October 16, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 46—Working mothers, and lead exposure

Cases of COVID-19 continue to rage in the U.S., taking a toll on everyone, young and old. That toll has been especially hard on mothers. Two studies from Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, found 39% of couples with young children are experiencing increased frustrations during the pandemic. These frustrations are particularly common among mothers who report their partners don’t help enough with pandemic parenting and among mothers who report their partners dismiss their concerns about the virus. Calarco says the pandemic is both exacerbating longstanding sources of conflicts in couples with young children and creating new conflicts. Meanwhile, she says, mothers blame themselves for these conflicts and feel responsible for reducing them. Because of these conflicts, some mothers are leaving the workforce, others are turning to therapy and antidepressants, and some are even ignoring their own concerns about the pandemic. In addition to conflicts among couples, mothers also are struggling with the increase in parenting time brought about by the pandemic. According to the second study, 42% of mothers reported spending a great deal more time with their children during the pandemic, particularly mothers working remotely from home without childcare. Although the study notes mothers generally enjoy spending time with their children, these increased time demands are associated with increased stress, anxiety, and frustrations with their children. Mothers who are working remotely without childcare reported feeling as though they are failing as both workers and mothers and many also reported turning to food and alcohol as coping mechanisms. Calarco says society has long failed to support mothers in balancing the demands of paid work and parenting. And this pandemic, she says, has made painfully clear the need for adequate support, including universal access to affordable childcare and also policies that reduce intensive work and parenting pressures and ensure that all families have access to the resources they need.

In other news, scientists and public officials have been looking at the effects of lead exposure for decades. But could lead exposure provide insight into alcohol use disorder? A new study by Stephen Boehm, professor in the Department of Psychology at IUPUI, looked at whether developmental lead exposure can increase relapse to alcohol consumption. While the researchers found that early life, low-level lead exposure in mice does not lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder in adults per se, it does alter brain circuits in such a way that once a dependency is developed, it’s harder to refrain from turning back to alcohol. Although there have been efforts to reduce environmental exposure to lead and to prevent lead poisoning, Boehm says exposure still exists and can cause serious harm and significant health problems, even at low levels. Boehm’s study suggests that low-level lead exposure for humans during childhood and adolescence — so low that kids growing up in old industrial cities might be exposed by merely kicking up dirt during normal play — may be sufficient to enhance relapse to alcohol use in adults struggling with alcohol use disorder. This study, he says, not only provides further insight into addiction and the brain, but it might also lead to a call for changes in policies around lead exposure that could help keep our children safe.