Modern parenting requires us to walk a thin line of balancing all of our responsibilities. Nurturing relationships with your spouse and children, having a career, running the household, the list goes on and on. Not to mention trying to take care of your own physical, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual needs. You’re probably stressed just thinking about it. All of this juggling can leave you drained and with nothing left to give. Let’s look at how stress affects mothers…
Research shows that, in many marriages, women are more affected by the stresses of parenting than men. Women are more likely than men to carry the emotional burden of parenting. Women are more likely than men to “always feel rushed,” and often, they report that having more free time doesn’t seem to help. Even during their free time, women may still be – or at least feel – more responsible than men for meeting the needs of their children, especially in a household where the woman assumes the “traditional roles” of household responsibilities and child care.
There has been an interesting trend in the past couple of decades in how men and women allocate their time among work, housework and childcare. In general, men have increased the amount of time they spend on childcare and housework, but they’ve also decreased the amount of time they spent at paid work. The result is that their “free time” remains unchanged. In contrast, women have only barely decreased the amount of time they spend on childcare and housework, and have increased the amount of time they spent at paid work.
In roughly 70 percent of families, women also take on the high-anxiety role of health care manager for the family. At any given time, women may be making health care decisions for themselves, their children, their spouse and possibly even aging parents. When’s the last time your husband opted to miss work and care for your child rather than you? Who schedules and transports family members to doctor appointments?
How a mother manages stress often serves as a model for the rest of the family. In other words, if she doesn’t cope well with the stresses of motherhood, other family members will tend to imitate her unhealthy behavior.
To cope with the stresses of motherhood, women may be prone to engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as comfort eating, poor diet choices, smoking, and inactivity. And women report feeling the effects of stress on their physical health more than men do.
A stress response that may manifest as “fight-or-flight” in men may manifest as “tend-and-befriend” in women. Evolutionarily, males may have responded to stressors by either overcoming or fleeing them, whereas women may have responded by nurturing offspring and affiliating with social groups.
The neural (brain) response to stress differs between men and women. For example, research shows that when pressured to perform a challenging math task, men show increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex (the thinking and problem-solving area), whereas women showed increased activity in the limbic system – the area of the brain involved with emotion. And these brain changes lasted longer in women, which may help explain why the rate of depression and anxiety disorders is twice as high for women.
It is important for women to understand how stress also affects fathers.
So how do dads manage the stresses of fatherhood?
Balancing work and family life leaves many men feeling as if they’re drowning in a sea of work, bills and parenting responsibilities. Most men rank work, family and money as their top three stressors. Men, more often than women, report that parenting stress negatively affects job satisfaction and job performance, which can ultimately lead to family financial difficulties, which in turn, can lead to more marital discord. And marital conflict leads to more stress, which compromises parenting. You can see the vicious cycle!
Men are more likely than women to feel that they’re incompetent as parents. Their perceived incompetence – whether it’s true or not – further torques their stress levels, damages their self-esteem, and can lead them to lash out in frustration and anger, even violently. Men tend to respond to stress by feeling irritable, being angry and having trouble sleeping. They often deal with stress in harmful ways, such as unhealthy eating and increased drinking and smoking. Men, who are often competitive by nature, have to learn to accept that parenting is not a race to the finish line and focus on the realistic and attainable aspects of fatherhood.
It’s also important to pay attention to how your kids handle your stress to avoid the infamous spillover effect. Kids who experience family stressors have a harder time learning at school, which in turn can lead to more family stress. Children can also exhibit emotions such as anger, sadness, or anxiety when they absorb unpleasant emotions in their homes. For example, Johnny, age 8, sensed the stress and conflict between his parents due to their work overload and caretaking of their 4 children. Mom and Dad were regularly “short” with their children, taking out their anger and frustration on them. Johnny began exhibiting rage when he didn’t get what he wanted or a sibling bothered him. He screamed, punched the wall, and felt out of control. His response may be a reaction to the stress he is absorbing. That is why it is so important for parents to manage their stress well.
Remember: Stress is manageable!
Here are some tips for stressed out parents:
- Set reasonable standards. Don’t take on more than you can handle. Set goals and focus on changing one behavior at a time. Don’t expect perfection – of yourself or others. Parents often put their family needs first and neglect their own individual needs and the needs of their spouses. It’s okay to relax your standards sometimes. Don’t pressure yourself to have the perfect house or be the perfect parent. No one expects you to be Supermom or Superdad.
- Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Analyze your schedule. Assess your priorities and delegate tasks when you can (e.g., order out dinner after a busy day, share household responsibilities). Eliminate tasks that are “shoulds” but not “musts.”
- Make sure your free time really is free time. To ease the pressure, carve out free-time slots that are not combined with other activities or responsibilities. In other words, make time for yourself that doesn’t include the kids. It doesn’t make you a “bad” parent. It doesn’t indicate that you don’t enjoy spending your free time with your kids. Spending free time with friends, just your spouse, or even spending free time alone is just a different experience – one that can help you live a more fulfilled life and enrich your relationship with yourself, your spouse and your children.