Researchers have a suggestion to level the happiness playing field: Moms should play more with their kids. Let's unpack this a bit.

By Kristi Pahr
Updated: February 05, 2019
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

February 4, 2019

A 2019 study out of the University of California Riverside, highlights one more aspect in the divide between fathers and mothers, and more broadly, men and women. The research, a meta-analysis of three different studies, looked at the emotional health of 18,000 people and compared traits like well-being, happiness, episodes of depression, and stress.

The first two studies within the research compared parents to childless people and found that fathers are happier than their child-free peers.

The third study compared fathers to mothers and their level of happiness while caring for their children. Fathers, it seems, are more likely to be happy while caring for their children than mothers.

The reason? Dads, more often than moms, report playing with their children while providing care.

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Now, let's unpack this a bit.

We can assume, that of the 18,000 couples who took part in this research, many split household chores equally. But over recent years, much light has been shed on what people are calling the invisible burden that women carry. Even in homes where housework is shared, women do the majority of the emotional labor. They do the "thinking work" and, in turn, carry more of the mental load that comes with parenting. For example:

Mom knows when there's one roll of toilet paper left. Mom knows that the toddler left the rain boots in the car. Mom knows we are out of crackers. Mom knows what night Little League practice is, plus the day and time, gear list and snack requirements of every other extra-curricular activity this week.

Even when dad helps with food prep, carpools and cleaning toilets, in most two-parent, two-gender households, the majority of the thinking work still falls to mom. Which means despite more progressive attitudes toward parenting, moms tend to be keeping track of to-dos and schedules while dads play.

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"These findings don't surprise me at all," says Loren N. Barnes, M.Ed., PLPC a psychotherapist at Trinity Wellness, LLC, in St. Louis, MO. "Women often still carry the cognitive load in families. Simply put, even if fathers participate actively in housework, women are still usually the ones who are responsible for remembering what needs to happen and making sure it actually does happen."

This in and of itself is a huge task that adds a lot of stress. It's an invisible burden, though, so on the surface it might seem that chores are evenly divided between the parents. "People forget to account for the mental chore of keeping track of all of the various things that are going on or need to be attended to," says Barnes.

Can We Even the Playing Field?

The study authors, who are predominately women, have a suggestion to level the happiness playing field. They suggest moms will be happier if they just play more with their kids.

Of course, that is probably correct. On the surface, the researchers' suggestion seems simple enough, right? Just play more! Moms can be happier, too, if they just took the time to play with their kids!

Easy peasy. Moms, go play. Leave those dishes, let the laundry mildew, stop worrying about the grocery list, the dentist appointments, the lunches you need to pack... Just go play!

If the burden of emotional labor were removed from mothers and they were able to play more, I'm sure they'd be happier, but would it be because they were playing? Or would it be because they didn't have to remember that they are almost out of laundry detergent and the clothes have been in the wash since yesterday evening?

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California based psychologist Carla Manly, Ph.D., explains, "Historically, women bore more of the responsibility of home duties and raising children, while men attended to the financial aspects of the family unit. As women increasingly moved into the outside work world, their home duties have not shifted commensurately. As a result," she continues, "Women still bear most of the daily child-rearing and home life duties."

This disparity in duties can "create additional stress and take a toll on a woman's health and lead to anxiety and depression," Dr. Manly adds. "As a result of the ongoing stress and the pressure to perform, many women are physically exhausted by the end of each day."

Long story short, moms are tired. Moms are stressed out. Moms love their kids, but frequently given the laundry list of invisible duties moms are responsible for, playing another game of hide and seek or pretend sometimes falls by the wayside.

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Ironically, this study gives moms one more thing to worry about, one more straw of invisible burden on the camel's back. Now we get to worry that we're unhappy because we're doing it wrong. The suggestion that mothers should be more fun and play more adds to the pile-on of mom-shaming surrounding most aspects of motherhood.

Mothers are out there providing emotional support for their families, kissing booboos, calming fears, soothing tantrums, and the suggestion that women should parent more like men in order to be happy, is reductive and minimizing to vital role that mothers play within their family unit. Not to mention it disregards the dads that are out there parenting just as hard.

Instead of suggesting that mothers are doing it wrong, perhaps more focus should be placed on how both parents can work together, and how extended family and the villages it really does take to raise a child can be more involved to relieve some of the mental and emotional burdens that often falls on mom. That way they can be just as happy as a dad and still parent like a boss.

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