Study: Dads Equally Concerned with Family, but Less Stressed than Mothers

August 15, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

An interesting, if far from definitive study is reported on here in an article and a press release that are a desperate attempt to explain away what may be very marginally negative findings about mothers (Smithsonian Magazine, 8/12/13).  It’s the 21st century in the United States, after all, and we certainly can’t allow science to interfere with our almost 100% pro-mother public narrative, now can we?

It’s a familiar balancing act for working parents, being able to compartmentalize work and family life, and everyone experiences spill-over, from a child calling sick during work to a work project preoccupying some weekend time. But not everyone experiences it the same way, a new study shows. If you’re a man, getting that call from a school won’t necessarily derail your workday. If you’re a woman, however, family-life spilling over into work-life–or vice versa–can truly ruin your day…

The study, led by Professor Shira Offer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, suggests that though women and men spend the same amount of time worrying about family matters, women feel a disproportional amount negative emotional affects–stress, depression, and the like–from this mental labor…

Subjects responded in two ways: first, they filled out a survey, and second, they participated in an experience sampling method (ESM), a unique kind of “time-diary” that allowed respondents to record their experiences and feelings at various times throughout the day. Participants would carry a device programmed to emit an alarm at random times throughout the day, and when the alarm sounded, participants were asked to respond to various questions and evaluate their experiences…

She then divided respondents’ experiences into three categories of mental labor: 1) general mental labor, which includes day-to-day planning of activities such as making sure you’re not late to something 2) family-specific mental labor, which includes thoughts about family matters and 3) job-specific mental labor, which includes thinking about things relating to the participants paid job. Offer also used the ESM responses to create two categories for emotional behavior: 1) positive, meaning the emotions associated with a particular mental labor caused cheerful, relaxed, or happy feelings and 2) negative, meaning emotions associated with the mental-labor created feelings of stress or worry.

Offer found that, on average, women engage in mental labor for 1/4 of the waking hours, while men only engage in mental labor 1/5 of the time. In keeping with Offer’s expectations, the study found that men spend more time engaging in work-related mental labor, but experience much less of a spillover of these concerns into non-work domains, contrasted with women, who experience a large deal of crossover with work-related mental labor in non-work domains.

But that’s not the whole story: In a surprising twist, the study showed that men and women spend an equal amount of time engaging in family-related mental labor, meaning that men spend just as much time thinking about their family’s needs as women do. What Offer discovered, however, is that men aren’t negatively affected by this mental labor: in the emotional category, men did not report negative emotional associations with family-related mental labor. Conversely, thinking about family matters translated to significantly negative emotional responses in women. In short, women suffer more from the burden of family-related mental labor than men.

In other words, Offer studied how much time mothers and fathers spent on “mental labor” generally and mental labor related to family versus mental labor related to paid work specifically.  She also asked respondents (402 mothers and 291 fathers) how they felt about what they were experiencing throughout the day.  To her surprise, fathers and mothers spend about the same amount of time each day ruminating about family, but mothers are more stressed by family concerns than are fathers.

According to Offer, these findings suggest that men might be more capable of compartmentalizing their work life and family life than women.

Having reported that fathers seem to take everyday family crises in stride more than do mothers, both the writer of the article and Dr. Offer seem to adopt as their mission the polishing of the mothers’ only slightly tarnished images.

But she notes that for women in America the level of compartmentalization that men can exhibit may not be an option. Women, according to traditional family and gender roles, are often expected to be the primary caretaker of the house, no matter how successful they might be in their careers–a study conducted by the New America Foundation states that in 70 percent dual-earner families, women are still the primary caregivers (pdf)…

This “mommy guilt” might just be why women suffer more negative emotional responses to family-related mental labor, Offer suggests.

Could be.  Certainly women in this culture are deluged with messages about the virtues and satisfactions of motherhood and that, plus the fact that nature powerfully connects them to their offspring both during pregnancy and after birth, it’s easy to see how mothers can feel torn.  They know they need to help pay the mortgage, but they also know they want to care for little Andy or Jenny.  What’s a mother to do?

But take a look at the press release for the study.  In it, Offer is once again hard about the task of explaining away the mothers’ greater tendency to be anxious about matters related to home and family.

As for why, engaging in family-specific mental labor negatively affected the well-being of mothers, but not fathers, Offer said she thinks societal expectations push mothers to assume the role of household managers and lead them to disproportionately address the less pleasant aspects of family care.

Again, it’s not an unreasonable explanation for mothers’ greater anxiety about family-related matters.  But wait.

Societal expectations of women tend to be that they do the lion’s share of the childcare including fretting about little Andy or Jenny’s runny nose.  But flip that coin over and the other side has fathers expected to do the lion’s share of the paid work.  It’s a societal norm for fathers exactly as childcare is for mothers and reinforced in exactly the same ways — shaming of those who don’t conform, hugs and kisses for those who do.

Unsurprisingly, both mothers and fathers respond to the many and varied urgings of the culture.  That’s one reason there are 5.7 million stay-at-home mothers in the United States versus about 180,000 stay-at-home fathers.  That’s why women – even highly educated, high-achieving ones — are more likely than men to drop out of work to attend full-time to their children.  It’s why men work longer hours at paid work than do women.  Those age-old sex roles are proving hard to alter and cultural messages supporting those roles are one reason why. 

Given that, we’d expect to see fathers as anxious about work as mothers are about the children.  And we’d expect fathers to be less stressed about kids and mothers less stressed about work.  But that’s not what Offer found.

Offer also found that while fathers spent a greater percentage of the time they engaged in mental labor thinking about work-related matters than mothers, thoughts and concerns about work were less likely to spillover into non-work domains among fathers. Twenty-five percent of the time fathers engaged in job-specific mental labor, they did so in non-work contexts, compared to 34 percent among mothers.

So according to Offer’s study, fathers actually are more adept at compartmentalizing — at keeping work at work and home at home — than are mothers.  And they’re less anxious because of it.  Remarkably, Offer’s own work tends to disprove her thesis that it’s an oppressive culture that has moms so uptight.  If that were true, we’d see the same in fathers about their role as providers, but we don’t.

Offer admits as much.

"It appears, however, that fathers are quite adept at leaving their work concerns behind and are better able to draw boundaries between work and home.

But she just can’t accept the notion that maybe dads are better at that than are moms.  The siren song of women’s victimization lures her to her destruction.

I believe that fathers can afford to do that because someone else, namely their spouse, assumes the major responsibility for the household and childcare.

Nope, that doesn’t wash.  Again, take a look at the other side of the coin and you’ll find that men do the lion’s share of paid work.  Even women who work full-time spend about 10% less time in paid work than do men who work full-time.  And women are far more likely to work part-time than are men.  As I and many others like Dr. Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics have pointed out time and again, when hours of work inside and outside the home are aggregated, men and women work about the same amount of time.  If women relieve men of some of their household duties, men relieve women of some of their duties as earners.

Feminists want us to only look at the fact that women still do more household work than do men and not at the fact that men do more paid work.  Unfortunately Offer has swallowed that one-sided view whole, and it’s skewed her understanding of her own study.  Put simply, fathers’ better coping ability revealed by Offer’s study can’t be explained by sex roles or societal expectations.  Neither sex is exempt from either; it’s just that fathers seem to do a better job of dealing with the pressure.

Again, Offer’s is far from the last word on this, but whatever its merits, we should accept its findings for what they are and not fall into specious claims about a culture that makes demands on women but not on men.

The National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

The National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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