The increased stress felt by working mothers has finally been measured

Sarah Jessica Parker  in the film "I Don't Know How She Does It", smiling but stressed.
Sarah Jessica Parker in the film "I Don't Know How She Does It", smiling but stressed. Photo: Supplied

Here’s some validation for working mothers: university research has shown their sense of stress is measurable – they are 18 per cent more stressed than other people.

Researchers from Manchester University and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University in the UK looked at 11 indicators of chronic stress, including blood pressure and hormones, in 6025 women; they found that working mothers of two children record 40 per cent higher levels on those stress indicators.

Australian experts say they are unsurprised by the findings.

Professor Rae Cooper says Australian research supports the UK findings that working mothers have higher stress levels ...
Professor Rae Cooper says Australian research supports the UK findings that working mothers have higher stress levels than other people. Photo: Supplied

“The survey absolutely aligns with what we know about the context of Australian working mums,” says Rae Cooper, Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney. “Motherhood is challenging for all women, but there’s a higher layer of complexity for working mothers.”

According to the survey, women with flexible work hours, or those who worked from home, didn’t feel any less stressed – something Cooper can attest to.

“In Australia we have a serious undersupply of good quality, flexible jobs for mums. So, often what you find is that mums say they feel “grateful”, or “lucky” a lot, that the job allows them flexibility.

“It’s good to feel to feel grateful for the job you have. But we have to be really vigilant that women who are working at particular flexible hours are not doing unpaid labour.”

Zoe, 41 a mother of two who works three days a week in a public relations firm says this is the case for her.

“I know my boss watches me when I get my lunch every day. But if she ever confronted me, it would be a great excuse to tell her that I’ve been working full time on a part time wage for a year now.”


The result, she says, is that neither her home life nor her work life is flowing smoothly.

“I work part-time, but if I really stuck to my hours, nothing would get done, so I have to go in on weekends, and log back on after my kids are asleep. I know my kids are resentful, but they don’t pressure my husband to ‘get off the computer’ the way they do me.”

“It’s like walking into a crime scene” is how Nicole, 44, a counsellor with three kids, describes her arrival from work to home. “The house is a mess, the kids are crazy, I’m exhausted, but then it’s somehow my job to organise dinner.”

Nicole, who considers herself a feminist, understands she can’t hand over the task to her husband. It seems bizarrely retroactive, but such is the case for many mothers. “Women are always doing more housework and care work than men, even if both are working full time” says Dr. Inga Lass, a research fellow of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne.

Dr. Lass was a member of the team behind the HILDA survey – the largest of its kind in Australia, following nearly 20,000 households over 16 years. The results found that after the first child is born, women do far more housework than men, and that, as the children grow up, the dynamic only worsens.

“Women have to find ways to combine housework, care work, and their paid work, whereas men can be much more focused on their employment. I think this is directly related to women feeling more stressed” says Dr. Lass, who believes the gender wage gap is partly to blame.

“Usually the fathers earn more than the mothers, even before the first child arrives. And then if you think, who’s going to stay home with the child? Well, it’s probably the mother as the income that’s lost isn’t as great.”

The problem is, even a decade later, says Dr. Lass, those roles don’t change. Because men really are working harder – and moving up the ladder as they do. The result is more pay, but with more work, longer hours and less flexibility.

It’s little wonder research undertaken in Australia in December suggests both parents suffer chronic stress after the second child is born, but it’s mothers who have more time constraints, because they’re doing more – of everything.

The solution offered to many working mothers from their male partners, is to not be so uptight. If only they accepted that their partners won’t do as good a job as them, then they’d feel better.

“So if my husband leaves my daughter’s dirty nappy on the stairs, am I supposed to just, chill out and leave it there?” says Zoe. “I know not to say to my husband, ‘please pick up nappies’, because then a fight starts, where he tells me I’m a nag and I tell him I’m sick of doing everything. And then, by the end of it the kids are crying. So yeah, I’m going to pick up the dirty nappy.”

According to Professor Cooper, before they have kids, couples have the best of intentions, it’s just that, when both parents are operating in a busy, stressful environment, all those plans to share the load go out the window.

“If we have a look at men’s desire to spend more time with children, to work flexibly and have lives outside of work, we see that these things are spoken about a lot,” says Professor Cooper. “But we are really yet to see those changes be translated into action in the workplace and being implemented within families.”

Women meanwhile, are under more pressure than any other generation to get mothering ‘right’ while trying to work as hard as they would if they didn’t have kids -- often in jobs without much security.

“Working mums report very little joy” says Cooper. “There is almost no personal time, no leisure time – no time for the sort of pleasures that people talk about having before they had small children.

“I’m hoping that will begin to change” says Cooper. “But if the amount of labour at home doesn’t change, and women still shoulder more of it, while at the same time, being left out of opportunities at work, like being rewarded or feeling valued, then they will continue to feel stressed.”