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Multi-tasking more stressful for women!

NPR featured a story recently on a study published in the American Sociological Review looking more deeply at the emotional experience of “multi-tasking” for women and men who are parents in dual income families. This is a really interesting study because it goes beyond the stats and numbers that support overall work hours and work loads have increased at about the same rate for both men and women in professional and managerial jobs over the last few decades. Yet women seem to experience higher levels of stress balancing the demands of work and home. What gives?

The study presents data that show that both men and women spend a significant amount of time multi-tasking each week (i.e. doing more than one activity at the same time). Women, however, reported significant levels of distress while multi-tasking at home and in public as compared to men. The study hypothesizes that women experience a much greater burden for the responsibility of being the “household managers”, suggesting that our ideas individually, and culturally continue to have a traditional “edge” to them when it comes to gender roles in a family.

The authors state, “normative expectations require middleclass mothers to run their households smoothly, engage in intensive parenting, and maintain a lifestyle that will help the family maintain its status and class privileges, through the purchase of goods, use of up-to-date technological devices, and enrolling children in numerous enriching activities (Lareau 2003; Nelson 2010). Mothers may therefore feel particularly stressed when multitasking at home and in public because, being highly visible to people in their proximate surroundings, their ability to fulfill their role as good mothers can be easily judged and criticized.”

In my work with women in psychotherapy, this study illuminates a trend on a larger level that I hear anecdotally in my office everyday. Frequently a source of depression and/or anxiety for women is the belief that they are “doing something wrong” because they constantly feel they are not meeting the expectations they have for being a “good” wife and mother. Often women compare themselves to other women they see in public, and know only superficially, as examples of how other women seem to “have it all together” or they compare themselves to their memories of how their own mother seemed to be able to “balance it all”.

My hope is that studies like this one will raise awareness of the residual impact on us all of gender roles from the past when women were largely not a part of the work force that inform unrealistic expectations in the present for wives and mothers. I also encourage my clients to be open and talk to other mothers, including their own mothers, about their experiences balancing work, family, household chores, etc. 9 times out of 10 women find that their perceptions of other women are skewed and inaccurate, and that they all experience similar struggles and pressures. Last but not least, I encourage my clients to have honest conversations with their spouses about truly sharing responsibilities, and how to track and correct the inevitable imbalances that come up along the way in raising a family.

Thanks for reading, as always I welcome your comments and questions!

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