Why are fathers happier and less stressed than mothers?


Dads are often happier, less stressed and less tired than moms when taking care of kids, and researchers say these differences may come down to how and when childcare activities are split between parents.

In a study led by Penn State, researchers looked at childcare through the lens of a “care context.”

Going beyond measuring how much time mothers and fathers spend taking care of their children, the researchers also looked at the type of childcare activity, when and where it took place, who was present, and how much care was involved.

Cadhla McDonnell, a doctoral candidate in sociology and demography at Penn State, said the results suggest that while fathers in general are much more involved in their children’s lives now than in the past, parenting is still highly gendered.

“There are many types of activities that can be considered childcare, but some are more strenuous or less enjoyable than others,” McDonnell said.

“A family trip to the playground is going to affect someone differently than changing diapers in the middle of the night, for example.

In our study, we tried to capture those variations and see if they’re related to the differences we see between mothers’ and fathers’ moods.”

According to the researchers, previous work has shown that mothers tend to be more tired, stressed and unhappy than fathers during caregiving.

But sociodemographic characteristics alone could not explain some of these differences.

The researchers were curious about whether taking a closer look at how childcare activities were divided between parents could help explain discrepancies between parents’ moods.

The researchers used data from the American Time Use Survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Data included information about 4,486 childcare activities, as well as who performed the activity and that person’s corresponding mood.

Additionally, the researchers analyzed each activity through the care context, which included five dimensions.

The first was “activity type,” and included physical (basic needs like eating and sleeping), recreational (like play and sports), educational (helping with homework or meeting with teachers), and managerial (planning doctor visits or transporting children).

The remaining dimensions included when and where the activity took place, who was present during the activity, and how much time the activity took.

The researchers found that fathers’ childcare activities were more likely to be recreational and take place on the weekend, while mothers’ activities were more likely to involve an infant and fit into the category of “solo parenting,” that is, parenting without a partner present.

Also, the researchers found that taking the context of childcare activities into account fully explained differences in mother and father happiness, and partially explained differences in stress.

It did not explain differences in tiredness.

McDonnell said the study — recently published in the Journal of Family Issues — suggests that moms are generally more tired and stressed than dads, and that they also are doing more childcare activities that tend to produce more stress and less happiness.

But it is still not clear why these differences exist.

“Our findings show that some aspects of parenting are more enjoyable than others and that the way childcare is distributed between mothers and fathers right now brings more emotional rewards for dads than for moms,” McDonnell said.

“But it’s impossible to say from our data whether this is the result of personal choices or whether it’s a reaction to outside forces like job demands.”

Additionally, the researchers found that despite their differences, one thing that remained consistent between mothers and fathers was how meaningful they found childcare.

“Traditionally caregiving has been seen as more central to women’s identities than it is to men’s, and that would suggest that mothers might find caring for their children more meaningful than fathers do,” McDonnell said. “But that’s not the case — mothers and fathers both found caring for children highly meaningful and there is no difference by gender.”

According to the researchers, previous work has shown that mothers tend to be more tired, stressed and unhappy than fathers during caregiving.

McDonnell said that in the future, additional research could focus on how gendered caregiving may have additional impacts on parents’ well being.

“We know from other research that parents tend to have lower life satisfaction than non-parents, and this is especially true for women,” McDonnell said.

“An interesting question could be how that’s related to gendered caregiving.

Why do mothers seem to take on childcare in contexts that are less emotionally rewarding?

For couples, how can they share caregiving in a way that is equally rewarding for both partners? These are all important questions.”

Nancy Luke, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, and Susan E. Short, professor at Brown University, also participated in this work.

Funding: The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development helped support this research.

Parents’ belief that their child may be vulnerable to serious life-threatening illnesses can have negative effects on both parenting and child development [1]. Green & Solnit [2] denominated these parental beliefs “Vulnerable Child Syndrome”.

These authors observed that in families where children suffered serious illnesses and recovered, parents and, above all, mothers, continued to be anxious about the health of their children, which exacerbated the perception that their child was vulnerable.

