Employed mothers and fathers have almost identical workloads, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women spend a few hours less in the office, but a few more hours cooking, cleaning and caring for the kids. But if their burdens are roughly equal to their husbands', why do women report feeling so much more stressed and conflicted?
It could be because women hate multitasking, while doing two things at once hardly fazes men at all.
A study published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review shows that multitasking may be a new frontier of gender inequality. Working mothers and fathers both multitask, a lot. The dads two-time their activities for an average of 38.9 hours a week, the study finds, and the moms for an average of 48.3 hours. That means fathers multitask more than a third of their waking life, and mothers more than two fifths.
Women, it seems, simply have more work to do in the home, and more errands to run, and so have to do a lot of it all at once.
Both genders multitask two work-related activities the most, but fathers more so. Women are far more likely to multitask housework with housework; childcare with childcare; housework with childcare; or housework with childcare and talking on the phone.
"When dads get home from work, they get an elevated positive affect," says Barbara Schneider, a co-author of the study and a professor in the College of Education and Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. "But when women get home from work, they get the feeling 'Oh my gosh, there's so much I have to do right now.' "
"Mental labor" also counts as an activity in the study -- thinking about something really hard. Fathers are almost twice as likely to mentally labor over something work-related, while mothers are three times as likely to fret about time restraints and being late.
"They're always facing this time crunch and time squeeze," says Schneider. "They're thinking about two things at once. They're worried about getting to and from."
The data was collected from the 500 Family Study, in which watches were strapped to the wrists of 500 largely white and middle class families across the U.S. Eight times a day, for seven days, the watch would beep, and the mothers and fathers would have to fill out a short questionnaire which basically asked: What are you doing? What else are you doing at the same time? And how are you feeling right now?
The mothers and fathers had very different feelings. Nobody liked multitasking at work, but only mothers hated multitasking at home and in public. Only mothers suffered psychological distress when they multitasked at home, and only mothers experienced family time guilt when multitasking on the job.
A mother's role in the home, it seems, feels very similar to a job. Their activities are likely to be labor intensive -- helping the kids with homework, vacuuming the living room, cooking a nutritious meal for four. The pressure to be a smooth household manager falls disproportionately on the mother's back.
Out in public, where women often fulfill their family duties -- running errands, attending PTA meetings, driving the kids to soccer practice -- mothers are subject to their neighbors' critical eyes. Multitasking out in the world, therefore, unsurprisingly ups women's stress.
"The bar on being a good parent continues to rise," says Schneider. And combined with work weeks that keep growing, and the intensifying competitiveness of college, private high school, and even kindergarten admissions, mothers and fathers, but particularly mothers, are facing ever-weightier stresses and strains.
"The key to mothers' emotional well-being is to be found in the behavior of fathers," said Shira Offer, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. "I think that in order to reduce mothers' likelihood of multitasking and to make their experience of multitasking less negative, fathers' share of housework and childcare has to further increase."
Fathers can only take a greater share of the domestic work if workplaces becomes more flexible, and if our culture shifts in sync. If we can handle mothers doing their work while caring for their children, we should be able to handle fathers caring for their children, while scrubbing the counters.
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