Mothers and fathers are both happier when they're with their children, new research shows, but 1950s-era parenting roles persist. And it's taking a toll on mothers.
Despite working at nearly double the rate of their grandmothers, 21st-century moms still shoulder more of the drudgery of child-rearing and report time with their children as more tiring and stressful than it is for fathers, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University.
"It's fair to say that moms do more of the work, and dads do more of the fun activities of parenting," said Ann Meier, a sociologist at the U and one of the report's authors. "There's been some change, but we haven't reached gender equality in parenting."
The study used American Time Use Survey data to bore into the daily lives of more than 12,000 parents, measuring how happy, sad, stressed, fatigued and how meaningful their time was throughout the day, with their children and apart from them.
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The higher levels of stress and fatigue that mothers report when with their children were a result of the types of things moms do with their kids - more of the blocking and tackling, less of the glamorous parts of parenting.
Mothers are more likely to multitask, the data showed, cooking and cleaning while with their children, directly caring for them or handling some other type of essential, behind-the-scenes management of the child's life such as arranging appointments with the doctor, signing them up for summer camp or shuttling them around.
Fathers, in contrast, tend to relax with the kids.
"Dad's time with kids is more likely to be in leisure activities, like watching TV or maybe going to a concert or sporting event as a spectator, socializing, eating and meal time, but not the work necessarily of preparing the meal," Meier said.
Christina Connelly, of St. Paul, Minn., a mother of three in a dual-income household, has 6-year-old twins (a boy and a girl) and a 2-year-old daughter.
The twins forced a certain equality on the household when they were little, since both children needed to be fed simultaneously in the middle of the night, but some of the study's findings sound familiar to her.
"My husband and I are pretty conscious of the importance of sharing household tasks and playtime," she said. "I think naturally, though, he is better at playing, especially roughhousing with our son, while I seem to have some freakish talent for calendar management and necessary-but-boring daily tasks."
Connelly knows not every woman is like her, but she multitasks all the time, she said. Even when she and her husband watch TV at the end of the night, she folds laundry or updates the family budget. Her husband finds it easier to relax. She's not sure how much of that is based on gender, and how much is personality. But, she said, "The study hit home in saying that even when women have leisure time, they are more likely to still find some task to attend to rather than relaxing."
This tendency to multitask, and work on other things while with the children, is one of the study's key findings about why women report being more tired and stressed with their kids than men do. Whether it's self-imposed, cultural or the result of dads just slacking off, for mothers the results are often similar.
Connelly said it's a little irksome these days that her son sees her as the less fun parent, and doesn't appreciate the quiet support she offers.
"He doesn't care that I packed his library book for tomorrow, or even that I made him dinner, because I probably made him something he didn't like," she said, chuckling. "But if he can go out and fly a kite with his dad, that's cool."
The dynamic flips a little with her 6-year-old daughter, who enjoys helping her mom in the kitchen or working on projects together.
"All these things are so stereotypical, but it does play out that way in our house," Connelly said.
Another crucial difference between mothers and fathers that emerged in the study is this: Women are dramatically more likely to be alone with their children, and men, about half the time, rely on other adults for help. The researchers say that's one factor that leads to more stress and fatigue for mothers.
"There's some kind of backup for dads oftentimes and there's not that backup for moms as frequently," Meier said. "The buck stops with them."
The study, which used data from the Minnesota Population Center, also showed that while mothers on average get a little more sleep than fathers, their sleep is more frequently interrupted.
Meier, the researcher, said she's not willing to blame mothers for imposing more of the work of parenting on themselves, even though she allows there is probably some of that going on.
"If dads picked up more of the work of parenting, and left some of the fun to moms, then their female partners would be happier and less stressed and less tired," Meier said. "That could reset the balance a little bit and probably everyone would be a little better off for it."
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