New Study: Mom's Multitasking is a Full-Time Job

While doing research for my December feature story, “Welcome to the Age of Overparenting,” in which I come clean about my struggles as a helicopter mom, I spoke with Margaret Nelson, a sociologist at Middlebury College and author of Parenting out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times.

As we spoke, I recalled one of my favorite memories from childhood: Friends and I would play unsupervised for hours as our mothers, all good friends, would drink wine, listen to bluegrass, and work jigsaw puzzles at the dining room table. We kids would run wild around the house, in the yard, and through the woods out back. We’d use hot coals from the fireplace to singe the edges of our treasure maps, dress like Gypsies and dance on beds, and take flashlights outside along the stream under a starlit sky. All the while, our mothers were in the background, talking and laughing. I know that part of what makes this memory so special is not just my happiness, but my mother’s.

When I asked Nelson about the differences between parenting now and back when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, she said: “I think there are enormous costs to today’s parents, and those costs are very significant. I mean, you talk about your mother sitting with her friends drinking wine and doing jigsaw puzzles. Can you do that?”

Truth be told, not that often. Nelson finds that troubling, not so much because of what our over-involvement may be doing to our kids, but because of what it may be doing to us.

“I don’t think you’re all ruining a generation of kids,” she said. “That’s the line right now — that you’re ruining a generation of kids — and, frankly, I don’t see it. I teach at a fairly elite school and my students get better and more interesting and more fun to teach every year. But I do think it’s bad for parents. Parents might want to say, ‘What do I need?’ a little bit more.”

A new study in the American Sociological Review, cited in today’s Boston Globe, points to a big part of the problem — today’s incessant multitasking, most often on the part of working mothers. According to writer Beth Teitell:

The study of 368 US mothers and 241 fathers found that women spend nearly 10 hours more per week multitasking while at home than working fathers. That is 48.3 hours of multitasking each week for mom, 38.9 hours per week for dad. There is hardly enough time in the day to complain about being too busy.

During the holidays — with teacher gifts, holiday cards, shopping, and travel thrown into the already revved-up mix — multitasking is at a fever pitch. This morning, I was at the annual holiday sing-along at my kids’ school and my to-do list was buzzing in my head like a chainsaw.

We’d gotten through “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Dreidel Song,” and a passel of other holiday favorites when my daughter and her fellow Kindergartners lined up in front of the parents for the grand finale. The teacher said they’d been practicing a song especially for us: Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

Recognition coursed through my veins as the sweetness of their small, strong voices rose on air and not a person in the audience moved. I knew they were trying to tell us something. “Don’t worry about a thing,” they sang to their stressed-out moms and dads. “…Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.”

I vowed then and there to put my mental to-do list away and enjoy the moment.