Now, Dad Feels as Stressed as Mom
By TARA PARKER-POPE
Published: June 18, 2010
Father’s Day brings this offering of a dubious milestone: Husbands are now just as stressed out as their harried wives.
For decades, the debate about balancing work and family life has been framed as an issue for women. Many studies have shown that motherhood is more taxing than fatherhood; mothers typically reported higher levels of unhappiness than women without children or men in general. Over the years, this disparity has helped fuel the gender wars, in policy debates and at home, often over a pile of dirty laundry.
Men, the truism went, did not do their share of the grocery shopping or diaper changing. They let women pull the double shift.
But several studies show that fathers are now struggling just as much — and sometimes even more — than mothers in trying to fulfill their responsibilities at home and in the office. Just last week, Boston College released a study called “The New Dad” suggesting that new fathers face a subtle bias in the workplace, which fails to recognize their stepped-up family responsibilities and presumes that they will be largely unaffected by children.
Fathers also seem more unhappy than mothers with the juggling act: In dual-earner couples, 59 percent of fathers report some level of “work-life conflict,” compared with about 45 percent of women, according to a 2008 report from the Families and Work Institute in New York.
The research highlights the singular challenges of fathers. Men are typically the primary breadwinner, but they also increasingly report a desire to spend more time with their children. To do so, they must first navigate a workplace that is often reluctant to give them time off for family reasons. And they must negotiate with a wife who may not always recognize their contributions at home.
“Men are facing the same clash of social ideals that women have faced since the 1970s — how do you be a good parent and a good worker?” said Joan C. Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California. “This is a pretty sensitive indicator of the rise of the new ideal of the good father as a nurturing father, not just a provider father.”
When it comes to taking time off for children, men seem to be second-class citizens. Several studies show that men, compared with their female colleagues, are less likely to take advantage of benefits like flexible schedules and family leave. The Boston College study found that when men needed to take their offspring to the doctor or pick them up from child care, they tended to do so in a “stealth” fashion rather than ask for a formal flexible work arrangement.
The reluctance to ask for help may not stem from a bias in the office. Instead, men may just be wandering into strange, frightening territory.
“The conflict is newer to men, and it feels bigger than the same amount of conflict might feel to a woman,” notes Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. “Women have been doing it for a longer time, and they have more role models.”
It doesn’t help that work eats up more time. In 1970, about two-thirds of married couples had a spouse at home (usually the wife). But today, only 40 percent of families have a stay-at-home spouse to handle domestic demands during the workday. Couples now work a combined average of 63 hours a week, up from just 52.5 in 1970, according to a 2009 report on workplace flexibility from the Georgetown University Law Center.
Men may be stressed out, but try telling that to their wives. Although men do more vacuuming and dishwashing than their fathers did, they still lag behind women when it comes to housework. When both husband and wife work outside the home, the woman spends about 28 hours a week on housework. Her husband can claim only about 16 hours, according to the National Survey of Families and Households from the University of Wisconsin. And men and women themselves paint very different pictures of their domestic duties. In the 2008 Families and Work report, 49 percent of men said they provided most or an equal amount of child care. But only 31 percent of women gave their husbands that much credit. The perception gap continued for cooking and housecleaning — more than 50 percent of men say they do most or half the work; 70 percent of wives say they do all of it.
If women are right, how bad could men’s work-life conflict be? “You will get complaints about men exaggerating their conflict,” Dr. Galinsky conceded.
Then again, some contributions may be unrecognized by the other partner. For instance, a father may prepare school lunches half the time, so he thinks he’s sharing that chore. But he doesn’t factor in the time his wife spent shopping for the ingredients, planning healthy, appetizing menus and emptying and cleaning the lunchboxes every day.
“Women remain psychologically responsible, and that’s a burden,” said Dr. Galinsky. “That psychological responsibility adds to the sense of feeling like you’re doing more, even though it may be somewhat invisible.”
For his part, a father may spend time fixing a tricycle, playing video games or putting away outdoor toys — time that his wife doesn’t count when she’s mentally keeping tabs.
“Women consistently underestimate how much their husbands do,” said Stephanie Coontz, a marriage historian and author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s,” to be published next year.
“Women don’t necessarily give his contribution the same value as theirs,” she added. “They don’t always recognize that what he does with the kids is a form of care, too.”
Tara Parker-Pope writes the Well column for The Times and is author of “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage,” published by Dutton.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 20, 2010, on page WK1 of the New York edition.