Does Being a Mom Suck Worse Than Being a Dad?

According to a new study, mothers report more stress and fatigue than their male counterparts.

07/10/2016 7:43 AM AEDT | Updated 11/10/2016 4:20 AM AEDT
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The headline may sound like a dispatch from the Department of Obvious Science, but the reasons behind it are actually interesting. 

According to a study published in the American Sociological Review, mothers report more stress and fatigue than their male counterparts, largely due to the types of parenting tasks each group is responsible for.

“The good news from our study is that parents generally enjoy being with their kids,” University of Minnesota researcher Ann Meier told Science Daily. “But the bad news is that mothers enjoy it less than fathers because they do more of the ‘work’ and less of the ‘fun’ parenting tasks.”

The data was culled from time diaries that recorded over 1,200 parents’ feelings while performing various activities throughout the day and studied by researchers at Cornell University, The University of Minnesota and Minnesota Population Center. 

The study sums up our stressful “parenting as a verb” society with the first sentence of its abstract, which reads: “The shift to more time-intensive and child-centered parenting in the United States is widely assumed to be positively linked to healthy child development, but implications for adult well-being are less clear.”

So being a parent isn’t necessarily good for parents, but the study also concludes that being a mom sucks more than being a dad. 

“Mothers are less happy, more stressed, and more fatigued than fathers in their time with children versus their time without,” it reads.

According to the study, the narrative of the mother as the primary caregiver has not evolved along with women’s increasing presence in the workforce, leading women to feel highly conflicted about their roles. Fathers, due to a range of acceptable “fatherhood” models, experience less “role strain,” which is an awesome euphemism for constantly feeling like you’re not doing a good enough job as a mother. 

Married mothers are more likely to be responsible for the everyday tasks of basic childcare and management, while married fathers are more likely to handle play and other leisure activities with children. Mothers are also more likely to be alone with kids than fathers, which is often more stressful than parenting with another adult around to provide backup, support and interaction.

“Limited empirical evidence suggests that the nature of mothers’ time with children—in particular, their disproportionate share of basic and solo care— may contribute to lower well-being in mothering versus fathering,” the study reads.

If that’s not depressing enough, the study also suggests that both sleep and leisure time may be “less restorative” for mothers, because they’re both being interrupted. Mothers are more likely to “multitask” during free time and to respond to issues with children during the night.

We also “experience sleep disruptions due to more ‘sentient’ activity, such as strategizing about family emotional management and keeping track of the to-do list.” So moms are literally so busy managing everything that we can’t sleep. 

Many women have known these things anecdotally, but it can be difficult to make a partner understand the subtleties of gender inequality that may be outside his own experience. (Try telling a guy you get catcalled, just not when you’re with him.) This study quantifies the inequality in parenting that many mothers have always felt. 

Obviously there are plenty of great dads who manage the work of parenting equally, but this study shows that in general we’ve still got a long way to go to make parenting an egalitarian experience. 

As University of Minnesota researcher Ann Meier put it, “Having data systematically collected from thousands of parents allows us to confirm what parents have known for years―that parenting is meaningful but also stressful and tiring. Many mothers will recognize their experiences of interrupted sleep and daily feeding and bathing. Hopefully, many dads will see that their partners will likely be happier if they trade some of their leisure time with kids for more of the ‘work’ of parenting.”

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