Why are women so tired?

5885747179_939f256af9_zThere’s a certain story out there that women are exhausted. The 2007 National Sleep Foundation’s poll on women’s sleep habits came out with the headline “Stressed-out American women have no time for sleep.” A new book by Katrina Alcorn called Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink chronicles her own tale of anxiety and makes the case that, well, women are maxed out. Now the Pew Research Center brings some data to this question with a new study analyzing findings from the American Time Use Survey on how parents spend their time, and how they feel about it.

The first interesting finding is that fathers work more hours per week than mothers. We know they work more hours for pay (40.5 vs. 22.8, averaged over the population), but when you add in housework and childcare hours (10.0 and 7.3, and 17.4 and 13.5 respectively) you get a higher total for all kinds of work (57.3 hours vs. 53.7 hours).

So you’d think men would be more tired than women. Men also sleep less than women. But it turns out that some kinds of work seem more tiring than others. Some 12% of people categorized childcare as “very tiring,” 7% called housework “very tiring” and 5% called paid work “very tiring.” (Interestingly, 5% called leisure “very tiring.” Go figure). These figures are somewhat skewed by the split between men and women. While 15% of women found childcare exhausting, only 6% of men did. While only 1% of men found housework exhausting, 8% of women did. Women found paid work less stressful than childcare and housework.

Poke deeper into the numbers and you start to see the reason women find childcare more exhausting than men do. They’re doing more of the physical care — the bathing, feeding, dressing. But mothers and fathers spend very similar amounts of recreational time with children. As for housework, fathers are much more likely to do repairs, while mothers do cooking and cleaning. They’re pretty closely matched on the managerial side (that mental load thing). 

So what are we to make of this? If childcare and housework are more exhausting than paid work, then that might explain why men are less tired than women despite their higher work loads. They work more total, but they do less of these more tiring kinds of work. It could also be that the reason women find childcare and housework more exhausting than men do is that they’re doing the less fun parts of it — at least on the childcare side. Playing with kids is more fun than making them eat their veggies at dinner, or changing a diaper. (I’m not sure that changing a light bulb is better or worse than throwing a load of laundry in).

It all makes sense, but the issue is that the standard narrative of how maxed out women should cope is that they should cut back at work. They should work fewer hours, or opt out in order to make life less tiring and stressful.

But if childcare and housework are more exhausting than paid work, then this doesn’t really seem like the answer. Indeed, the secret to work life balance might be to work more, and find ways to get rid of some of the more exhausting household tasks. Childcare might have meaningful upsides (indeed, women ranked childcare as very meaningful) but probably some housework can be chucked. If you could spend an hour more working, and an hour less cleaning, that would change the exhaustion equation in a very different direction than spending an hour less working and an hour more taking care of the house.

What tasks do you find most tiring?

Photo courtesy flickr user WarmSleepy

35 thoughts on “Why are women so tired?

  1. As a mom, I find the repetition very tiring. “Put your shoes on!” “Clean up the toys before you sit down for dinner!” “Go to the bathroom before we leave for the playground!”. And repeat, over and over.

    I will often try to attack these areas so I don’t need to be so hands-on. Like, say, a list of things the kids need to do before they sit down for breakfast. But I also think there’s no avoiding having to repeat myself often at this stage of parenting. And I find that very tiring.

    1. This in particular has been grating on me recently. I’ve started delegating mini punishments (e.g., push-ups) more often and more generously in hopes of curtailing the nagging (if you leave the kitchen without first bringing your dishes to the dishwasher, that’s 10 push-ups)… one responsibility at a time!

      What’s worse though is feeling like the people I deal with at work need to be nagged for things I really shouldn’t have to be nagging about. Having it come both from home and work at the same time was starting to drive me over the edge. Being hormonal doesn’t help 🙁

      Have since had a bit of recharge time and am feeling better!

  2. Another factor is which tasks can be done at the best time for your mental alertness cycle. Repairs can usually be put off until a convenient time, such as a weekend afternoon. Meals (even quickly prepared ones) need to happen every day, at fairly regular times. Diapers can’t wait to be changed. Older kids need to be woken, fed, dressed, and chauffeured to school or activities at certain times, even if those times might be my ideal work hours.

    1. THIS, so much.

      Also, my “alone time”/hobby time comes after the kids are in bed, which luckily is around 7pm. But if I’m really into a project it’s easily midnight before I’m asleep, and the baby wakes in the middle of the night and both kids are up for the day by 7am.

