Are men the cause of women’s problems?

Photo Credit: lucianvenutian
Photo Credit: lucianvenutian

I’m picking a relatively easy topic for this week, because I’m jet-lagged and tired and my brain is full of new ideas for research following the conference I came back from. There’s nothing easier than picking on something someone said and show how it makes no sense whatsoever. And one topic on which people say things that make no sense whatsoever is the “mommy wars”.

This is relatively old news, and I will admit that I have not read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” yet. But about a month ago Lisa Belkin wrote about a survey done by MORE magazine that asked people about their financial security and about their views of working and stay-at-home moms. The magazine (according to Lisa, I could not access the article itself) argues that one of the causes of the “mommy wars” is that men send mixed signals to women. Quoting Lisa Belkin:

A related root cause, the survey found, was men. Twenty percent of the sample was male, and they report conflicted views of working and stay-at-home mothers. The latter, they say, are “better mothers” who are “happier” and have “better behaved kids.” The former, on the other hand, deserve “more respect,” “work harder” and “have a more exciting life.” When men are “sending conflicting signals,” Seymour says, “it would follow that women are responding to them. And instead of talking to the men around us, we’re taking it out on each other.

Here’s what I think about this (and why it made me a little bit mad). First of all, having positive things to say about both working and stay-at-home moms is not “conflicting views”. It’s appreciation of all moms. Second, even if men were sending conflicting signals, from this survey it does not “follow that women are responding to them” – that’s called a hypothesis. And lastly, even assuming women respond to these positive conflicting messages, how does that explain working moms and stay-at-home moms criticizing each other? If anything, it would follow that we should have respect for women who chose a different life than we did.

I agree with the editor-in-chief of MORE magazine that we have to talk about the issues. But for us to talk about the issues, they have to be issues first. Blaming men for sending “conflicting messages” doesn’t encourage frank and open discussion; it just makes everyone build their defenses a bit higher. And this just turned from “mommy wars” to “gender wars” for no reason at all.

This week’s assignment: talk to your partner about how they view working and stay-at-home parents. Feel free to post updates here 🙂


On the Effects of Vacations

Random Beach
Random Beach

You can count on psychologists to research the most common sense phenomena and come up with interesting (although not surprising) findings.

This week, I want to talk a bit about burnout. Burnout in mechanics is the complete exhaustion of fuel due to intensive use. In people, burnout is really the same: it’s the state of emotional exhaustion that comes after a long exposure to high levels of work-related stress. This term describes people who have lost interest in their job, and show high levels of cynicism and low levels of productivity because they have, quite literally, burnt out.

It has been theorized that a vacation can prevent burnout in the sense that it pauses the “fuel burning”, leaving more resources for the person to cope with his/her high-stress job. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any research about burnout that is not work-related. I would expect, for instance, that working moms might have a higher burnout rate because they are “working two shifts” – one at the office and another at home. In any case, vacation should help the burnout and stress, if only because you are taking a week off from these things. Common sense, right?

In a great study that actually used both a pre- and post-questionnaire and a control group (no other study used a control group, leaving much to be desired), the researchers found that a vacation decreased both job-related stress and burnout when measured immediately after returning from the vacation. That is, the people who went on vacation showed lower levels of stress and burnout after they returned. Shocking, I know.

Here’s the interesting finding, though. The authors also got the participants to fill in the questionnaires about 3 weeks after the “vacation” group returned. Turns out that 3 weeks later the stress levels of the people who took a vacation went back up to be equivalent to those who didn’t take a vacation. Burnout levels, however, remained low for the people who went on vacation even after 3 weeks, despite the high levels of stress. So the vacation helps to alleviate stress only temporarily, but it helps with the burnout for a longer stretch of time.

That said, the sample for this study consisted mostly of men (about 90% of the sample were men). This is a significant weakness of the study, especially that it is documented that women and men use resources differently. For example, in a study of flexible working schedule it was found that combining two flexible schedule programs (flextime and compressed workweek) was associated with less stress for men, but with more stress for women. It was hypothesized that women use the flexible schedule to fit more into their time, hence creating more demands.

In any case, it seems that research is in agreement with common sense on this one: a vacation would lower your stress in the short term, and also help with burnout for at least a little while. And with that in mind, please note that next week there won’t be a post, as we are off to Jamaica with the kids for a week. I’ll let you know when I get back if it is helping my stress levels 🙂

What was your favourite vacation? Why do you think it was so good?

