If parenting feels more stressful to you than to your male partner, you’re not alone. In a new study from Cornell University sociologists, women reported more emotional strain while spending time with their kids than men did. That’s not to say that moms don’t enjoy being moms, the authors say, but it does support the idea that they’re more involved than dads in the not-so-fun parts of raising children.
Women spend more time on basic childcare and related chores, say the researchers, while men spend more time playing and doing low-stress leisure activities with their kids. Mothers also do more solo parenting, experience more sleep disruption, and have less leisure time than fathers, they add, which may also contribute to their lower levels of well being.
“It’s not that moms are so stressed out with their kids, but relative to fathers, they’re experiencing more strain,” co-author Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management, said in a press release.
To find these results, Musick and her colleagues analyzed time-use surveys from more than 12,000 parents of kids under 18, conducted from 2010 to 2013. The surveys asked men and women to record what they were doing—and how happy, sad, stressed, and tired they felt—during three random periods during a 24-hour day.
The researchers looked specifically at how parents felt while doing activities with their children, and compared them to how they felt doing the same kinds of activities without their kids.
Their results, published in the American Sociological Review, found that parents of both genders consistently reported greater well-being during activities with children than without.
“A lot of how parents feel about parenting is based on incidental moments with kids,” Musick said in a press release, “like hanging out on the couch or going grocery shopping. There’s a lot of parenting involved in those small moments.”
Compared with men, however, women had lower levels of happiness, more stress, and greater fatigue during those times.
Before conducting their analysis, the authors hypothesized that mothers might be more stressed because of a “greater investment” in childcare, but that they might also get more meaning out of it. That was not the case, however.
“We found no evidence of greater meaning among mothers,” they wrote; “both mothers and fathers rated time with children as very meaningful.”
The research also showed that much of the time dads spent with children was when moms were present, too, showing that men have to deal with solo-parenting responsibilities less often than women.
And that solo time is when a lot of the more onerous tasks take place. “Mothers are doing different things with their children than fathers are, things that we know aren’t as enjoyable,” Musick said. “Playing with their kids is a particularly enjoyable experience for parents. And dads are doing more play as a share of the total amount of time they spend with their kids.”
Musick used a soccer analogy from late sociologist Suzanne Bianchi to describe a mother’s traditional role of “sweeper”—a player that’s tasked, first and foremost, with defending the goal.
“They’re going to play when they have time to play, but they’re going to make sure they have everything else covered,” she said. “Dinner is made, the kids are bathed, laundry is folded. They do play with their kids, but when you take account of all the things they’re doing, it’s just a smaller share of their time.”
Of course, this isn’t the dynamic in all families; today, plenty of moms take on the role of breadwinner and dads, the role of primary caregiver. And in many households where both parents work full-time, parents strive to share housework and childcare responsibilities as evenly as possible.
But that's still the exception, says Musick, rather than the rule. In fact, new research shows that both moms and dads—especially dads—log more time with their kids today than they did 50 years ago. But in 2012, mothers still spent nearly twice as long as fathers: 104 minutes a day versus 59.
Social norms clearly place higher expectations on mothers, says Musick, and that may make it difficult for women to demand less of themselves as parents.
“As a sociologist, I wish we, as a society, could let go of some of the assumptions and constraints we place on the mother and father roles,” she said. “The mom and the dad are interacting within a societal framework that is out of their control to a great extent.”
Couples can try work together to adjust how they parent, she says, especially if one partner is feeling disproportionately stressed by his or her responsibilities.
But big-picture changes are needed, as well, she says: “The solution is that we collectively rethink what we expect of fathers and what we expect of mothers."