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Multitasking a bigger stress on working moms than dads, study finds

‘Tis the season for multitasking. After all, there’s extra shopping, cooking, entertaining and holiday events to attend to over the next few weeks.

Working parents are particularly burdened with these tasks. But do moms and dads in dual-earner families engage in similar amounts of multitasking? And what kind of effect does multi-tasking have on their sense of well-being?

I don’t want to start any couple squabbles this weekend, but according to the findings of a new study, working mothers spend many more hours multitasking — at all times of year — than working dads.

And the moms are paying a higher emotional price for it.

A nine-hour difference
The study, which was published Thursday in the American Sociological Review, analyzed data on 500 middle-class, dual-earner families in eight urban and suburban U.S. communities. The data showed that working mothers spend about nine hours more each week multitasking than do working fathers: 48.3 hours for the moms compared to 38.9 hours for the dads.

Barbara Schneider
Barbara Schneider

“This suggests that working mothers are doing two or more activities at once more than two-fifths of the time they are awake, while working fathers are multitasking more than a third of their waking hours,” said study co-author Barbara Schneider, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, in a prepared statement.

The study defines multitasking as rapidly switching back and forth between two or more activities or doing them simultaneously — say, folding laundry while setting up a medical appointment or play dates on the phone, or helping a child with homework while cooking dinner.

Fathers have more fun?
But the gender difference in time spent multitasking is not the main finding of this study. The researchers also discovered that although men and women reported higher levels of stress when they were multitasking at work, only women said their stress levels increased when multitasking at home or in public.

For fathers, multitasking at home seems to be a positive emotional experience.

Why the difference? One explanation, says Schneider, may stem from the tendency of women to feel that others are judging them for their performance in taking care of their house and their children. Worrying about such judgments — trying to be the “perfect” homemaker and parent — may contribute to their stress.

Another explanation may be linked to another of the study’s findings: that women tend to be involved in more labor-intensive (and thus more burdensome) activities, particularly housework, when multitasking at home.

“[F]athers spend a larger share of their time with children in interactive activities that [are] more pleasurable than routine childcare tasks,” Schneider and her co-author, sociologist Shira Offer of Bar-Illan University in Israel, explain in the study. “This finding suggests that even when fathers multitask, they are more likely to engage in the more pleasurable and interactive aspects of childcare.”

Interestingly, Schneider and Offer also found that even when dads are involved in child care, their attention is often elsewhere:

[W]hen we examine the types of activities parents engage in when they multitask in the company of children, we find that even though fathers and mothers are equally likely to spend direct time with their children (i.e., engaging in two childcare activities at the same time) when they multitask in the company of their children, [the italics are in the original] fathers are significantly more likely than mothers to simultaneously engage in two activities that are not related to their children (e.g., conversing with other people or engaging in self care). In other words, although fathers report greater focus when they multitask in the company of their children compared to when they monotask, their attention is not necessarily directed to their offspring.

Needed: a change in culture
What can families — and society — do to help lower the stress on working mothers?

The study’s authors appear to place most of that responsibility on fathers. “The key to mothers’ emotional well-being is to be found in the behavior of fathers,” said Offer in the prepared statement. “I think that in order to reduce mothers’ likelihood of multitasking and to make their experience of multitasking less negative, fathers’ share of housework and childcare has to further increase.”

But that will require a willingness among employers and policymakers to alter our current workplace cultures.

“I think that fathers should have more opportunities to leave work early or start work late, so they can participate in important family routines; to take time off for family events; and to limit the amount of work they bring home, so they can pay undivided attention to their children and spouse during the evening hours and on weekends,” Offer said. “The goal is to initiate a process that will alter fathers’ personal preferences and priorities and eventually lead to more egalitarian norms regarding mothers’ and fathers’ parenting roles.”

This study, like all studies, has its limitations. The families participating were highly-educated, for example, and thus not representative of all American families. (Although, as the authors point out, the demands on these parents may lead them to multitask more frequently.) In addition, the data used in the study included only a week’s worth of activities for each family. A longer study might have revealed other trends. Furthermore, the data was collected in the years 1999 and 2000. The multitasking roles of working couples may have changed since then.

If you want to read the study in full, it’s available online [PDF].

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