Despite rumours to the contrary, parenting is anything but a one-size-ﬁts-all experience. Some parents enjoy parenting more than others, or derive greater meaning from it, or both.
Here’s what you need to know: Dads enjoy parenthood more.
The following is going to make for somewhat annoying reading, particularly if you happen to be a non-dad. But I hope you’ll slog through it regardless. There’s some important stuff here about stubborn gender norms that make life harder for moms and dads alike—which, I should add, means any person of any gender who happens to step into either of those prepackaged roles.
If you’ve always had a nagging suspicion that being a dad tends to be more fun than being a mom, well, it turns out that science is on your side. There’s a solid body of evidence to make the case that mothers report “less happiness, more stress, and greater fatigue” during the time they spend with children than fathers do, as Cornell University’s Kelly Musick reported in a 2016 study published in the American Sociological Review. She then identiﬁed a few key factors that help to explain why this is the case.
For starters, the job description for “father” is a whole lot more manageable than the job description for “mother.” There are more ﬂexible and more realistic models of what it means to be “a good dad” as compared to “a good mom.” As Musick and her co-authors explain, “Multiple models of good fathering have emerged emphasizing to varying degrees fathers’ contributions as breadwinners and caretakers. The existence of multiple acceptable models may make fathers less susceptible to role strain and difﬁcult-to-meet social expectations and leave more room for enjoyment. With one acceptable good mother model—committed, ever-available, deeply involved—mothers may more consistently derive meaning from parenting than fathers, but they may also experience more stress.” As Helen Hayward noted in a recent essay for Aeon, “It’s caring about the daily necessities—the circus of childhood—that is, for so many mothers, both fantastically demanding and weirdly rewarding.”
Then there’s the fact that mothers tend to spend more of their time with their kids taking care of the hands-on, hard work of parenting, freeing dads up to enjoy more of the fun stuff. Musick and her co-authors note, “Women do more of the day- to-day, time-inﬂexible basic care and management tasks related to childcare, and they spend a smaller share of their overall minutes with children in play.” Every time I read that, I can’t help but think of a classic Nancy White song lyric—the one about mommies being “for maintenance” and daddies “for fun.”Modern Marriage- Till Chores Do Us Part
Feeling discouraged by the state of the world when it comes to parental gender equality? I hate to break it to you, but there’s still more bad news to come. There are at least a couple of other noteworthy factors at play. Like the fact that mothers have less leisure time than fathers do—roughly half an hour less per day on average. To make matters worse, they get less out of that leisure time. Yes, it’s a double whammy. Women get less of it and it’s less restorative. Not only are women less likely to beneﬁt from reduced feelings of time stress—that ever-present feeling of being rushed—but they’re also more likely to spend their leisure time in the company of children or to have family-related tasks “contaminate” (hey, that’s the researchers’ term, not mine) their supposed leisure time. You know how it goes: you’re enjoying a rare lunch out with a friend when one of your kids texts you in a panic to say that she needs you to pick up such-and-such for her science fair project, and she needs it right now.
But wait, it gets worse! Mothers also tend to fall short on the sleep front. While mothers and fathers tend to clock comparable numbers of total hours of sleep, moms are less likely to enjoy high-quality, uninterrupted sleep as compared to dads. It could be a by-product of hormones: prenatal, postpartum, peri-menopausal—take your pick! It could be because they’re more likely to be woken in the night by a child requiring care. Or it could be that they’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep, perhaps because their brain is hard at work planning and organizing the family’s activities for the next day—for example, remembering that stray ﬁeld-trip permission slip that needs to be tracked down (is it in a backpack or under a bed?), signed and returned the next day. Is there any mother on the planet who hasn’t experienced that kind of middle-of-the-night epiphany with the accompanying waves of where-the-hell-is-that-thing-anyway panic?
All mothers feel this pressure to hold it all together and to keep everything on track. It’s not just those mothers who buy into the concept of “concerted cultivation,” the term that sociologist Annette Lareau used to describe an intensive mothering style in which some middle- and upper-income mothers treat their chil- dren as projects to be perfected. As Angie Henderson, Sandra Harmon, and Harmony Newman, three sociologists from the University of Northern Colorado, noted in a 2016 article for the journal Sex Roles, sky-high standards are pretty much the backdrop of modern motherhood. As Henderson explained in a related blog post, “It’s not any one choice that women make that compounds the pressure to be perfect; instead, it is all around us. It is part of the modern physique of motherhood.” And that, in turn, helps to explain why motherhood has become increasingly labour-intensive in recent decades. According to statistics cited by Suniya S. Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla in a 2015 article for Developmental Psychology, between 1993 and 2008, college-educated mothers went from spending 12 hours to spending 20.5 hours a week on parenting-related tasks, while less-educated mothers went from spending 10.5 hours a week to spending 16 hours a week. To be fair, dads also began to invest more time and energy into parenting over this same period of time, more than doubling their parental investment from 4.2 hours per week to 9.7 hours per week.
There’s a bit more good news on the whole maternal versus paternal well-being front. First of all, according to Musick and her co-authors, the overall differences are relatively small—it’s a gap as opposed to a gulf. Second, these differences “can be accounted for by differences in the activities that mothers and fathers engage in with children, whether other adults are present, and the quality of their sleep and leisure”—aspects that we actually have some hope of being able to change.
This article was excerpted from Happy Parents Happy Kids by Ann Douglas © 2019. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.