The increasing gender equality during the 20th century, mainly in the Nordic countries, represents a major social change. A well-established theory is that this may affect the mental health patterns of women and men. This study aimed at examining associations between childhood and adulthood gendered life on mental ill-health symptoms.
A follow-up study of a cohort of all school leavers in a medium-sized industrial town in northern Sweden was performed from age 16 to age 42. Of those still alive of the original cohort, 94% (n=1007) participated during the whole period. Gendered life was divided into three stages according to whether they were traditional or non-traditional (the latter includes equal): childhood (mother’s paid work position), adulthood at age 30 (ideology and childcare), and adulthood at age 42 (partnership and childcare). Mental ill-health was measured by self-reported anxious symptoms (“frequent nervousness”) and depressive symptoms (“frequent sadness”) at age 42. The statistical method was logistic regression analysis, finally adjusted for earlier mental ill-health symptoms and social confounding factors.
Generally, parents’ gendered life was not decisive for a person’s own gendered life, and adulthood gender position ruled out the impact of childhood gender experience on self-reported mental ill-health. For women, non-traditional gender ideology at age 30 was associated with decreased risk of anxious symptoms (76% for traditional childhood, 78% for non-traditional childhood). For men, non-traditional childcare at age 42 was associated with decreased risk of depressive symptoms (84% for traditional childhood, 78% for non-traditional childhood). A contradictory indication was that non-traditional women in childcare at age 30 had a threefold increased risk of anxious symptoms at age 42, but only when having experienced a traditional childhood.
Adulthood gender equality is generally good for self-reported mental health regardless of whether one opposes or continues one’s gendered history. However, the childcare findings indicate a differentiated picture; men seem to benefit in depressive symptoms from embracing this traditionally female duty, while women suffer anxious symptoms from departing from it, if their mother did not.