It’s no big secret that moms and dads parent differently — but a newly-released report from Pew Research Center is showing us exactly how differently we parent (and how differently it affects us!), and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the modern parenting dynamic. The study surveyed nearly 4,000 parents with kids under 18 from all walks of life (according to Pew, their surveys are “weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories”).
The first difference is in how moms and dads describe their own parenting styles. Dads in general admit to a more laid-back style; 38% of them describe themselves as “overprotective,” compared to just over half (51%) of mothers describing themselves the same way. More dads than moms also say they lean toward giving their kids too much freedom (24% vs. just 16% of moms). However, more moms are pushovers (we’re suckers for our babies’ puppy-dog eyes … or maybe just too tired to argue): 40% of moms said they give in too quickly to their kids, while just 27% of dads said the same.
Raising kids is a rough gig no matter who you are, right? Well, sort of. While the majority of parents — 62% — have found that parenting has been a bit harder than they expected, roughly a quarter (26%) say it’s been a lot harder than anticipated. And when we break down that last little bit, guess which parent was more likely to answer that it was “a lot harder”? That’s right — moms.
Regardless of how hard it is, most parents (64%) gave themselves an “excellent” or “very good” rating when it came to assessing their parenting skills; only 4% self-assessed as “fair” or “poor.” And of the parents who gave themselves a good rating, moms and dads were about equally likely to give themselves a pat on the back.
Pretty much every parent has encountered a Judgy McJudgerson along their parenting journey (people who cast wicked side-eye when toddlers melt down at Target, I’m lookin’ at you), but the big surprise in this study was where the parenting judgments were coming from.
“About half of married or cohabiting parents (52%) say they feel judged by their spouse or partner for how they parent their children at least some of the time, with 18% saying they feel this way always or very often,” says the Pew report.
Interestingly, the study goes on to say, “Among married and cohabiting parents, fathers are more likely than mothers to say they feel judged by their spouse or partner at least sometimes for how they parent their children.” Moms, on the other hand, report feeling judged more often by … well, pretty much everyone else: their own parents, other parents, even people online. There were also some differences in judgment when in came to ethnicity — “Asian parents [are] more likely than other racial or ethnic groups to say they feel judged by their own parents and White parents [are] more likely than other groups to say they feel judged by other parents in their community.”
Judgy third-parties aside, the thing parents are most worried about overall is whether their child is struggling with anxiety or depression; a full 40% of parents noted that they were “extremely” or “very” worried about that. Coming in a close second was bullying, with 35% of parents expressing extreme worry. But unsurprisingly, guess who’s doing the lion’s share of the worrying here? Moms. “By significant margins, mothers are more likely than fathers to worry about most of these things,” the research report states.
While worrying about our kids is indeed universal, there were some discrepancies when it comes to ethnicity, according to the study. “Mothers across racial and ethnic groups are generally more likely than their male counterparts to say they are extremely or very worried about their children facing certain hardships, but Hispanic mothers are especially worried,” it says. “In fact, Hispanic mothers are more likely than White, Black or Asian mothers to say they are extremely or very worried their children might face most of the experiences asked in the survey. There are no consistent patterns in concerns among fathers across racial or ethnic groups.”
Good thing we moms are multitaskers, because while we’re doing all that worrying, we’ve still got a family to take care of! Surprising no one (but perhaps eliciting an eye roll here and there) was the study’s finding that most moms say they do more than their partner when it comes to childcare responsibilities, while dads tend to report that they share responsibilities about equally.
“Majorities of mothers say they do more than their spouse or partner when it comes to managing their children’s schedule and activities (78% say they do more of this), helping their children with homework or other school assignments (65% among those with school-age children), providing comfort or emotional support to their children (58%), and meeting their children’s basic needs, such as feeding, bathing or changing diapers (57% among those with children younger than 5),” states the report.
Additionally, moms who say they do more are also more likely to have answered that parenting is much harder than they had expected. (HMMMM.) About 7 out of 10 mothers (71-72%) who say they do more also say parenting is harder, versus just 54% of mothers who say that their household duties are split equally.
No word on where the mental load factors in — remembering to sign that permission slip, whose food preferences are what this week, where that missing stuffy was last seen, and knowing not to give the toddler the red cup instead of the yellow one (nobody wants to go through that again). The weight of the mental load is impossible to measure, but as every mom knows, so heavy. In 2021, researchers Liz Dean, Brendan Churchill, and Leah Ruppanner published a scholarly article in The Journal of Community, Work & Family called “The mental load: building a deeper theoretical understanding of how cognitive and emotional labor overload women and mothers.” The introduction of the article points out what we already know: that “Despite massive gains in education and paid employment, women disproportionately shoulder the burdens of unpaid domestic work.”
The mental load, according to the researchers, is a combination of both cognitive and emotional labor. “It manifests in critical ways that make the mental load particularly taxing, as invisible labor women adopt for free, love and without negotiation, as boundaryless as it seeps into work, sleep and leisure time, and as enduring in that it has no start or end because it is tied to the care of people,” the article says. “All of these components, when combined, make the mental load particularly damaging to the health and well-being of those performing these tasks.”
All this is to say that while parenting should be an evenly-split operation, the reality is that in many cases — the majority, according to Pew’s new parenting study — it’s not perceived that way. Moms feel more worried, more judged, more stressed out and stretched thin.
Still, because moms are warriors, there’s a silver lining: despite substantial shares of parents describing parenting as stressful and tiring (4 in 10, and again, more moms than dads), the vast majority still reported that being a parent was enjoyable and rewarding. We are good at finding the positives in the every day, even when it feels like drudgery. And we keep showing up, because that’s just what moms do.
You can read the whole fascinating report here.
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