Helpful Dads Can Hurt Mom's Self-Esteem

Dads are helping out with childrearing more and more these days. The result can be both a boon and a letdown for super-moms, whose self-competence can take a hit when paired with husbands who are savvy caregivers, new research finds.

The findings reveal the fallout as women have entered the workplace in droves over recent decades, many of them leaving young children at home. One result is mothers have less time for care-giving. Past studies have shown working moms are torn between full-time careers and stay-at-home duties. And lately more diligent dads are helping out with the diaper-changing and other household duties.

But since mothers pride themselves on being just that – moms – their self-esteem can take a blow.

"While mothers are encouraged to join the workforce, socially constructed ideals of motherhood requires mothers to be primary caregivers," said study researcher Takayuki Sasaki of the Osaka University of Commerce in Japan. "Thus, employed mothers may feel pressured to do more care-giving to ensure the survival of their feelings of self-competence, even though they may wish for fathers' increased participation to lessen their burden."

While some couples have been able to find a division of childcare that suits them, many struggle to hit the right balance.

Sasaki also stressed, "We by no means assert that women should take the blame for the inequality in division of child care. Some fathers vigorously resist collaborative effort in child care in favor of beliefs in traditional fathers' roles."

Parenting skills

Sasaki and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin interviewed 78 dual-earner couples with 8-month-old infants in their homes in the United States. Interview questions measured two types of self-esteem – self-liking and self-competence (the degree to which individuals feel capable of and effective in accomplishing goals).

During home visits, parents were also asked to talk about their spouse's strengths and weaknesses. Coders then watched video recordings of the discussions and rated each participant's perceptions of his or her spouse's parenting, which included the spouse's emotional engagement (kissing and hugging the baby), physical involvement (such as feeding and diaper changing), responsibility and overall parenting skills. Total scores ranged from the worst score of 4 to the highest of 28.

As the researchers expected, women spent nearly three times as much time taking care of their babies by themselves compared with their husbands.

And husbands took notice, giving stellar parenting marks to their wives. For instance, on average husbands gave their wives nearly a 24 for parenting skills, while the average score wives gave to husbands was around 21, a statistically significant difference.

Even so, wives often said their husbands were good parents.

"Many wives would say care-giving by their husbands is helpful but at the same time wives give their husbands negative feedback because their husbands' care-giving style is different from their own," Sasaki told LiveScience. "For example, a wife appreciates when her husband feeds their baby but also tells her husband that after all it makes more work because the way the husband feeds is messy."

There was also a gender difference regarding standards used to judge their partner's parenting skills.

"Husbands are often told by their wives that they are good parents when they are involved in care-giving that their wives normally do, such as feeding, changing diapers, and soothing," Sasaki said. "In contrast, husbands do not tell their wives that they are good parents even when their wives exhibit such behavior probably because it is taken for granted."

Mom's self-esteem

When mothers perceived fathers to be competent caregivers, the more time those dads spent solo with children, the lower was mom's self-competence rating. But when mothers considered spouses relatively incompetent caregivers, increased father-only time with kids was unrelated to mothers' self-competence.

As for why a mother's self-competence took a hit from perfect dads, Sasaki suggests pressure to keep up with societal norms plays a role.

"In American society, women are expected to take a main role in parenting despite increasingly egalitarian sex roles," Sasaki said. "Thus, we believe that employed mothers suffer from self-competence losses when their husbands are involved and skillful because those mothers may consider that it is a failure to fulfill cultural expectations."

Sasaki added, "Husbands do not suffer from self-competence losses even when their wives are involved and skillful because that is consistent with cultural expectations."

The results don't suggest a stay-at-home mom is the answer. For one, the study showed work hours can boost a woman's perception of self-competence. And a father's care-giving was linked with a mother's marital satisfaction.

Here are some tips for working moms on how to juggle work and home.

The research is being published in the journal Personal Relationships.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.