What do parents think about when they leave their children in school with baby minders when they’re at work? New Israeli/American research has found that although working mothers and fathers are almost as likely to think about family matters throughout the day, only for mothers is this type of mental labor associated with increased stress and negative emotions.
The study was presented recently at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City.
“I assume that because mothers bear the major responsibility for childcare and family life, when they think about family matters, they tend to think about the less pleasant aspects of it – such as needing to pick up a child from daycare or having to schedule a doctor’s appointment for a sick kid – and are more likely to be worried,” said study author Prof. Shira Offer of the sociology and anthropology department at Bar-Ilan University.
Much has been written about the unequal division of household labor and childcare, but the overwhelming majority of studies in this field examine specific behaviors, Offer said. “These studies focus on the physical aspect of tasks and demands, which can be measured and quantified relatively easily,” she said. “However, much of the work we do, both paid and unpaid, takes place in our mind. We are often preoccupied with the things we have to do, we often worry about them, and feel stressed not to forget to do them or to do them on time. These thoughts and concerns – mental labor – can impair our performance, make it difficult to focus on tasks and even hurt our sleep. This mental labor is the focus of my study.”
Overall, Offer found that working mothers engaged in mental labor in about one fourth, and working fathers in one fifth, of their waking time. This amounts to approximately 29 and 24 hours per week of mental labor for mothers and fathers, respectively. However, mothers and fathers both spent about 30 percent of the time they were engaged in mental labor thinking about family matters. “I expected the gender gap in mental labor, especially those aspects of it that are related to family, to be much larger,” Offer said. “What my research actually shows is that gender differences in mental labor are more a matter of quality than quantity.”
As for why, engaging in family-specific mental labor negatively affected the well-being of mothers, but not fathers, Offer said she thinks societal expectations push mothers to assume the role of household managers and lead them to disproportionately address the less pleasant aspects of family care. “I believe that what makes this type of mental labor an overall negative and stressful experience for mothers only is that they are the ones judged and held accountable for family-related matters,” she said.
“We know that mothers are the ones who usually adjust their work schedule to meet family demands, such as staying home with a sick child,” Offer said. “Therefore, mothers may feel that they do not devote enough time to their job and have to ‘catch up,’ and, as a result, they are easily preoccupied with job-related matters outside the workplace. This illustrates the double burden — the pressure to be ‘good’ mothers and ‘good’ workers – that working moms experience.”
Offer said her study suggests that fathers need to take a greater role in family care to make mental labor less stressful for working mothers and ease the double burden that they experience. “It is true that fathers today are more involved in childrearing and do more housework than in previous generations, but the major responsibility for the domestic realm continues to disproportionately fall on mothers’ shoulders,” she said. “This has to change.”
ARE YOU NUTS? Although some people avoid eating pecans, walnuts, pistachios, almonds and other nuts because they think they are too fattening. But a study at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston shows that those who eat a handful of nuts daily are 20 percent less likely to die from any cause over a 30-year period than were those who didn’t consume nuts.
Their report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, also revealed that regular nut-eaters are more slender than those who didn’t eat nuts, a finding that should alleviate the widespread worry that eating a lot of nuts will lead to overweight.
“The most obvious benefit was a 29% reduction in deaths from heart disease – a major killer of people in the US,” said Dr.
Charles Fuchs, director of the gastrointestinal cancer center at Dana-Farber, who is the senior author of the report. “But we also saw a significant reduction – 11% – in the risk of dying from cancer,” added Fuchs. Whether any specific type or types of nuts were crucial to the protective effect couldn’t be determined. However, the reduction in mortality was similar both for peanuts and for “tree nuts” – walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, pecans, cashews, pistachios and pine nuts.
Several previous studies have found an association between increasing nut consumption and a lower risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, gallstones and diverticulitis. Higher nut consumption also has been linked to reductions in cholesterol levels, oxidative stress, inflammation, adiposity, and insulin resistance.
Some small studies have linked increased nuts in the diet to lower total mortality in specific populations. But no previous research studies had looked in such detail at various levels of nut consumption and their effects on overall mortality in a large population that was followed for over 30 years.
The authors do note that this large study cannot definitively prove cause and effect; nonetheless, the findings are strongly consistent with “a wealth of existing observational and clinical trial data to support health benefits of nut consumption on many chronic diseases.