Feeling spread thin is a lament heard often from working parents, though perhaps more often from working moms than working dads, and new research from The Ohio State University (OSU) sheds some light on why that is. A study conducted among middle-class, dual-income households found that mothers take on the majority of child care-related tasks and still spend more of their free time on child care than men.
“Both parents may think they should divide child care responsibilities equally but mothers still feel a special pressure to show they are being the best parent they can be,” said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, study co-author and associate professor of human sciences at OSU.
The study involved 182 couples living in double-income households from the third trimester of pregnancy through the first nine months of parenthood. The couples kept diaries of both a workday and a non-workday, recording everything they did in each 24-hour period. The participants filled out the diary when their child was three and nine months old.
The researchers divided parenting duties into four categories:
- Positive engagement: parents played with, talked to or read to their child
- Responsibility: providing indirect care, such as scheduling check-ups
- Accessibility: supervising the child but no other parenting activities
- Routine care: bathing, feeding and diapering
The study found that both mothers and fathers are highly involved with their children. On non-workdays, parents spent more than 2.75 hours of positive engagement with their nine-month-old babies. Mothers, however, spent more than twice as much of their parenting time on routine care than fathers. This was true even after taking into account time spent breastfeeding and pumping breast milk. By nine months, women spent almost 70 percent of their time on an average weekday, when they were not working or sleeping, on some type of child care, compared to 50 percent of fathers’ free time.
“We have always talked about fathers doing more but it may be that mothers should do less. They need to relinquish some control,” said Schoppe-Sullivan.
In our home, parenting is very much a team effort and I’m thankful every day to have an enthusiastic and hands-on partner. But for whatever reason, the lion’s share of the basic-care duties still falls to me. I’m the nail-trimmer and the cradle-cap-scraper and the eye-crusty-getter.
If I had to venture a guess as to why this is, I’d say it’s a blend of my being a bit of a control freak; working-mom guilt; and the dynamic of our marriage where I naturally assume a care-giving role for our dependents (pets included!). Maybe it’s time I back off and let my husband take the reins, though that’s easier said than done when my urge to be with my son 100 percent of the time is perhaps stronger than my desire to sit uninterrupted with a book for 15 minutes. It’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, the responsibilities shift as time goes on.
What does this study tell us about a woman’s psyche and modern family dynamics? For all we hear about dads feeling neglected in marketing targeted to parents, does the shift need to happen at home before advertising catches up? What will it take for more fathers to be the CEO of the household?