To Fast-Track or not to Fast-Track?


photo credit:
photo credit:

I’d like to talk about a book I read recently, called Mothers on the Fast Track by Mary Anne Mason and her daughter, Eve Mason Ekman. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. When I read for fun, I want my book to be, well, fun. But I felt this was a book I should read, being a mother and a PhD student. The book is about the structural challenges that mothers who are career-driven encounter. It has some interesting statistical information about what happens to women who chose a career as one of four “fast-track” occupations: lawyer, doctor, business executive, and university professors. In all those professions, women receive a roughly equal education (i.e., the gender proportion of PhD graduates, law degree graduates, etc. is about 50-50), but there are only very few women at the top positions in each of these professions. Women, particularly mothers, either drop down from the “fast-track” to a “second tier” job (e.g., sessional instructor or adjunct professor in universities), or they completely drop out and either don’t work at all or work from home as a small business owner (or mommy bloggers).

Why is this happening? The authors give several reasons. One reason is that the fast track requires a lot of hours. They are talking about a 60-hour workweek as being the easiest and most laid-back option. Since a full time, 9 to 5 job is 40 hours a week, you can see how this extra amount of hours you have to put in would make people who also have to care for young children practically unable to compete. This doesn’t apply just for moms, of course, but it seems that moms still tend to do more of the housework and child-care-work when both parents in the family are working full time. Now, parenting is not a job, as beta dad aptly put it, but it does take time. Even if the kids, like ours, are in daycare full day (8 to 5, which is a pretty long day for adults, let alone toddlers), there is still a lot of work in the after hours and on weekends, and if you are doing that work then you are not doing work-work. So basically, if you are willing to not have any life at all outside of your work, you can be a “fast-tracker”.

An interesting piece of information from the book is that, while for women working more hours correlates with less children (on average), the relationship is reverse for men: the more hours a man works, the more children (on average) he has (this is not true for university professors, for some reason). The explanation, per Mason, is that men who work more hours have a higher income, and can financially support a larger family. This ties into my rant about equal pay: apparently the next feminist revolution ought to be happening at home.

The book is somewhat repetitive, but I hear non-fiction books tend to do that. It has to do with constructing an argument, apparently. However, my main problem with it (and this may be just me) is that it makes the “second tier” jobs sound like a failure. I had a strategy talk with my supervisor today (about time, no?), and she argues that if I can find a place that provides me with what I want, then it doesn’t really matter what that place is. So, a part-time teaching job that allows me to build in some research while being affiliated with a higher-education institution would not count, for me, as a “second tier” job or a compromise. It would be doing the smart move and making the system work for me.

What about you? How are you making the system work?

Do Children Benefit from Staying at Home?

Do children really benefit from staying home with mom? Does it matter what type of care you put your children in? Science has answers! 🙂

Going back to work after childbirth is maybe one of the hardest choices you have to make as a new mother. Sometimes, you have no options – the financial situation requires you to go back. But what if you don’t “have” to go back? For me, this decision was the hardest I had to make, especially because I didn’t have to go back. In fact, I’m not even working; I’m actually paying the university to allow me to come in every day.

This topic is close to my heart, and so I was very happy that my blog research led me to a meta-analysis done a couple of years ago by Rachel G. Lucas-Thompson and her colleagues. A meta-analysis is an analysis of studies, and it’s kind of a scientific summary of research findings.

This meta-analysis found that when mothers go back to work after the child is one year old, there are virtually no effects on the child’s academic achievement and problem behaviour. Academic achievement (i.e., grades) and problem behaviour (e.g., aggression, depression, acting out, etc.) are often considered to reflect the child’s cognitive and emotional adjustment, respectively. Sure, it’s not the most accurate measure or the most nuanced, but it really is a great “quick and dirty” screener for children’s ability to cope with school – both cognitively and emotionally.

The meta-analysis further found that early employment (after the child was one year old but before the child was 3) was actually associated with higher academic achievement and fewer internalizing behaviours (e.g., depression). Crazy, right? The authors thought so too, so they looked at other variables. They found that going to daycare between 1 and 3 years of age was beneficial for children who came from single-parent families or welfare families. Which makes sense – for these families, any income is crucial, and so if mom went back to work things were financially a bit better at home. In this case, it’s not necessarily the daycare environment itself, but probably other family processes that account for the better results for those kids. Also, there was a negative effect of going back to work before the baby was one year old, again, supporting calls for an extended maternity leave.