This parental anxiety associated with the perception that their children are vulnerable can lead to an increase in difficulties in parent-child interaction and indirectly lead to an increase in difficulties in children, such as sleeping problems or separation anxiety, difficulties in social competence and an increase of both internalizing and externalizing problems [15].

Several studies carried out with parents of babies who had recovered from a disease have pointed out the existence of variables linked to parental psychological distress that may be related to perception of child vulnerability.

These variables include postnatal depression and parental stress [1,68]. However, previous studies have analyzed the perception of child vulnerability only in mothers and fathers of children who previously suffered from a serious illness.

This means, as Thomasgard and Metz indicated [9] that at an early age, children do not need to have had a serious illness for parents’ perception of their child’s vulnerability to increase.

This subjective concern, therefore, for the health of their children could also generate greater postnatal depression and parental stress and eventually affect parent-child relationships.

A number of studies have pointed out that postnatal depression affects not only the individual parent or child but also affects the quality of the relationship between the two [10,11].

Parents with postnatal depression tend to show less affection and sensitivity to the needs of their children, which can have negative consequences on these children’s development, such as behavioral and cognitive problems, language delays, difficulties in inhibitory control, impulsivity, response to stress, insecure attachment, and difficulties in social-emotional adjustment [1214].

In studies on gender differences, it was traditionally pointed out that mothers showed higher levels of postnatal depression [15].

However, in recent years more attention has been paid to fathers, and it has been found that fathers also experience postnatal depression since, as for mothers, transition to parenthood can be a complicated period of adaptation to the new role [16,17]

In terms of parental stress, Bloomfield and Kendall [18] analyzed the process through which parental stress may influence children. According to these authors, parental stress negatively influences parental behavior, leading parents to perceive the experience of parenting as problematic [1923].

Furthermore, there can be additional associated impacts such as an increase in child behavioral difficulties or even the increase or appearance of psychological distress in parents [24,25].

Regarding gender differences in parental stress, existing studies suggest that both mothers and fathers experience parental stress, but they do so differently.

Mothers experience stress in relation to the role they need to exercise, and, to a lesser extent, to the social changes brought about by their new role; fathers, on the other hand, experience parental stress, but the reasons are a bit different: less because of the role they must exercise, and more because they feel that becoming parents is alienating them from their social circles [2629].

Some authors suggest that postnatal depression and parental stress are related, since depressive symptomatology can make parents perceive reality in a more stressful way [30].

To summarize, studies seem to confirm that perception of child vulnerability may be associated with postnatal depression and parental stress, and that these variables, in turn, affect parent-child relationships [1,6,11].

However, there has been no research to deepen our understanding of parent-child relationships in situations where parents are concerned about the health of their children, though their children have not previously suffered serious illnesses.

A variable that may contribute to understanding these parent-child relationships in situations of perception of child vulnerability is “perceived parental competence”, although there have been no previous studies on this question.

Perceived parental competence is defined as “parents’ beliefs or expectations regarding their ability to raise their children successfully and have some control over their child’s behavior” [31 p166].

The two dimensions of parental competence are parental satisfaction and parental efficacy. Parental satisfaction is defined as the emotional component and includes frustration, anxiety and motivation associated with parenting, and parental efficacy alludes to a sense of effectiveness in relation to parenting [31].

The fact that a father or mother may have a negative self-perception of their parental competence means that they will show dysfunctional parental cognitive processes in the exercise of their parenting, which will be related to patterns of upbringing and behavioral difficulties in their children [3234].

Conversely, perception of parental efficacy will be associated with easier transition to parenthood, a lesser tendency to perceive that their children have a difficult temperament and greater satisfaction with the social support they perceive [35,36].

Therefore, it is expected that parents’ perception of child vulnerability be related to perception of parental competence, although no research has been found in the literature on the relationship between these two variables.


The main objective of the present study was to analyze the relationship between parental perception of child vulnerability in infants and perception of parental competence, taking into account the role that postnatal depression and parental stress exert in that relationship.

