Generation X, Y, and Boomer Parents Adopt Less Conventional Roles

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While moms are doing more paid work outside the home than in the past, dads are contributing more to household chores and child care, says a Pew Research study examining how moms and dads juggle the demands of modern-day parenting.

Working parents, regardless of sex, express concern about meeting the challenges of home and career. Half of working fathers (50 percent) and just over half of working mothers (56 percent) say that they find it “very or somewhat difficult” to balance family and work responsibilities.

Mothers and fathers of children under age 18 are also almost as equally likely to report feeling “rushed” on a daily basis.

Although men and women share these worries, there are still marked gender differences, Pew notes. Men and women are equally as likely to express a wish that they could be home full-time to raise their kids, but fathers are more likely to express a desire to work full-time than mothers, and to consider a high-paying salary a priority over, for example, flexibility, in a job position.

Overall, most moms and dads of children under age 18 feel good about their parenting, with nearly one-quarter (24 percent) stating they have done an excellent job, and an additional 45 percent saying they have done a very good job. Another quarter (24 percent) says that they have done a good job, and six percent admit that they feel they are only fair or poor parents.

However, researchers found a difference in self-ratings between stay-at-home moms and working moms. Stay-at-home moms rated themselves slightly lower than working moms: more than three-quarters (78 percent) of working moms (full- and part-time) rated themselves as “excellent” or “very good” mothers, while only two-thirds (66 percent) of stay-at-home moms did.

Why the discrepancy? It may be due to the various social pressures that women face and competing images of motherhood, one expert says.

“I think there are some current cultural contradictions that might influence women’s judgments of their own parenting,” Erin K. Holmes, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, explains.

Mothers have to contend with two challenges, she maintains. One is “the intensive mothering movement that tells women they should devote everything to their children—sometimes at the expense of personal growth and development,” while the other pressures mothers to pursue a thriving career.

This second cultural movement is one that “some identify as ‘a calling for a career’ that not only acknowledges many women’s desires to have a career identity but also applauds women for seeking this identity in adulthood,” Holmes explains.

“The potential contradiction between each of these cultural movements can make women question their career and mothering decisions, leaving some confusion about what it means to be a good mother or to lead a ‘fulfilled’ life,” she contends.

Fathers also demonstrated a marked difference in their self-assessments as parents. Despite differences in maternal subgroups, moms overall felt generally satisfied with their parenting— nearly three-quarters (73 percent) said that they are doing an excellent or very good job. However, only less than two-thirds of fathers (64 percent) said that they are doing as well. Why?

Again, cultural expectations are a factor, says Brandon McDaniel, M.S., Ph.D. candidate in human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.

“In family research, we often find that fathers rate themselves less positively in regards to parenting, although they also tend to rate that they are more involved in childrearing and household tasks than their partners say that they are,” he says.

McDaniel says that there are many reasons why this could be the case.

“In our culture the predominant view is that mothering comes naturally to women,” he explains. “Women are also often the primary caregivers of their children, even when they work as many hours as their male partners.”

This assumption leaves many men to unconsciously feel that they are inferior parents to women, McDaniel states, and because children are often with their mothers for more hours during the day than with their fathers, “it can sometimes set up a dynamic where the father feels that he must continually ask the mother what she would do when the child acts a certain way and so forth.”

Sometimes, the father may not even ask for help, but it is offered anyway, which can be problematic.

“Mothers at times may not like the way fathers perform certain childrearing tasks—such as changing the baby’s diaper—simply because mothers are usually the ones doing it, so they may at times step in or tell the father how to do it—often with good intentions, truly trying to be helpful,” McDaniel says.

This dynamic can make dads feel less competent as parents, and some research, McDaniel adds, suggests that this may even cause some fathers to withdraw from parenting.

“The dynamics of our culture—where women have often been the primary caregivers of children—feed into the ways that both mothers and fathers feel about themselves as parents,” he maintains.

With family structures and roles ever-changing in this still-difficult economy and our lives becoming busier and more rushed, many parents may wonder how their unit fits into society at large. Holmes is optimistic that studies like this one may help moms and dads see that they are not alone in their struggles.

“I think it’s helpful for people to know that 60 percent of two-parent households with children under age 18 have two working parents,” she says. “Even though 60 percent suggests a possible majority, it also suggests to me that there is still a lot of variability in people’s experiences balancing work and family life—[for example,] there are 40 percent of people in a circumstance other than being in a household with 2 working parents.”

Interpreting the numbers in this manner may provide unsure parents with some encouragement.

“Whether you are both working or one of you is not working you have others around you in similar circumstances,” she concludes. “Seeking support from others and offering support to others are two important ways we feel more confident, competent, and resilient when we face challenges.”

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