MIDDLE-CLASS professional women are more stressed by their parenting duties than their contemporaries with fewer qualifications, according to a ground-breaking Scottish Government study.

Reseachers found mothers with university degrees experienced high levels of stress as did those with no qualifications.

They were surprised at the finding as it appeared to contradict the usual social science correlation of economic deprivation, low academic achievements and poor psychological well-being.

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The most relaxed mothers were those who had obtained a vocational education at college.

Parental stress is often associated with children's delayed emotional and cognitive development.

The project found stressed mothers were less likely to read, sing nursery rhymes and visit friends with young children than those with more easy-going lifestyles. They were also more likely to have the television on for more than two hours a day.

The study assessed the impact of stress generally on mothers' behaviour and did not look at how it affected individual subgroups, such as the highly or poorly educated.

The findings were published in a report Growing Up In Scotland, in which more than 6000 women with babies aged 10 months, born between March 2010 and February 2011, were interviewed.

"The pattern showed that while the most deprived had the highest levels of stress, curiously those with least deprivation had the second-highest levels," said Professor Daniel Wight, of the Medical Research Council, Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow, and a co-author of the report.

"The general pattern is that those who are more deprived have worse outcomes for their children and have less psychological resources as parents and their parenting behaviour suffers as a result.

"The one exception is those who are the most highly educated also have high levels of stress."

It is the first time the anomaly has emerged on a scientific basis and the academics behind the study will now investigate why it is the case.

Professor Wight said initial explanations were that highly educated women were reporting stress levels differently or were combining motherhood with challenging jobs.

In the study parenting stress was measured using the mothers' responses to three statements: "Having a child leaves little time and flexibility in my life. It is difficult to balance different responsibilities because of my child. And having a child has meant having too few choices and too little control over my life".

Responses were graded on a five-point scale from one (strongly agree) to five (strongly disagree).

Researchers found 38% of mothers with degrees had high stress levels, behind 45% of women with no qualifications. Just 29% of women with college gained qualifications had high stress levels.

"Mothers with degree-level qualifications reported higher levels than all other mothers except those with no qualifications," the report said.

Researchers also found mothers who were stressed often had less informal support with childcare from family and friends.

Elizabeth Duff, senior policy adviser at the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), the parenting charity, said adjustments women had to make to their lives after having children could be responsible.

"This finding may relate to feelings of lack of control over the events of the birth and early years of a baby," she said.

"The unpredictable nature of this period can often lead to feelings of dissatisfaction while having to adapt many areas of your life.

"Those from the most advantaged groups may feel this change more keenly if they are used to having a high degree of control in their life."

Researchers plan to follow the babies' development through childhood and adolescence.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The National Parenting Strategy aims to ensure no parent or family ever feels isolated, and they can access information, advice and support, whenever they need it."

CASE STUDY

CATHY MOSS, 41, lives with her partner Bjoern Reinke, 39, and daughters Thea, five, and Maya, two, in the southside of Glasgow.

She has a PhD and works as a research scientist at Glasgow University.

Ms Moss is easy-going but she often feels torn between work and spending time with her children.

"There is an expectation that if you're university educated you'll continue working after having children," she said.

"I'm not sure if I'd say I feel stressed, but I often feel guilty about both work and children and guilt is a form of stress."

She thought many women who pursued careers had to move away from their own parents and lacked help from them with childcare.

In contrast, she thought women who were less career minded may have stayed closer to home and therefore had help with childcare from their own parents. "Pursuing a career, managing children and childcare and childcare in the absence of support from grandparents is challenging," she said.

She believed educated women took their babies to lots of activities – which could add to the pressure, Ms Moss said: "I think highly educated mothers do put a lot of pressure on themselves to be excellent mothers.

"There's also a lot of pressures these days to do lots of stimulating things with babies; baby yoga, baby massage, baby swimming – and while these activities are enjoyable they probably add to the general feeling of being very busy."

She added: "The more educated more you are, and the more aware of what good parenting is. You want to make you're own food, take the children to interesting classes. The more educated you are, the more ambitious you probably are as a mother."