When Marie gets home from her full-time job as a Seattle nurse administrator, her workday is only half over. Next up is driving her two boys to band practice, soccer, and art lessons, supervising homework, taking them to the mall for supplies—and sitting up with them all night when they're sick.
"I didn't want to miss out on any bonding time," she says, "so despite my husband's availability, I took on the heavy lifting of child care."
It's a choice that has a price, Marie admits. "I'm too wound up to sleep, and I've got a chronic red nose from catching one cold after another," she says.
Marie is among legions of stressed-out women. In the United States, 78 percent of all mothers with kids ages 6 to 17 work in paid jobs. Most—including married working moms—also are responsible for child care and housework, according to a 2005 University of Michigan study.
The double responsibilities of work and home can mean more stress, which can prompt everything from insomnia and lowered immunity to mood swings and weight gain. "Excess stress boosts the output of the cortisol hormone, which in turn can increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, and anxiety," says Brent W. Bost, M.D., an OB/GYN in Beaumont, Texas.
Making the choice
Although many working moms have no choice about being the primary parent, others choose to take on more of the child care responsibilities than their spouse, the Michigan study found. The women do so even though they may work the same hours as their husbands.
Some women feel guilty about missing out on any part of childrearing. Others feel they're more skilled caregivers. In any case, working mothers should understand the importance of negotiating the workload to reduce their stress load, the Michigan researchers said.
Other experts agree. "The real key to a child's happiness is the emotional availability of the parent," says Deborah Belle, Ed.D., a Boston psychologist. "A mother's morale and her emotional and mental health are her child's strength. It's vital that working moms take measures to protect their well-being."
It's best to negotiate child care and housework at the family planning stage. But it's never too late to try these tips to reduce stress:
Adjust your standards and expectations
Dad may dress the kids in mismatched outfits or serve pizza more often than you'd like. But as long as they're nurtured and safe, let go and share the workload. Kids whose fathers are involved in routine activities tend to be better students with fewer behavior problems, studies show.
Scale back kids' commitments
"A hurried child creates a hurried mom," says Dr. Bost. Before signing Billy up for baseball, weigh the cost of chauffeuring, cutting into family meals, and interfering with vacations, he says. Try to set a "one activity per season" limit.
Don't be your kids' entertainment
You don't need to provide constant stimulation for kids with nightly videos, frequent outings, or even blowout vacations. "The best thing a mother can provide is a focused, calm environment," says Dr. Belle.
Spell out duties clearly
Don't expect your mate to read your mind. Instead of the vague suggestion, "help with dinner," state specific chores: Cook dinner three nights a week, clear and wash dishes, and so on. Posted lists can help.
Some ideas: Carpool with a classmate's parents; hire a cleaning service a half day a week to tackle harder tasks; foster the team approach for chores. Kids can open lettuce bags or run the vacuum.
Build "me time" into your schedule
"Me first" isn't selfish, it's preventive health, says Dr. Bost. Stick to a guilt-free, uninterrupted block of time for reading a book, gardening, doing yoga, walking, or just soaking in the tub.
Serving a plate of fruit, a chunk of cheese, and some crusty bread can be more relaxing—and just as nutritious—as fixing a labor-intensive, made-from-scratch meal.
Aim for "good enough"
Trying to hold the best birthday party, bake the best cookies for the Scout sale, or have the best-looking house adds undue pressure. Modify your expectations and accept your limitations.
If reading a bedtime story and extra cuddling time is important, let the dishes sit in the sink and the machine answer calls.
Buying more things means more maintenance, more clutter—and often more debt, a major stressor. Ask yourself: Does our family really need that latest gadget?
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