A survey of over seven thousand American mothers conducted by TODAY in 2013 asked how they’d rate their stress level on a scale of 0-10 (ten being the highest amount of stress). The average response was 8.5. That’s hardly a surprise. What’s interesting is that when asked their greatest source of stress, almost half of the moms answered: their husbands. (1)
In the context of family life, the sources of stress are different among mothers, fathers, and children.
Primary sources of stress for the mothers surveyed:
Not enough time each day to accomplish everything that needs to be done.
Responsibility for most of the parenting and household duties.
Inadequate help from their spouses.
Single mothers (understandably) experience the highest levels of stress, as they have zero daily support from a spouse.
These stressors are based on the common experience of mothers in the industrialized world: generally, mothers do twice as many household and parenting tasks as fathers. This statistic should be considered along with the fact that many women prefer to do some of those tasks because they’re happier with the outcome than if their partners did them (e.g., laundry, cleaning the bathroom). (2) It’s acknowledged, even at the federal government level, that women spend much more of their time attending to family and care responsibilities than men. (3)
Underlying the stresses of raising children is marriage. All relationships require work on both sides in order to be mutually beneficial. Marriage is the most difficult and complicated of them all. Even the best of marriages that are fulfilling, rewarding, honest, respectful, and loving can be stressful at times.
The responsibilities and pressures of having children add to the daily emotional stress of marriage, work outside the home, and other relationships. To be a successful parent in a comfortable home, mothers and fathers have to manage their relationships with each other and with each child simultaneously; neglect one and the other will sorely suffer.
Additionally, when mothers and fathers disagree on parenting issues there’s that stress on top of regular daily activities. Part of that is due to the (thankfully) different approaches to life: men see the forest and women see the trees. The differences in how men and women view parenting and the accompanying stressors are partially the result of upbringing but even more responsible is the composition and structure of the brain.
“The neuroscience literature shows that the human brain is a sex-typed organ with distinct anatomical differences in neural structures and accompanying physiological differences in function.” (4)
So yeah, women and men are wired differently from the get-go.
When it comes to parenting, mothers and fathers approach it differently. In a 2015 study of the differences between men and women in attachment and caregiving representations and mindful parenting:
“…fathers presented higher levels of avoidance, more egoistic motivations to provide help, lower perceived ability to recognize others’ needs, and lower levels of mindful parenting than mothers.” (5)
That doesn’t mean they care less or don’t love and respect their wives or their children. Fathers just don’t assume the parenting role in the same way that mothers do. In fact, studies in mammal genetics have found that a maternal instinct is pre-programmed in females in utero, due primarily to the predominant female sex hormones. (6)
Many of the mothers surveyed by TODAY expressed frustration that their husbands behave more like children than active equal partners in parenting and in running the household. Fathers are more prone to sit back when the sink is full of dishes or the hamper is overflowing, especially after a full day of work outside the home. And they won’t lose any sleep if the cupcakes for tomorrow’s bake sale aren’t perfect. Like children, those things don’t carry a whole lot of importance for fathers.
Mothers’ resentment is often the result of the inequity in household duties. If resentment is left unresolved, the marriage can suffer; sometimes it doesn’t recover after the children have grown and are no longer in their parents’ care.
A study by the University of Padova (Italy) found that when one spouse dies in a long-term marriage, widowers often suffer depression and failing health while widows find their stress levels drastically reduced and are less likely to become frail. A contributing factor to this (perhaps surprising) result is the unburdening of the caregiver role that women take on for their spouses. (7)
From a Father’s Perspective
In 2012, TODAY surveyed fifteen hundred fathers on the same parenting issues. The consensus among dads is that they are doing more for their families than ever before, up to a full half of the parenting and household responsibilities, but feel their efforts are unacknowledged and disrespected by their wives and society as a whole. (These same men’s wives’ perspectives were quite different when it came to estimating the division of labor, providing supporting evidence on this point.)
Over half the men surveyed said they’d just like a spoken acknowledgement-“good job” every once in a while would be encouraging and reflect appreciation for their efforts. (8) While many mothers might roll their eyes at this, modern parents have to recognize that roles and responsibilities have changed drastically over the past sixty years and it wasn’t long ago that a father didn’t-and wasn’t expected to-wash a dish or change a diaper. The fact that most dads today are willing to do (almost) anything for the children is a tremendous change.
What Parents Can Do to Relieve the Stress
As in any successful meaningful relationship, open communication is essential. Mothers and fathers must take the time to understand the perspective of the other. You can’t make a dad care about cupcakes but it’s pretty certain that he cares about his children and their mother. Dads can become frustrated with moms when their points of view aren’t recognized or understood, too.
1. Husbands can step up.
Very often, dads are oblivious to all the “invisible” things that moms do. They don’t even think about the planning and organizing required to get this kid here and that kid there and making dinner and helping with homework and washing a uniform for the game tomorrow and writing a check for the field trip and stopping for groceries, all in the space of an evening, and often after a full day’s work. Every single day.
The answer: make it visible. Start with a calendar, either on paper or an electronic one that can be shared. Write down all the things that have to be done. All of them. Sit down with your spouse and divvy up the tasks so the burden is more evenly shared. Be fair…don’t expect him to bake cupcakes from scratch but if he can stop at the bakery on his way home, it’s one less thing to keep you up at night. Not only will going through this exercise help relieve your stress, it’ll make your husband cognizant of all the work that goes into being a contemporary wife and mother.
2. Wives can step back.
Trying to be everything to everyone every day is exhausting. Don’t be Super Mom all the time. Take some time for yourself. Tell your partner that you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a break. Trust your husband to support you, let him do stuff his way without criticism, and let him know you appreciate him. Your stress is yours to deal with in a constructive way. As a psychologist for the American Psychological Association warns:
“How a mother manages stress is often a model for the rest of the family. Other family members will imitate her unhealthy behavior…Mothers often put their family needs first and neglect their own. It’s okay to relax your standards-don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to have the ‘perfect’ house or be the ‘perfect’ mother. No one expects you to be Superwoman.” (9)
Except maybe you. Becoming frustrated or angry doesn’t help anything or anyone. Feel free to leave the dishes in the sink and take a bubble bath instead after the kids have gone to bed. There is virtually nothing you don’t do today that will be catastrophic tomorrow and chances are good that no one else will even notice. If mom’s happy, everyone’s happy. (The converse is also true.)
3. Keep your marriage paramount.
It’s so easy to lose sight of the marriage when children come into your lives. Mothers and fathers are individuals first, a couple second, and parents third. A strong, healthy marriage between loving people fosters the rest and is the foundation for well-adjusted kids. It’s what you fall back on those days when you want to scream and run for the hills. Take time for yourselves as a couple on a regular basis-that’s what baby-sitters are for. You may discuss family and household matters for part of the time but make sure there’s enough time to be just you and the two of you together as adults and life partners. Doing so will make you better spouses, better parents, and more content as individuals.
The source of stress between wives and husbands is their differences. But their differences can also be their greatest strength, as they fill each other’s gaps.