Of course, the quality of the care the child receives when mom returns to work is very important. Here is a quote from a fairly recent study done by quite a few big names in the field working with the NICHD project[1]: “A relatively consistent finding across 40 years of child-care research is that quality and type of care are related to cognitive, academic, and language functioning in young children”. This study found that the effects of daycare quality still resonated with the children when they were adolescents.

So in summary, go ahead and go back to work, but pay mind to who is taking care of your child when you are at work.

I want to hear your story! Tell me about when you went back to work.

[1] The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) is a US government agency responsible for a great many studies done on all aspects of child development. They are awesome.

My Rant About Equal Pay

Bear with me as this post is going to be less about child development and more about working moms. I have written a bit about being a working mom and about gender issues before, and you might find yourself thinking, is this blog about children or about mothers? Make up your mind, will you? In my opinion, you can’t talk about children without sometimes talking about their mothers.

I’ve read a couple of interesting pieces lately about women’s status in the workforce and such. What really lighted a fire under my bum was this quote, given by Wendy M. Williams, a female researcher who is studying women in academia. Regarding the fact that women publish less than men in academia: “If a woman is interested in a field, but she has to devote time to three kids, she may not be submitting as often. I don’t see that as discrimination.” Now, in the last two decades, women published between 10.6% and 46.6% of academic articles, with an average of 27%. How is this not discrimination? Where is those three kids’ dad? Could he not kick in a bit? Don’t the male authors have children as well? Given that in academia publication is the currency with which one buys jobs and promotions, this is a very serious problem for female aspiring profs like myself.

To be fair to men, they are doing better. And by better I mean that they have doubled their share of housework and tripled their share of childcare (but I suspect it’s because their share was quite minimal when the count had begun). And it’s also not quite the individual man’s fault: a recent study found that men who request a family leave are perceived as more “weak and feminine”, and they are penalized for it at work. This creates a problem for men who want to help out with childcare.

To be further fair to men, as Debora Spar puts it, biology matters. Assuming a traditional “bring a child into the world” process, women have to take a minimum of 6 weeks to recover from childbirth. This time is obviously detrimental to their progress in the life-long career path. If they are breastfeeding, well, their productivity is obviously impaired, because no one can make milk and work at the same time. Sometimes women even take a full year out of 45 years of working to stay at home with a kid. Clearly, all the promotion action is happening during that year. That can’t be the result of discrimination. Sorry for the snarky tone, but this drives me a wee bit crazy.

And while pretending the discrimination does not exist drives me crazy, the thing that bugs me the most about some of the articles I linked to is the fact that they make it sound as if women who chose to stay at home with their kids somehow lose the competition between men and women. These are articles written from a feminist point of view, and are meant to clarify the inequality between men and women. But I don’t think that making women who chose to stay at home with their children feel like they’re dragging down the entire gender is helping anyone. Besides, turns out that it’s better not to work too much – not just for the soul, but also from a financial point of view. Also, the whole point – at least in my opinion – is that housework should count as much as outside-the-house work. I hereby challenge gender studies people to contribute some numbers: has anyone quantified the housework to compare it to outside-the-house work?

Grandparents Make the World Go Round

What role do grandparents play in parenting?

My family is visiting from Israel, and are staying with us. My childless friends look at me in horror when I tell them that I asked my dad to extend his 3-weeks stay to a 6-weeks stay. My parents-friends nod in agreement, and ask why I didn’t ask him to stay longer.

Especially since my son was born, my family has been an incredible source of support for me. My parents come visit and for a couple of weeks I don’t have to worry about dishes, cooking dinner, or picking up the kids from daycare. Got stuck in a late afternoon meeting? No problem – call grandma and she’s on her way to the daycare, and from there to the park. Have a crazy-busy week at work? Grandpa will make dinners this week and help out with the dishes. Haven’t seen my husband in a week? Date night it is.

Of course it’s not just the practical, day-to-day stuff. My parents are also great to ask child-rearing advice (you did what?? I’m going to do the exact opposite!), and they understand parenting in many ways I have no chance of understanding, seeing as they have over 30 years of experience and have raised 4 kids. They are also the people who love my kids almost as much as I do. They are the ones I can trust with my kids’ best interests every single time.

