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Multitasking Stresses Out Working Moms More Than Dads

By Jenifer Goodwin
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Ever unload the dishwasher while helping with a child's homework? Ever keep one eye on soccer practice while checking your voice mail and trying to figure out what to make for dinner?

That's called multitasking, and in a fast-paced world, American working moms do a whole lot of it -- and seem more stressed by it than working dads, a new study shows.

According to the research, working mothers spend 9 more hours a week multitasking than do working fathers, or about 48 hours per week for moms compared with 39 for dads.

And, when they have to multitask, women don't particularly enjoy it.

The research found that when women are trying to do multiple things at once, they report feeling stressed, while men don't seem to mind it as much. Researchers say it could be because men's multitasking at home more often involves work, while women's involves combining household chores and child-rearing, which may leave them feeling conflicted and guilty.

Among working mothers, 53 percent of multitasking at home involves housework compared with 42 percent among working fathers. Additionally, 36 percent of women's multitasking at home involves child care compared with 28 percent for fathers.

"The hours men spend in household labor have increased, but when you include multitasking, then you are able to see women are still shouldering more of the household responsibilities than men," said study co-author Barbara Schneider, a professor of sociology and education at Michigan State University.

The study is published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review.

Researchers used data from the 500 Family Study, which provided comprehensive information from 1999 to 2000 on U.S. families living in eight urban and suburban communities across the nation. The 368 mothers and 241 fathers in the current study typically have college degrees, are employed in professional occupations, work long hours and report higher earnings than do middle-class families in other nationally representative samples.

Previous research has found that women feel overburdened with work and family responsibilities, and feel they have too little time to attend to both, according to background information in the study.

The percentage of professional women working at least 50 hours a week has more than doubled, from 6 percent in the 1970s to 14 percent in the late 2000s, according to background information in the study, while the increase among men was 34 percent to 38 percent.

In almost 30 percent of all dual-earner couples with children, at least one spouse works a nonstandard daytime schedule, and in almost half of these couples at least one spouse works during the weekend.

Meanwhile, technology and increasing workplace demands have led to a blurring of the line between work and home. All this may be fueling more and more multitasking as parents try to do more than one task simultaneously -- like talking on the phone while folding laundry -- and get done more in limited time, researchers said.

To track multitasking, participants wore a wristwatch that beeped at seven random times throughout waking hours. Participants then responded to a short survey, which asked what they were doing, what they were thinking about and how they were feeling psychologically.

Working moms are multitasking about two-fifths of their waking hours, Schneider said.

What can be done to alleviate the pressure on moms?

Getting dads to not just pitch in more, but to share more equally in the child care and housework would help, Schneider said. In other words, don't just take your daughter to gymnastics when your wife says she can't do it. Make that your job to take her to gymnastics every week.

And for that matter, getting the kids to do more can help. Housework and yard work doesn't seem half as bad when the whole family works together to get chores done. Moms in particular feel positive about working together as a family, she added.

"Doing these things together, whether it's cleaning up or wrapping presents or whatever it is you need to do; when mom isn't the one out there till 9 p.m. trying to get it all done, these are the kinds of things that make a family run smoothly as a unit," Schneider said.

Moms also need to ease up some on themselves. Be aware that multitasking can leave you stressed and feeling pulled in too many directions, so try, as hard as it is, to do just one thing at once and accept you may not be able to do everything you wanted to do.

More flexible schedules and workplace cultures that support families -- whether that's allowing people to work from home or limiting expectations that employees will take work home -- can also help working parents, she added.

"The bar for being a good parent, the normative values of being a good mother, have gotten very high, and that leave mothers feeling a lot of pressure and stress," Schneider said.

Ann Bookman, an adjunct senior lecturer at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management in Waltham, Mass., said there are many anectodal reports of women feeling overburdened by the demands of combining family and work life. The study, Bookman said, suggests that the demands of multitasking may be at the root of some of their stress.

"This incredible focus on maximizing productivity at every moment has tremendous social and public health costs," Bookman said. "That's why a study like this is so important. It's not just that we have a sense that we and others are feeling overwhelmed. If you take a sample and very carefully analyze the numbers, you can begin to see in very graphic terms that women are still the primary caregivers and we are asking them to do just as much in the workforce."

Over time, repeated bouts of stress may take a toll, she added.

"It impacts the body and your psychological state, and the researchers are providing the evidence for really seeing multitasking as a significant public health issue for women," Bookman added.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more on stress.

SOURCES: Barbara Schneider, Ph.D., professor, sociology and education, Michigan State University; Ann Bookman, Ph.D., adjunct senior lecturer, Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Waltham, Mass.; December 2011 American Sociological Review

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