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The Hard Work of Homemaking

Posted by savannahkase on October 13, 2013 in Mom & Dad Dynamics, Parenting, Working Mom |

Public opinion polls rarely result in shocking conclusions, and yet, they can be fascinating for the insights they provide into questions that might not otherwise be openly discussed or quantified. The newest study by the Pew Research Center is a perfect example. The headline is so obvious as to be laughable: “Parents’ Time with Kids More Rewarding Than Paid Work — and More Exhausting.” Also unsurprising is the study’s finding that parents are happier and less stressed when with their kids than at work. I’m not sure I agree with the consensus that 43% of housework is very meaningful, but the rest of the overall findings seem consistent with my expectations and personal experience.

% of Activities Rated "Very ____"

% of Activities Rated “Very ____”

However, the underlying data is much more interesting than the overall findings (in my opinion). Of more than one hundred fathers asked how they felt while caring for their kids, none said “very stressed,” while 4% of mothers did, and only 6% of fathers said they felt “very tired,” compared to 15% of moms. This trend is not limited to child care, however, it holds across the board, with mothers finding more meaning in their activities in each category, but also finding each set of activities more tiring and stressful than fathers (with the notable exception of housework, which stresses men more than women).

Why are we mothers so stressed out and wiped out? I do not think it is as simple as the fact that mothers tend to spend more time with their kids. In my house, my husband performs three times as much childcare as me, but he does not find it “very tiring” or “very stressful” because, as he explained, he has developed coping mechanisms. Brigid Schulte of The Washington Post suggests that “women’s time is more fragmented than men’s, [and] that women are still expected to be the primary caregiver and homemaker, even when they work full-time, and that, as a result, women still carry a heavier ‘psychic load.’” That may be why, as an earlier Pew study found, 40% of working mothers (vs. 34% of working fathers) say they always feel rushed.

SDT-2013-03-Modern-Parenthood-01I suspect that some of the Pew findings may be misleading because of unconscious under-reporting by women. In other words, although the Pew reports show mothers and fathers devoting roughly the same amount of time to child care, paid work, and housework combined per week, I think mothers underestimate their hours. For example, I do not count the hour I spend getting ready for work as “child care,” even though I might change and dress my son and prepare his breakfast at the same time. And of course, these studies are all based on averages. The numbers are bound to be very different for families with only one parent performing paid work.

It seems like the researchers wanted to see how parents divide their workload and how this division affects them. But I wonder if they were asking the right questions. How does it work in your family? Do you think mothers and fathers are affected differently by their family responsibilities?

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