Grandparents as Social Support

From a research point of view, social support, and particularly extended family support, is vital for parents. For instance, a study done a few years ago on parents of children with disabilities found that the more support grandparents provided, the better the parents’ adjustment was. Quoting from the article, “Grandparents’ most frequent forms of assistance were babysitting and buying clothing.” In other words, the day-to-day relief from daily chores is the best help grandparents can give their children and grandchildren.

Grandparents’ effect on the economy

Most research is done on grandparents who are actually raising the children for various reasons. I’m not aware of a lot of research looking at grandparents’ role in supporting parents. That said, I read a column a while ago (I’m linking to it, but it’s in Hebrew) talking about the effect grandparents have on the economy. This is an interesting angle. The author argues that grandparents allow parents to work by providing support around the daycare solution (that is, picking up the kids from school or daycare and staying with them until the work day is done). In Israel, almost all daycare solutions are available until 3 or 4 pm, while workers are expected to put in at least 8-9 hours a day, which creates a discrepancy of a few hours in which parents are left on their own to find a solution. It is quite customary in Israel for people to live close to their parents when they have kids of their own, and so grandparents come into the picture by being a part of the routine of work/school/home.

What about you? Do you get help from your parents or your partner’s parents?

Carpe Diem? Really?

A little while ago, Tim Kreider wrote an opinion in the New York Times about being busy. He argues that people in the modern world are too busy, and that this is self-imposed-busy, as opposed to survival-busy. He argues that being busy silences our creative brain (he is not the first with this notion).

I’m responding to it a few weeks later because it’s been fermenting, and also, ironically, I’ve been busy. I have so much to say about his piece and I can’t fit it all in, but I’ve chosen the main three problems I have with the article.

Do we force each other to be busy?

First, Kreider says that we force each other to be busy. I don’t understand how that coincides with saying that we choose to be busy (in the same paragraph!), but I’ll put this internal contradiction aside.

For me, at least, this is not true. No one forced me to do a PhD. No one forced me to have two kids while doing my PhD. But the reality is that studying full-time while raising two kids means that sometimes I’m busy. I’m fully aware that this is a choice and that I can choose to stay at home, or not have kids, or move to the country and be a painter. But I don’t want to. However, when you ask me how I am (and if you don’t care about the answer then please, for the love of everything holly, don’t ask me), I will honestly say that I’m busy. I’m not complaining. I’m just stating a fact.

Does idleness enable creativity?

The second point I have a major problem with is Kreider’s argument that being idle is what enables creativity. As evidence he cites 5 examples of stories in which idleness brought about the “Aha!” moment of creation: Thomas Pynchon, Archimedes, Newton, Jekyll & Hyde, and Kekule – who discovered the benzene ring (although the latter two actually dreamt of their invention, and I’m not sure how dreaming is idleness as even busy people sleep occasionally). Of course, there are many more examples. But, as I’ve said before, the plural form of anecdote is not data. There’s actually empirical evidence that an incubation period improves problem-solving. However, I can also give you 6 examples of innovative people whose innovation was related to alcohol and substance usage (Beethoven, Poe, Hemingway, Coleridge, Pollock, and Socrates – all examples taken from the linked article), complete with empirical evidence that alcohol improves creative thinking. But you’re not going to show up drunk for work tomorrow, are you?

The thing is, we don’t know how innovation happens. We can chase it around and we can find the factors that impede or facilitate it, but when it comes to the actual moment of invention, that’s pretty hard to trace and investigate. What happens when people give you examples such as Hemingway or Newton is that it makes you think that you (or your child) could also be the next Hemingway or Newton if you just [insert self-help advice here]. If you quit your job and moved to the country. If you thought positive thoughts. If you drank kale juice. The truth is, in my opinion, that there are only a few Hemingways and Newtons among us, and they are very likely to be great with or without kale juice.

Do you have to spend more time with the people you love?

In the last paragraph Kreider writes “…I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love”. Carpe Diem, and all that. It’s inspiring, really. So why aren’t more people doing that?

I’m very blessed and lucky and I do something that I really love. I don’t love the deadlines or marking papers. but I do love the part of my job that allows me to help others. Other people might have other motivations when it comes to work – influence, respect, meaning. Many people find that their work helps them to feel satisfied and productive. Yes, I want to spend time with the people I love. But after a long weekend, trust me, I also need some time away from the people I love. I wonder why, when talking about work-life balance, people seem to forget that the critical word is balance.