Multi-tasking Takes a Toll on Mothers' Health

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

In 2012, the New York Times published an article on its website with the headline, “Do Women Like Child Care More Than Men?” The answer, according to the Times, was yes, drawing on research published in a 2012 paper by Steven Rhoads and Christopher Rhoads. But Rhoads and Rhoads’ data came from a very small sample of 185 assistant professors with children under the age of two; the questions were all about child care tasks (so respondents knew the subject of the study, which can lead to bias) and were phrased in a very general way.

While Rhoads and Rhoads were careful to point out the limitations of their sample, the Times drew the conclusion that mothers simply like child care more than fathers do. (The Times blames biology.) But the Rhoads and Rhoads research didn’t take into account the somewhat complex feelings that accompany child care chores, e.g., “I love taking care of my kids but I don’t love stuffing them into their car seats”; “I love taking care of my kids but I don’t love the tantrums in the grocery store.” Of the Rhoads and Rhoads respondents, fathers seemed more inclined than mothers to consider all the unpleasant aspects of child care when reporting their feelings—which resulted in lower “scores.” “Child-care tasks can be bundled with our feelings toward our children, and men seemed more able to ‘unbundle’ their feelings about specific child-care tasks than women,” said Dr. Connelly. The 2012 conclusion was blunt: men like child care less than women.

Happily, Connelly and Kimmel found that both mothers and fathers report high levels of enjoyment caring for children.

But Drs. Connelly and Kimmel’s more recent analysis of the ATUS focused on teasing out the nitty-gritty details of caregiving—physically caring for children, helping with homework, preparing dinner and cleaning up—to determine how subjects felt about those tasks at any given moment in time. Subjects were essentially able to say, “‘I love the kid but I don’t love every minute of child care’,” says Connelly. “No one loves changing diapers at 4 in the morning.”

Happily, Connelly and Kimmel found that both mothers and fathers report high levels of enjoyment caring for children, especially in the category of “playing and talking” with their kids.

Why is this significant? Well, “Women like taking care of kids” is a truism that’s been around so long no one questions it. It has a negative effect both culturally and economically: culturally as people assume mothers should be primary caregivers because, well, they enjoy it, and economically because it dictates that women should continue to bear the burden of unpaid work, eroding their own earnings. Dr. Connelly reports that her first-year students at Bowdoin (who are young and one thinks would be more enlightened) believe that mothers should take care of their kids, but that the father’s involvement is optional. “It’s so insidious, this idea that we like child care more and that this is our ‘choice’ [to be the primary caregivers],” said Dr. Connelly.

Women take more time off mid-career to care for children and elders, and pay a price for that; they also live longer than men, meaning potentially skimpy coffers and a financially strained retirement. Connelly and Kimmel’s research demonstrates that it’s time to abandon any idea that women do more caregiving because they enjoy it more—fathers like child care just as much as women and presumably are just as capable.

There was a second, equally interesting finding: Women are just really, really, tired.

But hang on. There was a second, equally interesting finding: Women indicate significantly greater levels of fatigue and stress when engaged in child care. Women are simply doing more child care and chores—127 minutes a day on child care versus men’s 95, and 111 minutes a day spent on cleaning, food prep, and grocery shopping to men’s 45. Men spend nearly two more hours a day at work than women do; it’s interesting that men and women report the same level of happiness, meaningfulness, and stress about their main job, but women report greater levels of fatigue at work.

I asked Dr. Connelly about possible reasons for the stress and fatigue: Are women getting less sleep than men? No, she said, the women in their sample slept about half an hour more than men. She suggested a couple of possible explanations. Physiology may be to blame—women are somewhat more prone to depression than men are. Or perhaps women, especially women with young kids, are having their sleep interrupted.

But a more likely culprit, given the sheer number of duties that women reported, is multitasking. I asked Dr. Connelly if the stress and fatigue had anything to do with women perhaps being more inclined to double up on chores and errands while caring for children. (I certainly feel a lot of stress when I’m simultaneously changing a diaper and imitating the car’s knocking noise to the mechanic; I’m pretty tired by the time I’m thawing chicken nuggets and mediating a sibling squabble over the rightful owner of a post-it note.) She noted that the presence of kids while doing other chores didn’t seem to make the chores more or less pleasant—but women were nonetheless more tired and stressed when combining chores like child care and kitchen cleanup.

“It’s possible that multi-tasking is making women tired…We know that women do more activities during the day, for shorter durations, than men do. [And] we know that switching back and forth between activities [has a neurological effect] that makes you tired. So that’s my suspicion,” she said.

This jibes with my experience. It’s not the child care, it’s all the other stuff weighing on me that makes me feel stressed and tired. I enjoy taking care of my kids, but I’m also always playing a personal Tetris game of What Needs to Be Done, pieces eternally, inexorably dropping and needing to be dealt with: If I use those two eggs tonight will I have anything for my son’s lunch tomorrow? Do we have enough clean clothes for the week, or do I have to do laundry now? What is that gritty stuff underfoot? (There is always something gritty underfoot.) And even though I work fewer (paid) hours than my husband, I feel like the Tetris game has more pieces, dropping faster, for me. It’s the cognitive and emotional load, not necessarily the hours in the day, that wears me down.

Says Dr. Connelly, “It’s important to say that it’s not just that women inherently like children better. But the results on stress and fatigue are the most important. Women are more stressed and more tired than men.”

The good news: Everybody likes taking care of kids. And, women get 12 minutes a day of “doing nothing alone,” which is four more minutes than men get. If we could just expand that to half an hour, maybe we could take a nap.

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