Results confirmed the initial approach, since it was observed for both fathers and mothers, that when they perceived their child as most vulnerable, they also perceived themselves as less competent as fathers or mothers.

This relationship has been linked to the association between parental perception of child vulnerability and increased parental depression and experienced stress. However, it is only possible to speak of real mediation in the case of the mother.

In the case of the father, the relationship between parental perception of their child’s vulnerability and parental competence takes place in two steps, showing no direct relationship between parental perception of their child’s vulnerability and parental competence, and an indirect one through the association of both variables with depression and stress.

The present study articulates four relevant findings. First, the existence of an association between parental perception of child’s vulnerability and parental competence was confirmed.

This result was observed for the whole sample, and was not confirmed in the case of fathers, for whom perceiving that their child could be seriously ill, did not diminish their perception of parental competence.

The relationship observed between these two variables in the present study was limited, but there are no previous studies that have analyzed this relationship and with which these results can be compared.

The difference in the results from the mothers and fathers may be due to gender differences in the perception of parental competence.

Mothers who perceive themselves to be less competent at the parental level (less satisfaction and less self-efficacy) tend to perceive a greater vulnerability of their children to disease; this relationship is not the same in the case of the fathers.

Perhaps, the results in the present study reflect the traditional roles in the distribution of family care (mothers being more focused on the care and fathers on the provision) and the emotional implications according to the gender of the parents.

This is in line with the study of Moon and Hoffman [42], in which the mothers obtained higher scores than the fathers in the organization of the physical care of the children and in their emotional support.

Second, postnatal depression was associated with parental perception of child’s vulnerability, that is, parents who perceived their child most vulnerable to illness also tended to present greater depressive symptomatology.

This data is in line with findings from previous research [5,43]. It should be noted that the studies that have examined these relationships were centered on the parents of babies who had recovered from an illness and not on the general population.

Third, it was observed that the existence of depressive symptoms in parents was associated with greater stress in the exercise of their parenting. That is, the greater the postnatal depression, the higher the stress levels, that is, the number of perceived stressors on the part of the parents was greater. This result also confirmed findings from other recent studies [30,44].

To finish, the study confirms the significant role of postnatal depression and parental stress in understanding lower values of parental competence with regard to parental perception of their child’s vulnerability.

This is in line with other studies that found that postnatal depression causes quality of child raising to come down; that parents show less sensitivity to the needs of their children; and this in turn inevitably affects the quality of the relationship between parents and their children [11,22,4547].

Regarding parental stress, Bloomfiel and Kendall [18] found that parents who perceived parental stress tended to be harder and more rigorous in their role as fathers or mothers, offer less support to their children, and that parent-child interaction was more conflictive.

In conclusion, it seems relevant to analyze parental perception of child’s vulnerability at the clinical level since results of this study have shown that it is associated with other variables related to parental psychological distress, which in turn affects the perception that parents have of their ability to raise their children successfully and to be able to control the behavior of their child. However, results of the present study suggest the need to continue to examine the bi-directionality of the data.

There were several limitations to this study. First, participation of fathers in the study was lower than participation of mothers. Second, the study was based on a single information source, that of fathers and mothers.

Third, the internal consistency of the scale of Perception of child vulnerability is low, so future studies should continue working on its psychometric adequacy. Likewise, future studies should incorporate medical and nursing staff information. Using multi-method and longitudinal designs in data collection would also contribute to understanding causal relationships.

Also, it would be interesting to increase the sample and continue the detailed analyses, studying the association between the variables considered in the present study and the parents’ sociodemographic variables such as age and educational level, families in which the parents live together in the same home and families that do not, or analyzing father-mother or mother/father-baby dyads.

Penn State
Media Contacts:
Katie Bohn – Penn State
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Happy Moms, Happier Dads: Gendered Caregiving and Parents’ Affect”. Cadhla McDonnell, Nancy Luke, Susan E. Short.
Journal of Family Issues doi:10.1177/0192513X19860179.


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