Those exhausting “little sprints” of role switching, said Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute, are due largely to the fact that women are still considered primarily responsible for home and family, as they have been for millennia.
And fathers, she said, are still expected to work long hours to “provide” for their families in ways that women are not, even as the number of dual-income families and female breadwinners are on the rise.
“Life has changed,” she said. “But our systems, our beliefs haven’t caught up.” Parents are often expected to work as if they have no children, she said. And mothers, in particular, are expected to parent as if they didn’t work.
Those expectations are a big part of what makes life feel so overwhelming for Cowan, a political researcher in Alexandria, Va., whose husband is in the military.
When Cowan’s younger son was born premature by C-section and just out of the neonatal intensive-care unit, their doctor gave the couple strict instructions to keep the infant away from his 2-year-old brother. Recovering from surgery, Cowan needed help.
“My husband got in so much trouble for coming home to take care of us. The view at his work was, ‘You have a wife who can take care of this. Why do you need to go home?’ “ she said. “It’s been a series of events like that over the years that make me feel this crushing kind of weight of never getting ahead of anything.”
Galinsky and other researchers have also found that, as younger fathers seek to be more involved at home and run up against rigid workplace expectations, they are beginning to feel conflicted, and it appears more harried than mothers.
Studies have found that while workplaces have become accustomed to mothers working part-time or flexible hours on the “mommy track,” men who try to do the same are often penalized and seen as “wimps and wet washcloths,” Galinsky said.
Unlike Cowan’s, Pencek’s husband has flexible hours, she said. But because Pencek works at home, she finds herself managing the household, interrupting her work schedule to care for sick kids, and directing or taking care of family business. “Because my husband works in an office, I don’t think he really gets that,” she said. “He thinks I can do it all because I’m home. Well, yes, I’m home. But I’m in my office. Working.”
Even with involved spouses, mothers say they’re still the ones who carry the mental load for the family.
“My husband works a ton and never flinches when I ask him to help around the house,” Ann Marie said in an email. She declined to give her last time because of job concerns. “However, I’m the one who is up late into the night staring out into the darkness thinking (read: worrying) about everything from school to work to dumb stuff like how to get the stains out of my sofa in the basement.”
Author Katrina Alcorn said that is what she calls the “psychic burden” of parenting. And, she and other researchers have found, it’s largely carried by mothers. Alcorn chronicled her own exhaustion to the point of burn out in her new memoir, “Maxed Out, American Moms on the Brink.”