Family, Kids & Relationships

Studies Show Marriage Is More Stressful Than Parenting, and It’s Hardest On Moms. Here’s How To Fix It

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It’s no surprise that parenting is stressful—the constant responsibility and resulting parental burnout are well documented. What has some people more shocked are the findings of a recent study from the University of Padova. It shows that for two-parent, opposite-gendered households, marriage causes women even more stress than having kids and raising a family.

According to the study, one in five wives say that a lack of support from their husbands is the largest source of stress in their lives. Even more alarming, 75% of married women report that they’re the ones in charge of the vast majority of both parenting and household duties.

New research from Penn State (published in the Journal of Family Issues) also revealed that dads are often happier, less sleep deprived, and less stressed than moms. Those differences are attributed to how and when child care duties are split between parents.

This comes when mothers spend more time than ever in the workforce, and spend more time than ever on childcare. According to the Pew Research Center, “In 2016, moms spent around 25 hours a week on paid work, up from nine hours in 1965. At the same time, they spent 14 hours a week on child care, up from 10 hours a week in 1965.” (To be fair, though, those numbers are climbing for dads as well.)

Society has made strides toward gender equality at home—but there’s much work to be done.

Cadhla McDonnell, a doctoral candidate in sociology and demography at Penn State, confirms that dads are participating more in their children’s lives these days. However, she says that parenting is still largely split down traditional gendered lines.

“There are many types of activities that can be considered childcare, but some are more strenuous or less enjoyable than others,” McDonnell told Science Daily. “A family trip to the playground is going to affect someone differently than changing diapers in the middle of the night, for example.” Her team discovered that fathers tended to handle more recreational parenting tasks, and were more likely to participate in child care on weekends. In contrast, mothers’ duties were—well, everything else.

These studies point to a more fair division of labor as a way to address these issues.

It can be touchy to bring up at home, but it’s time to recognize those often “invisible” jobs. Middle-of-the-night feedings, keeping track of which toiletries are running out, and looking after kids’ emotional wellbeing are valuable jobs. It’s critical to make things more fair, both for mothers’ sake and to provide a better example for our kids.

Here are a few suggestions for making the division of labor at home a bit more equal, from our team of experts here at ParentsTogether.

  • Take turns putting the kids to bed or being “on call” in the middle of the night. Or take turns grocery shopping without the kids on weekends.
  • Reduce the workload by doing some meal planning/prepping each weekend. That way, dinner prep won’t always fall to the parent who’s home earlier.
  • Compare your lists of recurring tasks. Look for items your partner is better suited for, or can fit more easily into their schedule. Those are things that they could start taking care of on a regular basis.
  • Offer specific and realistic options in the moment when you’re feeling overwhelmed. “Would you rather do the dishes or give the kids a bath right now?” “Would you rather call the pediatrician today or buy wipes on your way home?”
  • Have “learning days” on weekends to show each other (and the kids, if they’re old enough) how to complete unfamiliar tasks. Installing car seats, cleaning bottles or pump parts, and jumping into the never-ending laundry rotation are all specific skills. Showing someone the ropes is too much hassle when something needs to be done right then. Quick tutorials ahead of time can be helpful.

Keep in mind that what’s usually most helpful is to truly split tasks up. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the trap where one person is the household manager. That’s the person who carries the mental load of deciding what needs to be done, how, and when. That leaves the partner in the role of helper. A helper assists with things that aren’t really their job, rather than taking full responsibility for a task.

Moms and dads are already equal in at least one important way.

“Traditionally caregiving has been seen as more central to women’s identities than it is to men’s, and that would suggest that mothers might find caring for their children more meaningful than fathers do,” McDonnell said. “But that’s not the case — mothers and fathers both found caring for children highly meaningful and there is no difference by gender.”

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.