      So in our house, it’s not childcare or housework shortchanging my sleep, it’s my fun time 🙂 That was true when I worked a full day outside the home as well.

  3. I had an old post on something similar, written during a stressful time when someone told me I should quit my job so I could be less stressed. I noted that quitting my job would actually probably leave me more stressed out- because the thing I missed most was quiet time when no one wanted anything from me, and staying home with the kids certainly wouldn’t get me more of that!
    Just Saturday, I took to Twitter to complain about how I had been trying- and failing- to get 15 minutes all day when I wasn’t “the adult in charge.” My husband was around, but doing chores, and he does this annoying thing of assuming that he can just go do his chores and I’ll take care of the kids. (Yes, we’ve talked about this, but it is a habit he has so far not been able to break- he figures if someone needs him, they’ll come find him.) So I end up doing my chores while also keeping an eye on the kids. My kids actually played really well together that day, but still, by the end of the day, I just wanted a break from the questions and the requests! However, if you looked at our timelogs, my husband did a lot of physically demanding chores (garden work, etc) and I mostly did inside chores and even had some time to do some work on my website (which I class as a hobby) while the kids watched a show for “nap time” (neither of my kids actually naps anymore). But I was definitely more tired than he was after we got the kids to bed- and more than tired, I was frazzled. I just wanted some time when no one could possibly want anything from me.

    1. Cloud – this happens in our house too (hubby disappearing to chores or extra work), and it’s also the “come find me” mentality. What I’ve taken to doing is actually finding him and doing a verbal handoff. I used to only go get him if I really was at my breaking point, but I realized he actually expected it sooner/more often, so I’ve started doing it more often.

    2. @Cloud- oh, the disappearing into the yard thing. It kills me. One option is to just send a child outside with him. Actually, I’ve realized that on weekends, if I want time to myself for things, I just need to do the same thing I do during the week, which is make explicit arrangements. It doesn’t work to be home and “off” if the kids are there too. So I ask my husband to take the kids somewhere for a while, or we hire a sitter for a few hours. Three hours of babysitting on the weekend can honestly be life changing.

      1. We used to all do yardwork together, but my grass allergy has gotten so bad that I just can’t anymore. (And before that we paid someone to do yardwork, but after our last good person sold his business to someone not as good we’ve been unable to find anyone who doesn’t kill things that shouldn’t be killed.) I still come out in the fall (heavily covered up and gloved) to help pull the damned Aster out.

      2. This is why I am sad my parents went back to Georgia 🙂 We used to get whole weekend days to ourselves, or even just with the baby, who’d nap a solid 2.5 hours during the day.

    3. I had that type of weekend, too, where my husband was outside doing more manual work while I was inside with the kids. I was definitely exhausted by Sunday night! I’m not sure why childcare is more exhausting even if it’s rewarding in many ways.

      1. Yes, we have that too, with husband doing hours-long home-improvement tasks while I take care of the kids. Yes, his work is more physically demanding (maybe…), but it can also be more satisfying because you have a finished product and can say “i did that”. Whereas I simply kept the kids alive and in reasonable condition for 5 hours…nothing that gets you that pat on the back.

      2. @oilandgarlic – maybe it’s that when you change the lightbulb, it stays changed for a while, and doesn’t complain about it. Whereas the kid is soiled again soon, and not at all interested in changing that state…

  4. If asked, I rarely say I’m tired, but at the same time, if I sit down to read or watch a movie/TV, I’m out in about 10 minutes. My husband thinks this is hilarious (usually, anyway) and we joke about it -but it’s really annoying because sometimes I really *want* to read or watch a show, and I can’t! Sometimes I think I don’t “allow” myself enough downtime, so by the time I get around to it, I’ve worn myself out. But I also absolutely think it’s mental as well. For example, we have family coming over this Saturday, and here on Monday night I’m already planning which chores need to be done when so the house can be presentable! That’s kind of tiring and I haven’t even started the actual cleaning yet!

    1. @Pamela – The expectation of what constitutes a clean and well-ordered house is probably an interesting part of the difference between what men and women do on housework. What does “presentable” mean? And is it fair to hold the party with lower standards to the same standards as the party who cares more?

