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The major multitaskers

Outdo fathers in juggling chores at home, study finds

Kristin Bullard of Marblehead, a paralegal, read to her three children last week before putting them to bed. Kristin Bullard of Marblehead, a paralegal, read to her three children last week before putting them to bed. (Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / December 13, 2011
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The study in this month’s American Sociological Review is called “Revisiting the Gender Gap in Time-Use Patterns: Multitasking and Well-Being Among Mothers and Fathers in Dual-Earner Families.’’

But following its findings that working moms spend more time than working dads whipsawing among home-related tasks - cooking dinner while helping with homework while tossing in laundry while trying to locate the winter clothes from last year while arranging a carpool while filling out forms for school picture day - working mothers in Boston suggested a slightly less academic title: “Tell me about it.’’

The study of 368 US mothers and 241 fathers found that women spend nearly 10 hours more per week multitasking while at home than working fathers. That is 48.3 hours of multitasking each week for mom, 38.9 hours per week for dad. There is hardly enough time in the day to complain about being too busy.

The extra duties greatly stress mothers, said researcher Barbara Schneider, a Michigan State University professor, but in a perverse way, she added, the data are oddly reassuring. “You find that it isn’t just you.’’

Researchers found that mothers were busy doing multiple household and child-caring chores, whereas the fathers’ extra duties often entailed office work.

Joanna Chanis, 39, a small-business owner from Boston with two school-age children, described a recent evening in real time: “I’m unpacking groceries and making snacks for tomorrow and preparing dinner before the baby sitter comes because I’m going out to a Greek women’s charity meeting,’’ she said during a phone call, as she whispered to someone in the background and signed two permission slips. “I’m getting my Christmas cards organized so I can do them when I get home from the meeting, I’m wrapping presents, and I just booted up my laptop so I can do work e-mail.’’

Kristin Bullard’s evenings are similarly packed, in her case with a whirlwind of supervised tooth brushing and bedtime stories for her two preschoolers and kindergartener, and then, once they’ve gone to bed, there’s laundry to do, school notices to read, the next day’s lunches to prepare, clutter to clean and extracurricular activities to coordinate. The Boston paralegal falls into bed exhausted at 11 p.m. and rises at 5:45 to get a jump on breakfast. “I should be doing more,’’ said Bullard, 42, “but I just can’t.’’

Bullard, of Marblehead, praised her husband as a hard-working partner, using almost the identical terminology as the vast majority of women interviewed by the Globe. “He’s very helpful.’’

However, “helpful,’’ as Boston-area moms were quick to point out, is quite different than owning the responsibility.

Karin Sloan, 36, a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Boston Medical Center, and the mother of two young children, also has a husband who is “very helpful,’’ but like the fathers in the study, her husband does one thing at a time, she said. “He’ll make dinner, and while he’s doing that he’s listening to his NPR on the radio. It’s his time to relax.’’

When she’s on dinner duty, Sloan said, she’s also doing laundry, dealing with work e-mails, chatting briefly with friends in an attempt to keep her personal life going, and generally sweating the details. “I’m in charge of the family schedule, which includes keeping the kids clothed and bathed, shopping for food, keeping track of the school schedule, keeping track of the nanny’s schedule, making sure it’s clear what days we may be home late. My husband doesn’t really plan ahead.’’

How do things look from a husband’s vantage point? Mark Sloan, 37, a hematologist at BMC, agreed with his wife’s assessment, but offered a bit of a defense. “By default, things fall to her,’’ he acknowledged. “If something comes up, the nanny won’t call me, she’ll call her. My wife jokes that if it were up to me, our son wouldn’t have been enrolled in school.’’

He is “sheltered’’ from the household tasks, he said, but added that the bulk of the financial responsibilities - doing the taxes, keeping track of investments - fall to him.

To be sure, fathers are doing more now than in the past. A 2002 survey by the Families and Work Institute found that men did 42 more minutes of weekday chores per day, compared with fathers in 1977.

A 2008 study by the New York nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank concluded that the amount of workday time that fathers spent with their children under 13 had increased since 1977, from two hours to three.

But things aren’t changing fast enough for many mothers. A 2011 survey of more than 1,200 mothers by ForbesWoman.com and the pregnancy website TheBump.com found that most working and stay-at-home moms resent their partners for shouldering less than their share of the housework and child care. Nearly one in five mothers reported that they felt like “married single moms.’’

Mimi Sohn Licht, a licensed clinical social worker in Brookline, regularly sees couples grappling with an uneven work divide that falls along gender lines. “It’s like the women’s movement never happened,’’ she said. “It’s really sort of a throwback to the 1950s, where the women and children go together and the man is free to worry about his career.’’

Licht used to run support groups for working mothers, and found that even as many women complained about doing it all, they were in part responsible for the situation because they wanted things done their way.

That describes Julie Joyce, 40, a school nurse in Boston who is pregnant with her third child. She is so busy with children and work that she took a day off just to shop alone. But, she confessed, she’s partly to blame for her own over-multitasked life. “I’m a control freak.’’

For example: Her husband had gone grocery shopping (nice), but because he came home with ripe bananas and not the green ones she prefers, the poised-to-rot fruit became yet one more item for her to-do list. “I have to make banana bread,’’ she said. “Instantly.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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