview-based psychological diagnostic assessments.
Findings from this study are based on a heterosexual Caucasian sample within the United States and may not generalize to same-sex parents, ethnic minority individuals, or new parents in other countries. Although some work has emerged in the past 10 years, research on lesbian and gay couples transitioning to parenthood is largely unexplored (Goldberg & Sayer, 2006
). In terms of race, African Americans, Mexicans, and Asians have been found to have lower levels of control compared with White individuals (Ross & Sastry, 1999
), and there is evidence that for some ethnic minority groups, having a sense of control may not necessarily be linked to positive mental health outcomes (Sastry & Ross, 1998
). Also, the experience of parenthood likely varies in other developed nations (e.g., Sweden, Canada), where family leave and related policies greatly differ. Finally, it is difficult to draw causal conclusions about the transition to parenthood without having a comparison group of individuals not experiencing this change. Although there are many advantages to studying within-group processes, the changes experienced by the adults in this study may not necessarily be attributable to their changing parental status.
There also are notable strengths of this study. First, the focus on a working-class sample is an entirely new effort in general and in terms of modeling change in mental health across the transition to parenthood, offering new contributions to the literature. Most important, working-class individuals have been understudied, yet they are the people whose time is absorbed between maintaining work and family but whose resources for maintaining personal well-being are often limited or depleted.
The longitudinal study design used in this study afforded the opportunity to capture and model change in important outcomes for individuals and to do so during a particularly salient life transition. With five data points over the course of 1 year, one can see fluctuations in outcomes that might otherwise be overlooked, permitting closer approximations to real-life patterns of change over time. For example, assessing a person’s anxiety at one point and again 12 months later may yield the same score, leading to a deceiving conclusion that anxiety was stable during the year and masking a significant dip between baseline and recovery. Not only are such potential peaks or drops important to capture, the timing of those changes can be accurately identified with five points of measurement during a brief, 1-year span of time.
Future intervention research should target expectant parents by offering strategies for enhancing perceptions of control during prenatal education classes or through other mechanisms. After such an intervention, new parents should exhibit higher levels of personal control, which may ultimately lead to improved mood and an ability to exert control. Despite the ability of individuals’ perceived control to explain variance in depression and anxiety means and rates of change, the models did not account for all of the variance to be explained. Future research should reveal other mechanisms that explain interpersonal differences in means and rates of change in mental health for new parents. In addition, given the variability in parents’ sense of control and changes in their control across the transition, another next step would involve identifying factors that explain variability in control. For example, child factors (e.g., health status, temperament) or other parenting-related variables (e.g., costs and availability of childcare, work shift) likely impact new parents’ coping and adjustment during this transition time.