As research has shown time and time again, moms tend to be more stressed out and less happier than dads—even despite reports suggesting the current generation of fathers play a more active role at home.
To figure out an explanation for these differences, a new study led by Penn State sought to examine the context of how moms and dads care for their children, using data from the American Time Use Survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The data included info on about 4,486 childcare activities, plus info on who helmed the activity and that person’s corresponding mood.
During the study, researchers analyzed each childcare activity, using five dimensions: “activity type”—physical (eating and sleeping), recreational (play and sports), educational (helping with homework), and managerial (planning doctor visits or driving kids)—the amount of time spent doing the activity, the location, the amount of care involved, and the presence of any other people during that activity, according to a press release on Science Daily.
Researchers found that dads are more likely to oversee childcare activities that are recreational—like playing with kids, playing sports, doing arts and crafts, and reading to them—and that take place on the weekend. Moms are more likely to do “solo parenting,” which is any type of childcare activity where there isn’t a spouse or partner present, and do activities that involve an infant, study author Cadhla McDonnell, a doctoral candidate in sociology and demography at Penn State, told us in an email. In other words, dad does the fun stuff, while mom handles the not-so-fun stuff, like changing diapers, and usually all on her own.
According to McDonnell, the findings suggest that moms tend to be more tired and stressed out than dads are, and that moms are doing more childcare activities that lead to more stress down the line, and less happiness. Examples of this, we assume, are doing school drop-off and pickup, or being the one having to leave work, not their partner, if their kid is sick.
“Our findings show that some aspects of parenting are more enjoyable than others and that the way childcare is distributed between mothers and fathers right now brings more emotional rewards for dads than for moms,” McDonnell said.
Commenting on the findings, which are published in the Journal of Family Issues, researchers also said that considering the context of childcare activities fully explained why dads tend to be happier than moms are, and partially explained why moms are more stressed out than dads are. Context, however, didn’t explain why moms tended to be more tired, the press release mentioned.
There was one area, however, that moms and dads had in common: both groups found caring for children to be highly meaningful, which is great, and supports previous research that suggests that today’s dads are taking the whole parenting thing much more seriously.
An interesting thing McConnell mentioned in the study is that it’s “impossible” to say from their data whether moms being stuck with the less enjoyable childcare activities is “the result of personal choices or whether it’s a reaction to outside forces like job demands.” But we’re inclined to think it might very well be a combination of both.
Women have been socialized to believe that it’s the mother’s duty, not the father’s, to take on the roles of primary caregiver and household manager. If a mom enters the workforce, she might feel guilty she’s not with their kids, and if she chooses to stay at home, she might feel guilty for not having a career. Plus, the American workplace is generally not working-mom-friendly (motherhood penalty, anyone?), and the U.S. is the only industrialized country without paid parental leave. In other words, we can come up with a LOT of reasons moms in the U.S. are stressed and aren’t happy.
In the meantime, moms and dads, a switch in handling childcare activities and responsibilities is overdue!