Research gift helps La Trobe ease transition to parenthood

La Trobe research is helping to improve public understanding of parenthood.

A major philanthropic gift has helped La Trobe researchers unlock solutions to some of the challenges of modern parenting.

Motivated by the increasingly complex role of raising children today, La Trobe alumna Roberta Holmes donated to La Trobe to establish a professorial chair in 2013. This generous gift has led to an innovative research program called Transition to Contemporary Parenthood, which aims to inform public understanding of the need to prepare people for parenthood and support them to achieve better outcomes for their children and themselves.

Professor Jan Nicholson was named the inaugural Roberta Holmes Professorial Chair, responsible for leading wide-ranging research into the myriad of challenges involved in 21st century parenting. Her team’s research topics include better preparing expectant parents, helping parents create richer learning environments for children at home, and working with community and government organisations to use evidence to improve services for families.

Insights from the research program have been translated into practical information for parents, as well as for health, education and community professionals who support families.

Professor Nicholson said Mrs Holmes’ gift helped her team begin bridging a vital gap in contemporary research on parenting.

“This was a very rare opportunity to have five years to build a meaningful program of research and to build a team of next-generation researchers who will be leading this important work in the future,” she said.

The pursuit of work-family balance

One of the program’s current areas of research focuses on supporting parents in the workplace, and identifying how parents' work arrangements can help reduce work-family conflicts and promote the health and wellbeing of parents and their children. The research, led by La Trobe’s Dr Amanda Cooklin, was nominated for a prestigious Kanter Award for excellence in work and family research internationally in 2017.

“The work that Dr Cooklin has been leading in this area is internationally ground-breaking, because we’ve been able for the first time to definitively make the link between what happens to parents in the workplace and how well children are developing,” Professor Nicholson said.

She said the researchers are forming industry partnerships to explore how employers can apply the research to better support parents.

The research explores how employment can be configured in a way that reduces work-family conflict for parents, with positive flow-on effects for parents’ wellbeing, family relationships and children’s healthy development. This includes employment arrangements around family leave entitlements and flexible work hours.

“We can directly tie the future economic wellbeing of the country to how well workplaces support parents in their role as parents,” Professor Nicholson said. “We're basically saying that if you're wanting the next generation of children to be happy and healthy, and developing to their full potential, then we need to find better ways of balancing work and parenthood.

“We're helping to identify that parenting is everyone's business,” she said. “Parents, both men and women, need quality information and support as they prepare for and become parents. Employers are one critical element in building a healthy society for parents and their children.”

A gift for all parents

Speaking at the launch of the research program, Mrs Holmes said her role as a mother and grandmother motivated her to support greater research into parenting.

“Through my own personal experiences as a parent, I came to recognise how vitally important the role is and how undervalued and under recognised it is,” she said. “Because of this deficiency, there is little if any preparation for it, yet parenting is the most responsible and important role most of us fill in life. We are, after all, rearing the nation's future citizens.”

“I also believe that the challenges parents face in an increasingly complex society require urgent, contemporary research and resources which will assist parents in raising healthy, happy children, capable of confidently navigating the demands of a globalised world.”

Professor Nicholson said Mrs Holmes’ gift would continue to have a far-reaching impact.

“We've been incredibly fortunate to have someone like Bobbie who has had a vision and a passion and has been able to support the realisation of that passion,” she said. “The work we have been doing is feeding into other opportunities to support everyday parents throughout Australia, and this will only continue and grow.”