Motherhood isn’t about finding a way to fit everything in or, god forbid, have it all. You learn that pretty quickly—say, two to three weeks into this mess. Trying to do it, you discover, will only lead to a cascade of tears in a restaurant bathroom where you’re shoving toilet paper into your bra to keep milk from leaking out onto the only “business-y” top you own that gracefully covers the band of tissue pregnancy left behind on your pelvis. Instead, you become a professional triage consultant, sorting through must-do’s and should-do’s and it-would-be-nice-ifs, and then cramming errands and activities into the brief flashes of “free time” that pop up between washing the last bottle and making the next one. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but mothers are almost certainly the most stressed out demographic in this country.
A recently released study claims that isn’t true. Dads, it argues, feel this stress just as much as moms. Allegedly, dads have long kept quiet for fear of stigmatization, among other things. After examining a compilation of 350 studies completed over the past three decades, the research team “found very little evidence of differences between women and men as far as the level of work-family conflict they report,” according to a report from Science Daily.
“The way this issue is presented in the media frames the way we think about it,” lead researcher Dr. Kristen Shockley explained, “and it creates a perpetual cycle. Women hear that other women are struggling with this issue, so they expect they will experience greater work-family conflict. There also is some socialization for it being OK for women to talk more about it than men.” In other words, Shockley is claiming that women know it’s acceptable to admit to feeling stress about their work-life “balance”; that openness then creates the perception that such stress is rampant, thus beginning a diabolical feedback loop. I.e. We’re doing this to ourselves.
“I do think it’s harming men,” she went on, “who are silently struggling and are experiencing the same amount of work-family conflict, but no one is acknowledging it.” (I read this line and then picked my jaw up off the floor and mopped where it had been, because that’s the kind of thing moms remember to do.)
Of course, it’s vital that we, as a society, consider the implications of the massively dysfunctional familial child care system we’ve created. And that doesn’t mean that we just hand women tissues as they tell their tales of woe and then wave banners demanding that men cower in a corner while we give birth in spa soaking tubs and demand paid leave until our babies are in Master’s programs. Advancing women’s causes without considering the roles men will play in that future is shortsighted. In fact, longer paternity leave has been proven to help close the gender wage gap and distribute child rearing responsibilities more equally.
But to argue that men are suffering in silence while dissolving under the same amount of anxiety as women not only misrepresents reality, it also dangerously implies that both genders need equal support in their mission to parent and work outside the home.
Earlier this year, on a trip to visit friends in California, we brought along our then-four-month-old to meet the couple, who don’t have any kids and aren’t entirely sure whether they ever will. The trip was a prime example of how equally we try to share parenting duties in our house. For the first two days I carted the baby around San Francisco, trying to cram art into her formative little brain in the hopes of making her a more cultured person, while my husband attended business meetings. Then we headed out of the city to meet our friends for a few days of relaxing in the redwoods, where my husband was planning on taking the lion’s share of responsibility for the weekend. One hour after checking in I missed a step and tore two ligaments in my ankle. I couldn’t even pick up the baby, let alone handle the (oddly physically demanding) tasks that come along with parenthood. But it wasn’t a problem at all. My husband knows all the baby’s ins and outs. He does all the routines. If I dropped dead tomorrow, he wouldn’t scratch his head and wonder where the hell I keep the baby’s pajamas.
But when our friends asked how much having her had changed our lives, my husband replied, “Really not that much!” Of course it hasn’t, I interjected in what must have appeared to be a verbal seizure, you go to work every day! Your whole identity hasn’t shifted! There isn’t still a weird band of flesh attached to your pelvis that only one work shirt covers! You don’t spend your whole day telling a tiny human what color everything is while you empty the dishwasher!
I may be extra rant-y, but I’m not alone. Study after study proves that not only do men do less, they also don’t know how to self-report about their roles in the home. This study found that women spend twice as much time on childcare in a week than their male counterparts. This one found that half of women do housework every day, while just 20% of men do the same. And this one, from the Pew Research Group, found that men drastically overestimate the amount of time they spend on chores, household affairs, and childcare. “After a birth,” The New York Times explained, “women’s total work — including paid work, housework and child care — increased 21 hours a week and men’s increased 12.5 hours. For women, but not men, child care did not substitute for any of their existing work; it was all supplemental.” In other words, we’re doing far more with far less time and the data backs us up.
Yet the biggest complaint from women when it comes to the division of work in the home isn’t that it’s merely unequal. It’s that the mental load of wondering exactly how all the tasks will get done falls inordinately on women’s shoulders. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in this spot-on piece, moms are “the designated worriers,” who “draft the to-do lists while fathers pick and choose among the items.” This clever cartoon—which was passed around among mothers this summer like cholera through Victorian London’s sewers—explains how fathers in heterosexual relationships view mothers as the managers, and asserts that “when we ask women to take on the task of organization, and at the same time to execute a large portion, in the end it represents 75% of the work.” When we see fathers plan and enact elaborate activities we consider it exceptional. When mothers do it, we consider it Tuesday.
Are men stressed about how to manage a thriving career and enriching home life? Surely. Do we need to fear that they’re bearing the same load as their female counterparts and yet no one will heed their silent cries for help? I wouldn’t add this your list of worries, moms.