You’re at work, typing away at an important memo or filling in the last cell of a spreadsheet when your phone rings. Answering it, the voice on the other line tells you that your seven-year-old son has fallen ill and needs to be picked up from school. 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.
Women have long been told that having it all–the dream job and the idyllic family life–is hard; maternal instincts coupled with traditional gender roles that require women to excel in both home life and work life push females to the brink of what’s humanly possible. But science now shows that it’s more than hard, it’s emotionally and psychologically damaging. 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.
The finding, presented yesterday at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, looked at the work and family experiences of middle-class dual-earner families using the 500 Family Study conducted by the University of Chicago. Participants in the study–parents in 500 families across the U.S. with children of all ages–recorded responses to various questions, for example about work, child care, free time, division of responsibilities, etc. 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. Participants that failed to respond to the ESM over 1/4 of the time were removed from the data.
Offer chose a sub-sample from the 500 Family Study that responded to both survey questions and participated in the ESM. In her research, the responses of 402 mothers and 291 fathers were analyzed. The participants, it’s important to note, represent families where both parents work, and come from eight suburban and urban areas around the United States. The families that participated in the study were predominantly non-Latino white families with highly educated parents, and the family earnings rank above the average for married parents in the United States.
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.
According to Offer, these findings suggest that men might be more capable of compartmentalizing their work life and family life than women. 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). If family matters force the women away from the workplace (for example, women are more likely to miss work because of a sick child than men) then, in order make up for the lost time at work, women are forced to spend more non-work time thinking about work-related issues. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, noted in an interview with PBS, “I feel guilty when my son says, ‘Mommy, put down the BlackBerry, talk to me’ and that happens far too much. I think all women feel guilty.” she explained. “I don’t know a lot of men who feel guilty for working full time, it’s expected that they’ll work full time.”
This “mommy guilt” might just be why women suffer more negative emotional responses to family-related mental labor, Offer suggests.
The study is one of the first to directly correlate what people think (based on survey and ESM responses) with how people feel about it. But the study isn’t foolproof or all-encompassing. In fact, it’s limited in its scope and only deals with families that tend to fit into families that exemplify the American “working parents” stereotype: white, heterosexual, highly educated and fairly wealthy, carving out a cross-section of the population that often has the most leeway in terms of work and family stress, financially and socially. Would the same results be found in same sex couples, where traditional gender roles wouldn’t be as clearly divided, or in minority couples, whose metal worries likely encompass how children will deal with racism? Would impoverished families, concerned with how to feed their children on small budgets, show the similar or different struggles between family and work stressors depending on the parent’s gender?
Answering these questions requires more research. But if this study’s findings can be broadly applied, what can be done to ease women’s mental burdens of family? Offer believes that certain policy changes at the state, federal and organizational levels–directed towards fathers–can make a huge difference. “Fathers have to be encouraged, rather than penalized, for being more active in the domestic sphere. Fathers should be able to leave work early, start work late, take time off from work, and take pauses during the work day to deal with family-related matters,” Offer explains. “I think that if fathers were able to do this without the fear of being viewed as less committed workers, they would assume greater responsibility at home, which would lead to greater gender equality.”
Given the huge stresses of child-rearing, one can’t help but ask: would gender equality in this specific case make for happier parents? Or for both parents feeling weighed down by responsibility? Give us your thoughts!