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Mental Stress and Working Mothers

Mental Stress and Working Mothers: Solutions That Work

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Updated September 01, 2013

While working mothers and fathers both spend an equal proportion of their mental energy thinking about family matters, mothers tend to become stressed about it while fathers do not. This may sound like a difference in how we react to stress, but deeper analysis shows that it’s more likely due to societal factors that we do not control. Fortunately, with an understanding of how women become stressed by thinking about family life, we can take steps to minimize this stress, which can affect us throughout our day. First, a little more on the research.

The study that found this gender difference was conducted by Shira Offer, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and based on data from the 500 Family Study, a multi-method investigation of how middle-class families balance family and work experiences. The 500 Family Study collected comprehensive data from 1999 to 2000 on families living in eight urban and suburban communities across the United States. Most parents in the 500 Family Study are highly educated, employed in professional occupations, and work, on average, longer hours and report higher earnings than do middle-class families in other, nationally representative samples. Although the 500 Family Study is not a representative sample of families in the U.S., it reflects one of the most time pressured segments of the population. Offer‘s study uses a subsample from the 500 Family Study, consisting of 402 mothers and 291 fathers in dual-earner families who completed a survey and a time diary that collects information about the content and context of individuals‘ daily experiences, as well as the emotions associated with them, in the course of a week.

What they found was that mothers and fathers tended to spend 29 and 24 hours, respectively, per week engaged in “mental work” (define this). Roughly 30% of this time, however, was focused on family responsibilities. However, mothers tended to become more anxious and stressed when focused on this topic, while fathers felt no such stress.

So, to the casual observer, it may seem like mothers are naturally more anxious or easily-stressed, but this difference is more likely due to two factors:

  1. Mothers tend to focus more on the less-pleasant aspects of family life, which can lead to stress and anxiety, and
  2. Mothers likely take on this more stressful load because these responsibilities are either willingly adopted by them or pushed upon them by societal expectations, according to the study’s authors and other established research
So the important question is, what can a working mother do to quell the stress that comes with family-focused mental work? There are a few effective approaches that can be taken here.

Focus On Your Thoughts

While mother’s focus on family issues is useful—it’s important to plan when kids will be picked up from school or what can be made for dinner each night, or these responsibilities won’t be taken care of, and there will be negative consequences, obviously—mothers can minimize some of the stress that comes with it by being careful with how they approach it. Be careful to refrain from rumination about areas of life that are chronically stressful, like a child’s fussy eating patterns or a bully at school, and just focus on solutions as much as possible. If you find yourself slipping into negative thinking patterns like catastrophizing, for example, gently redirect your focus to finding solutions, and moving on for now. Keep your focus on proactive solutions rather than negative thought patterns, and the stress will be minimal.

Have A Plan

Knowing what you are going to do before you get to the office can save you from planning on the fly, and can free up your attention. If you know what you're doing for dinner that night, for example, you don't waste any precious energy on wondering or formulating a plan throughout the day. Do a little work in advance and save yourself stress throughout the week by planning your meals and plans over the weekend.

Have a System

Use an app on your phone or computer to supply reminders. Cut down on unnecessary activities and time drains. Simplify your life. You'll free your mental space for work when you're at work, and family when you're at home.

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