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Single moms don’t get to choose between fun and hard parenting

Ask a mother if she’s happy with her parenting, and you’re not going to get a straight answer. No two days or two hours are the same. It’s perfectly possible to swing from feeling like a parenting superhero to the worst mom ever within a few minutes.

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So I always approach studies that make statements like, “mothers are overall less happy with parenting than fathers” with some amount of skepticism. How do you quantify happiness, for starters? According to a study recently published in the American Sociological Review by the University of Minnesota, Cornell University and the Minnesota Population Center, the gender gap in happiness has a lot to do with the type of tasks each parent is performing.

Using diary entries from over 12,000 U.S. parents from 2010, 2012 and 2013, the study found that mothers reported less happiness, more stress and greater fatigue in time with children than fathers did. This could be accounted for in several ways. Working mothers feel more conflict between family and work than working fathers do. Additionally, men have traditionally had less free time to spend with their kids outside of work, meaning they have greater leeway and less responsibility. Conversely, women are responsible for more of the day-to-day basic care and management tasks and spend a smaller share of their time with children on play.

It’s hardly a surprise that parenting roles are different for mothers and fathers. A quick survey of my own parent friends echoed the findings of this study. “Straight after work, I have to make dinner and prepare lunches for the next day, while my husband spends an hour playing football with the kids in the garden,” said one. “When my son wakes up in the night, he always comes to me, never his dad,” said another. “So I’m exhausted every morning and feel like I’m chasing my tail for the rest of the day.”

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As a single mom, I’m coming at this from a slightly different perspective. When you’re flying solo, you have to provide the fun and the hard work — and striking a balance can be tough. I wouldn’t have it any other way, which is just as well because there is no other option, and that’s the case for around 12 million single-parent families in the U.S. (over 80 percent of them headed by single moms.)

But for all moms, whether they are going it alone or as part of a team, there are ways to increase the fun quota. Ditch the laundry — or ask Dad to do it — and take the kids to the park. If we want parenting to be a fairer experience, we need to let go of the reins and pass some of the management to the other parent.

Some days — for all parents, however their families are made up — can feel like the longest, most tortuous days. But we all know that even those days go by in a flash and that one day, we’ll say the same for our kids’ childhoods. Will we look back and wish we’d taken more opportunities to have fun? That we’d at least tried to shake off those traditional gendered parenting roles and try something more equal? It’s down to us.

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