Moms aren’t naturally better at multitasking—they just have no choice
By painting women as great multitaskers who are naturally wired to "do it all," society let itself off the hook when it comes to supporting moms. And that's not okay.
Moms are multitaskers because we have to be. We learn how to feed the baby while cooking dinner because the children are hungry. We learn how to shower while simultaneously entertaining a toddler because even dry shampoo has its limits. We learn how to answer emails with one hand while serving breakfast with the other while simultaneously tracking down lost shoes because there is no other choice.
For many moms, multitasking can feel like a superpower and for years, news headlines about women’s supposedly superior multitasking skills have reflected this, calling us supermoms while suggesting that women are better at multitasking than men are.
But we are not, and new research proves it. A new study published in PLOS One debunks previous research that suggested women are super multitaskers. The brains of women and men are equally strained by multitasking.
Moms are not any better at multitasking than anyone else is. We are just doing more.
Indeed, our second annual State of Motherhood survey found that the majority of mothers are balancing paid work with a lot of responsibilities at home. More than 60% of mothers say they handle most of the household chores and responsibilities themselves and a similar share are so stretched for time they have less than an hour to themselves.
The myth of our multitasking abilities is a factor in this imbalance, this time crunch. By painting women as great multitaskers who are naturally wired to “do it all,” society let itself off the hook when it comes to supporting moms.
Our survey found 85% of moms don’t think society understands or supports them, and it’s no wonder. We are supposedly multitasking supermoms, and super moms don’t need support. By selling us the myth of our own superpowers, society ensured we wouldn’t ask for help. We would just find a way to be the superheroes that the headlines suggest we are (and blame ourselves when we realize we’re only human and can’t actually multitask better than men).
As Leah Ruppanner, an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne points out for The Conversation, the new research into gender and multitasking is important because when we end the myth we can start supporting mothers. “Debunking these myths that expect women to be superheroes is a good thing, but we need to go further and create policy environments where gender equality can thrive.”
This new research follows a 2011 study in the American Sociological Review which found that working mothers multitask about 10 hours more per week than working fathers do, and that the labor we’re doing while multitasking is more intensive and stressful than the multitasking men take on.
“When they multitask at home, for example, mothers are more likely than fathers to engage in housework or childcare activities, which are usually labor intensive efforts,” Shira Offer, the lead author of the study said when it was released.
She continued: “Fathers, by contrast, tend to engage in other types of activities when they multitask at home, such as talking to a third person or engaging in self-care. These are less burdensome experiences.”
Interestingly, Offer and her colleagues found that for dads, this less demanding form of multitasking is a positive experience, but for moms, multitasking is a negative one: It makes them feel stressed and conflicted.
Maybe that’s because, for fathers, multitasking momentarily does make them feel like a superhero, but for mothers—who are expected to be multitasking superheroes—it just makes us feel like failures.
Offer believes more flexible workplaces would benefit mothers by benefiting fathers: If more dads could start work later or leave early when they need to, Offer believes it would lead to more “egalitarian norms regarding mothers’ and fathers’ parenting roles.”
The hard truth is, women and men perform equally poorly when multitasking, but women are doing more of it and are more stressed by it.
It’s okay if you don’t feel like a superhero, mama, because you’re not. It’s okay to drop some balls. It’s okay if you don’t feel like you were made for the extreme multitasking demanded of you because none of us were. We are only human and we can’t do it all. The science shows it—and it’s time for our policymakers to do something about it.