By Silviya Zustiak, PhD
You have probably heard the statement that it can be difficult for a mother to pursue a challenging career. Why do we rarely hear the same claim about fathers? If both spouses work, chances are that both parents will be changing diapers, preparing food, doing laundry, and tending to the other numerous tasks associated with raising a child.
I have interviewed several NICHD postdoctoral fellows, both mothers and fathers, to learn about their average day. So, judge for yourself if fathers have it easier—or better yet, don't judge at all because raising a child is a challenging task for anyone!
The average day of a mother postdoc:
I found that moms usually wake up early, around 5:00-6:00 AM, to get both the kids and themselves ready for the day. In general, the mothers I interviewed spend two to three hours in the morning tending to chores before leaving for work.
Many of the moms shift their work earlier into the day, allowing for more family time in the evening—the average workday being seven to eight hours. To utilize every minute, moms eat lunch while working, forgo coffee breaks, and skip almost all but mandatory seminars and meetings; they also prefer telecommuting when possible. Even moms who worked endless hours pre-baby (occasionally sleeping in the lab!) convert to regimented work schedules post-baby. Usually, moms do not come to work on the weekends unless absolutely necessary.
In the evening, moms pick up the kids from daycare, tend to their children's needs, cook dinner, put the kids to bed, and occasionally work from home. When asked if they feel stressed about their time constraints and busy schedules, the usual response was that moms love it all; yet, they tend to suffer from a "guilt-at-work-guilt-at-home" syndrome. This last response was universal!
An average day of a father postdoc:
The dads I interviewed usually wake up at a slightly more reasonable time of 6:00-7:00 AM to help get the kids ready for the day.
The dads maintain a regular workday of eight to nine hours. They try to be home at a set time, but feel free to stay later when work requires it. During the workday, dads tend to avoid coffee breaks, but they usually allow time for a proper lunch. The particular fathers that I interviewed do not view weekends strictly as family time and will come to work if needed. In general, dads seem to have a more flexible work schedule than moms—albeit not as flexible as pre-baby—and they rarely feel the need to work from home.
After work, dads may pick up the kids from daycare. At home, dads help with dinner and tend to the children and other tasks. Many of the dads I interviewed admit that they rarely put the kids to bed. Once the children are asleep, the dads say that they enjoy a well-deserved free time after all is quiet.
When asked if they feel guilty-at-home and guilty-at-work, the dads' response was "Why?"
And "Why?" is the response I pondered upon. After interviewing several moms and dads, I was surprised to find that even though their day-to-day lives and responsibilities are not that different, they respond very differently to the question of guilt! A friend of mine, a dedicated dad with four kids, spelled it out for me: "My wife feels that she needs to be in charge of everything that happens with the kids and in the house. I don't."
Is that it? Is the main difference between moms and dads the fact that dads can get lost in their work at any time, while moms struggle to keep the balance between worrying about domestic matters and a career? Or does society as a whole assume that moms are less productive because they spend more time and effort on children, even if this is not the case? I think these remain open questions.