Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 April 2019

When it comes to raising kids, sharing the workload makes for cheerier mums

Looking after children is a joy, but women should not be made to feel guilty for saying they are having a tough time

A recent survey in the US found that mums are less happy parents than dads. David P Hall / Corbis
A recent survey in the US found that mums are less happy parents than dads. David P Hall / Corbis

There are some things in life that make you shake your head in bafflement. Like why isn’t Idris Elba the new James Bond, or why are dads apparently happier being parents than mums?

Last month, a report was published by a US university that looked at three studies about parenting and its impact. The report covers more than 18,000 participants and suggests that parenthood is hugely beneficial to men in terms of overall wellbeing, and that dads are happier than non-dads. I’m pleased for dads, I really am. If I was a cheerleader I would develop a “GO DADS” chant to encourage male parents.

The only problem is that the data shows that motherhood is associated with lower levels of positive emotion and more stress. Yes, you read that right. Mums go through pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and sleepless nights, and dads are the ones who get to be happy. What’s that all about? Why aren’t we the ones getting the pay-off?

And here’s the kicker – the University of South Sewanee’s study suggests that this is all because dads spend more time playing with their children than mums.

For plenty of mums, there’s very little time in the schedule to consider matters of personal happiness. We’re too busy bringing up small people. Earlier this year, a longitudinal study of 6,025 UK households found that women who work full time and have children are 18 per cent more stressed than their female counterparts who don’t. That rises to 40 per cent for those with two children. As a mum of two kids, tell me something I don’t already know.

Dear dads, I’m just wondering if you could share some of that happiness around? One of the key things that parents try to drum into children – you know, when they are screaming over toys, or fighting over the last chocolate bar – is that sharing is caring. Sharing the workload will make for cheerier mums.

As I’m writing this, I am already aware of the two major problems of women publicly sharing their experiences of parenting. People tend to think that it is a cry for help. It’s not. You don’t need to send me personal messages of support, or coupons for therapy. (Although please do feel free to send vouchers for spa days and relaxing getaways.)

This is not about me, but about trends in society as a whole. The broad range and consistency of studies about motherhood, stress and workload bear this out repeatedly.

The other thing that happens when women write about parenting is that their words are considered to be for female consumption only. They're not. This has to be a conversation between men and women.

Then there are the voices that say, “But childcare isn’t a burden!” Looking after children is a joy. Being the person who gets to shape young lives is the greatest privilege. Yes, all of this is true. As a mum, I can attest to that. Kids are a joy, and here’s the “but” – all of these statements are equally true for whoever is parenting.

If these truisms of child-rearing were applied in the context of shared parenting, then I’d be all for them. The problem is that they are too often used in judgement, to make women feel guilty for saying that they are having a hard time or to justify why we should be happy to take more than our share of responsibility for children. The end goal of these comments isn’t to praise women, or even the experience of parenting.

The other option, of course, is that many dads simply haven’t thought about the fact that mothers do a disproportionate share of the childcare, the physical work and the mental planning and worry that comes with organising small people’s lives and nurturing them into well-rounded, healthy human beings. If that’s the case, I’m suppressing my instinct to run into a forest and scream at the top of my lungs.

Maybe the clear picture of parenting provided by these studies can finally make people see the truth of the situation. It’s time dads shared the workload and, therefore, the happiness. Don’t mums deserve that, at least?

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: April 4, 2019 10:40 AM

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