With growing evidence that the American dad has stepped up his game when it comes to housework and child care, U.S. households would seem to have been swept clean of gender inequity. But a new study finds that women outpace men in doing more than one task at a time — and they are paying an emotional cost for doing so.
The findings, published Thursday in the American Sociological Review, come from a two-year study of 500 middle-class, dual-earner families from eight urban and suburban communities across the country. They show that while fathers and mothers log nearly equal time performing paid and unpaid work combined, mothers spend nine more hours per week multitasking at home and work than do their husbands.
It also finds that men and women respond differently to the challenges of multitasking — not so much at work, where both sexes find it stressful, but at home and in public places. While multitasking men tend to get that heady "superdad" feeling while juggling kids at the playground and a client on the BlackBerry, multitasking women are more likely to report feeling stressed, pressed for time and guilty about not spending more time — or more quality time — with their families.
The study helps complete an increasingly detailed portrait of American domestic life in an age of smart-phone-wielding, belt-tightening, always-working helicopter parents. It also aims, say its authors, to explain why working moms continue to feel a "greater sense of burden and emotional stress" despite getting more help than ever from their husbands.
"This is what parents have been living," said study leader Barbara Schneider, a sociologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Participants in the 500 Family Study may not be representative of American families economically, educationally or by ethnicity, Schneider acknowledged. But by focusing on some of the busiest parents, she said, the study underscores the disproportionate emotional toll that multitasking may be taking on women as they shoulder a wider range of responsibilities in the family.
To collect the detailed data, Schneider and her colleagues issued parents a watch that beeped at eight random times throughout the day. Each time it beeped, parents were asked to log what activity they were engaged in, how they were feeling, where they were and with whom. It also asked parents whether they were engaged in a simultaneous "secondary activity," and if so, what it was. Volunteers wore the watch for one week.
The researchers supplemented those logs with standard survey data as well as in-home interviews with both parents and children. The data were collected in 1999 and 2000, before the worst of the recession put greater financial strain on families and layoffs allowed (or forced) some parents to spend more time on household chores.
Both at home and in public, the study found, mothers who said they multitasked — be it helping with homework while cooking dinner or fielding a work call while folding laundry — reported more negative feelings and a worse mood than fathers who did two things at once.
Making matters worse, mothers spent more of their hours multitasking than did fathers. The women in the study did at least two things at once for 48 hours over the course of a week, compared with 39 hours for men.
Multitasking by fathers was far less likely to involve child care, the study found, and unlike moms, dads tended to report they were more focused when in charge of their kids. Researchers said this jibes with much research showing that fathers are more likely than mothers to engage with their children in "interactive activities" that are "more pleasurable than routine child care tasks." When mothers had child care duties, they were more likely to take the kids along on errands, drive them to activities or supervise their homework, the study found.
The effect of mothers' multiple roles as earners, child care providers and managers of ever-more complex households emerged clearly from the interviews and surveys conducted as part of the study: When men get home from their paid work, they uniformly report reduced stress and improved mood as their cares lighten. Upon arriving home from her job to start her "second shift," the typical mother in a dual-earner household reports no such emotional boost, Schneider said.
Schneider said the new data help explain a "paradox" — that while men's contributions to household work have increased substantially, they have not resulted in happier mothers.
In an age when parenting has become "more intensive," as the study puts it, the challenges and rewards of raising children have become a matter of growing research and national debate. Researchers consistently find childless Americans to be among the happiest, and have documented a drop in mental well-being among parents that does not lift until the kids leave the nest.
"We have this cultural belief that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not," said Wake Forest University sociologist Robin Simon, who in 2005 found that no parents — irrespective of their kids' stage in life — were happier than adults who had no children. Simon called the latest study "fascinating."
Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Work and Families Institute, said the study appeared to be the first to consider multitasking and its psychological impact on parents. In the current economic environment, where she said "multitasking on steroids" is the norm among working parents, the study suggests one important antidote to stress: Multitasking in the presence of a spouse eased the psychological strain of doing several things at once, parents reported.
That may be especially important in light of mounting evidence that married parents have been spending less and less time together since the mid-1970s, Galinsky said.
"Men want to be more involved in their families' lives," she said. By offering hands-on help to their wives, they will not only reduce stress but address the growing deficit of time together — all while getting more done.