Family Matters

Yawn. Working Moms Awake More Than Dads to Care for Kids at Night

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Ah, bedtime. For children, it’s an oppressive end to all the day’s fun. For adults, it’s blessed reprieve until … MOMMY!!!

Further entrenching gender stereotypes, a new study from the University of Michigan shows that working mothers are more than twice as likely as working dads to rouse themselves from sleep to take care of kids. Not surprisingly, the starkest gender gap was evident during prime childbearing years and the subsequent early childhood period.

“Women face gendered expectations that they’re the caregivers,” says Sarah Burgard, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

To make matters worse, women who get up at night tend to stay awake longer than men — 44 minutes for her compared to his 30. (More on Bye-bye, Baby. Why Selling Your Crib Hurts)

The study, to be published in the journal Social Forces, tapped the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey, relying on time-diary data from 20,000 working parents from 2003 to 2007.

As children grew, night wakings became less common. But in working couples with a child under the age of 1, about 32% of women reported they got up to tend to the baby while just 11% of men said they roused themselves from slumber. Among working couples with children between the ages of 1 and 2, about 10% of women awoke compared to 2% of men. By the time the kids ranged between the ages of 3 and 5, some 3% of moms got up compared to 1% of dads.

While the study was unable to control for breast-feeding — which is a mom’s job, unless that mom pumps and hands off bottle-feeding duties to Dad — Burgard did control for employment status, income and education levels. In any case, the typical U.S. baby is weaned by 6 months, so breast-feeding alone can’t be blamed for the discrepancies. (More on Breast-Feeding Moms Get As Much Sleep As Formula-Feeders)

The results didn’t change, even when zeroing in on the parent who brings home the bacon. In those cases, 28% of women who are the sole breadwinner said they awake at night to take care of their children, compared to 4% of men who support their families.

To women, Burgard’s results are hardly shocking. I have one friend who is such a sound sleeper that her husband always woke up to care for their son, but she’s the exception. In all other relationships I know, the mom’s always the one bounding out of bed. It’s just how it’s always been. “From Day 1, most women after they give birth have the expectation that they will be the primary caregiver,” says Burgard. “That’s socially constructed.”

Problem is, those expectations were formed when our society was predicated on male-breadwinner households and women at home with the kids. But, in case you’ve been, well, asleep for the past 30 years, women are now doing lots of things that men do — namely working. (More on Most Babies Sleep through the Night (but Not Mine))

Beyond yawning and lamenting the unfairness of it all, should women really get fired up about this nocturnal inequity? Burgard says yes, and here’s why in two words: health and money.

Interrupted sleep is not good-quality sleep, and that could have health implications over the long haul. Plus, if a woman is tired all the time, it could hamper her job productivity and hence her career trajectory. “It has real consequences at a time when men and women are expected to perform equally in the job market,” says Burgard, who suggests sitting down with your sweetie to work out a plan — trade off nights, for example, or weekends.

The children, too, may be influencing matters in that despotic way little ones have of often getting what they want. Say Baby gets used to Mom coming in to soothe him; he may demand her presence even if Pop shows up. That’s what happened in my home, despite my repeatedly instructing my three kids to wake Daddy up at night. I can count on a finger or two the times my husband awoke to rock a crying baby. It’s not that he’s a bad dad — he’s fab — but he has an enviable skill that allows him to tune out middle-of-the-night squalling. He doesn’t even hear it — or so he says. (A well-placed elbow can rouse a dozing dad, but by the time he swings his feet onto the floor, Mom’s likely wide awake already. Might as well just do it myself in those situations, I huff, and pad downstairs.) (More on Working Moms’ Kids Turn Out Fine, 50 Years of Research Says)

Lending credence to my husband’s alleged inability to tend to his kids in the dark, a male researcher who reviewed Burgard’s paper urged her to track down a study that found women’s brains are more alert to babies’ crying. Burgard searched and searched but turned up zilch.

When she shared the story with her female colleagues, they laughed and said, “That sounds like an old husband’s tale.”

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