Family Matters

Working Moms Multitask More Than Dads — and Like It Less

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Women — especially working mothers — are the ultimate multitaskers, but they’re not too happy about it. There’s now empirical evidence in the December issue of the American Sociological Review that underpins the notion that working moms are juggling multiple roles at once — and having a pretty lousy time doing so.

“This helps explain why women feel more burdened than men,” says Shira Offer, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University in Israel. “It’s related not just to amount but to their experience when they multitask.”

Both parents reported multitasking at work more than at home, where it was a negative experience, hands down. The study’s most dramatic, if not unexpected, finding is that mothers multitask more often than fathers when they do housework – doing dishes while making dinner, for example — and they feel stressed and conflicted about it.

Offer and colleagues looked at data collected from 368 U.S. mothers and 241 fathers in dual-earner, middle- to upper-middle-class families in 1999 and 2000. The parents held professional jobs and managerial positions, representing a segment that’s under considerable time pressures.

The working moms indicated that they engage in multitasking 48.3 hours each week, compared with fathers’ 38.9 hours. For moms, that means they’re focusing on more than one thing a head-spinning 43% of their waking hours. In terms of housework, moms reported that housework accounts for 53% of their multitasking at home, compared with 42% for dads; child care was the focus of at-home multitasking 36% of the time for moms and 28% for dads.

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Not only do fathers multitask less often at home, but when they do, they have a completely different experience. Why? Because they are less likely to engage in housework drudgery. They may do two things at once, but it’s more apt to be less labor-intensive tasks such as talking on the phone while getting dressed.

Offer figures that the findings have everything to do with social expectations. While today’s generation of fathers is expected to be involved in housework and child care, women often still play a primary role. “We expect mothers to be good workers who are highly committed to their work, but they are also the ones held accountable for how their children do and how their households are run,” says Offer. “So they have to multitask. There’s no other way to do it.”

In the Aug. 8 issue of TIME Magazine, Ruth Davis Konigsberg looked at how men and women are actually spending very similar amounts of time doing paid and unpaid work. In fact, maybe we should be lavishing compassion on dads:

[N]ew research on working fathers indicates that they’re the ones experiencing the most pressure. In a July report called, tellingly, The New Male Mystique, the Families and Work Institute surveyed 1,298 men and concluded that long hours and increasing job demands are conflicting with more exacting parenting norms. The institute had launched the survey to follow up on its 2008 finding that 60% of fathers said they were having a hard time managing the responsibilities of work and family, compared with only 47% of mothers in dual-earner couples.

“Men are feeling enormous pressure to be breadwinners and involved fathers,” says Ellen Galinsky, the institute’s director. “Women expect more of men, and men expect more of themselves.”

If you look at total workload, Offer confirms, moms and dads are actually pretty even. The reason mothers report feeling so wiped out, Offer maintains, lies in how they tackle their jobs at work and at home. Multitasking is exhausting and not particularly efficient; toggling between tasks makes errors more likely. “Neuropsychological studies show you pay a heavy price for multitasking,” she says.

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

When asked if she’s got any suggestions for moms — chill out, perhaps? — Offer said her message is actually directed toward fathers, employers and policy-makers: Dads, pitch in more (without being asked!). Employers and policy-makers, make that possible by understanding that it’s not only mom who should transport the kids to day care and school or stay home with a sick child.

If responsibilities become more equitable, moms won’t feel the need to fold the laundry, pay the bills and supervise children’s homework all at once. “Multitasking doesn’t make things easier,” says Offer. “But mothers feel this is the only way to get things done.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.