Mothers more fatigued than dads but still find jobs and child care meaningful, report finds

October 8, 2013

Chandra Manning’s day is fragmented as she shifts from taking care of her children, to working, to doing things around the house and back again, while her husband works in long, uninterrupted blocks of time.

And although Cathleen Pencek’s husband is an involved dad and shares household chores, she’s the one who does all the planning, organizing, buying of kids’ clothes, cleaning closets, and arranging school, child care, play dates and doctor visits. Pencek keeps a long list in her head of everything that needs to get done.

“It’s just that list. It’s constant. Does my kid have a winter coat? What am I going to fix for dinner? What are we going to do with the kids this weekend? Is our 4-year-old ready for kindergarten? Check. Check. Check,” said Pencek, who works out of her home as a corporate recruiter.

Ever since the federal government began collecting detailed surveys a decade ago of how Americans spend their time, the American Time Use Survey reports have shown that mothers, even those who work full time, spend about twice as much time as fathers taking care of kids and cleaning up around the house, while fathers spend more time at work and in leisure. Now, for the first time, the survey is asking parents how they feel about that.

Mothers, they found, feel exhausted.

In a report released Tuesday that analyzes the survey’s well-being data, the Pew Research Center found that mothers, on average, feel more wiped out than fathers in all four major categories of life: work, housework, child care and leisure.

But that’s not all: Mothers are also happier than fathers while working, caring for children and doing leisure activities. And nearly twice as many mothers as fathers say they’re even “very happy” doing housework.

Mothers find paid work both more meaningful and more stressful than fathers do, the Pew report found, although the differences were minor. Far more mothers also consider housework meaningful, while more fathers are stressed out by it.

High percentages of mothers and fathers report that caring for children is the most meaningful way they spend their time. But more than twice as many mothers say they feel tired while doing it.

“Time doing child care is where we found the biggest gap between fathers and mothers feeling exhausted,” said report author Wendy Wang. “And when you look at what mothers and fathers are actually doing, it shows why: Mothers spend much more time than fathers doing physical care — feeding the baby, giving baths. They do more managerial and educational care, all of which requires a lot of energy. Only when it comes to playing with kids do fathers do almost the same amount as mothers.”

Time-use research shows that mothers’ time — like that of Manning, an associate professor at Georgetown University — tends to be more fragmented through the day as they switch from their roles as mother to worker to housekeeper and back again. Those exhausting “little sprints” of role switching, said Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute, are largely the result of women still being considered primarily responsible for home and family, as they have been for millennia.

Pencek’s husband has flexible hours, she said. But Pencek manages the household, interrupts her work schedule to care for sick kids, and directs or takes care of family business. “Because my husband works in an office, I don’t think he really gets that,” she said. “He thinks I can do it all because I’m home. Well, yes, I’m home. But I’m in my office. Working.”

Researchers have found that mothers also largely carry the psychic burden of parenting.

Author Katrina Alcorn chronicled her own exhaustion to the point of burnout in her new memoir, “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink.” Alcorn sent out a survey called “Who Clips the Nails?” to about 300 parents, asking which parent was responsible for the mundane tasks of parenting, as well as the planning and organizing — arranging birthday parties and summer camps, finding doctors — that can take up so much brain space, and consume physical energy and time.

“Not surprisingly, women were doing way more of the psychic burden stuff than men,” Alcorn said. “Half the women were really angry and felt their husbands weren’t aware of how much they weren’t doing. But the other half felt a lot of compassion for their partners, saying, ‘He would love to do more at home, but he’s under so much pressure to do more at work, he can’t.’ ”

The Pew report found that 43 percent of mothers reported feeling happiest during leisure time, about twice as many who felt very happy while doing work or housework. Slightly fewer, 37 percent, reported feeling very happy while caring for children, which was still higher than the 29 percent of fathers.

Most fathers, too, felt happiest during leisure time. Only 17 percent felt very happy at work, and just 10 percent — less than half the percentage of mothers — felt very happy doing housework.

But Galinsky found that women rarely let themselves fully enjoy their leisure time.

“There was this feeling that they were living like they were running a marathon — you’re never supposed to stop,” she said.

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