      1. Oh, you’re absolutely right about expectations! One of my biggest issues/irritations is that I will be judged if the house isn’t tidy (meaning, picked up and bathrooms cleaned) but my husband gets a pass on that. Drives me bonkers. I try not to hold him to my standards by insisting that he help me do stuff he doesn’t think is necessary. Interestingly enough, he has his own weirdo standards, such as thinking that if you vacuum, you have to go over each patch of carpet three times. And he seems oddly reluctant to be “seen” doing housework – it’s not unusual for me to come home from choir practice or a class to find him blasting heavy metal while doing dishes, laundry, and vacuuming, which I do appreciate. So it does (mostly) balance out over time.

      2. My husband continues to remind me that we “see” different things. While I “see” the dust on the shelf, or the chaos in the pantry, he “sees” the tree branch that needs trimming or the electrical fixture that needs rewiring or the crack in the garage floor that needs repair. This is totally true, and I try to remember this when I make comments about how I need to remind/ask him to help clean more often. However, I really appreciate the points in this article about the unpleasantness of certain chores and also the time frame in which certain chores must be done. I do feel like I get the short end of the stick in the end, even though the division is pretty close to equal.

  5. “There’s a certain story out there that women are exhausted.” I agree that narrative is out there, but I think it’s out there because women read more magazines, blogs, etc. that talk about these kinds of work-life balance issues. The media is creating the narrative, and women like reading about it because for some reason, being stressed/tired equals working harder equals feeling valued. The media feeds on that feeling. That’s why there’s an imbalance between the story that’s out there and the facts you see in the time-use studies.

    1. @Leanne – there may be something to that! If you keep reading that it must be so difficult to combine paid work and caring for a family, and it must be stressful and exhausting and women don’t sleep, then you tend to remember the data points that support that thesis. This happens in any situation. If we have a thesis, we look for data points to support it. So that suggests one way to change what you see in life. Try a different thesis, and see how it goes!

      1. I do think this is part of it (the other part is the conversation above, about women’s work traditionally being more repetitive, never-ending, and somewhat thankless)…that it IS part of the cultural narrative that women (mothers) are tired, and so when women (mothers) get together, they’ll try to outdo each other with tales of how tired they are. I remember when my older son was about 9 months old, sleeping quite solidly through the night, and I was getting plenty of sleep, and had a lot of exciting career stuff going on…people kept assuming I was “so busy” and must “never sleep” to keep up that work pace with a baby. It almost felt like cheating to admit I was sleeping 8 hours a night!
        I know (from talking to my husband and male friends/colleagues) that men don’t really go around making a big deal about how tired they are.

  6. These apply to both men and women – 1) Bigger houses than in the past. People weren’t buying 3,000 sq ft homes in the late ’70 & early 80’s when interest rates were high. Now, instead of people owning houses, their houses own them. 2) Ridiculous expectations of marriages, family life, and how life should be in general. 3) Too many technology distractions. It must be exhausting to have to check your StupidPhones every 4.25 minutes (I wouldn’t know, I’ve resisted getting one). I’m serious. When you’re tethered to technology like that, you spend your day constantly reacting to things, which is tiring.

    1. @Bruce – I’m with you on the expectations thing. While it’s sometimes nice to expect the best, it’s also a bit of a stretch to think life should be easy and perfect.

  7. I had a different experience. About a year ago I cut back on outside work, going from full-time to part-time, and as I took a steep pay cut to do so, one of the things I also did was stop having a paid housecleaning service and take on more housework myself. I still don’t do that much housework, probably less than many women who have full-time jobs.

    But I found that some level of being more involved in my house and its functioning made me much less tired and stressed. When I did so little housework, I felt disconnected from my own house and living space, sort of like I was living in a dorm or a hotel–even though my husband and I own the house.

    Now I know where things are, I have my office organized, I got rid of a lot of clutter. I feel more like my house is my own.

  8. I don’t find housework to be stressful, just boring. So I don’t do much of it. Most of what I do I do with family so it’s less boring.
    My kids, otoh, are pretty exhausting. Moreso when they’re not being challenged at school/daycare. DH and I are both pretty exhausted by them though!
    Lately for me I’ve been finding having to interact with people to be the most exhausting thing. A day with meetings is more tiring than a day at my computer. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/overstimulated-october/

    1. Yes, I also found interacting with people at the office and dealing with constant requests to be the most exhausting thing. My kids are a little older now so at this point they want less from me than my boss and coworkers did when I was working full-time. I found that going to part-time gave me that time to myself I needed. Even laundry or other boring housework became kind of relaxing, because I could put headphones on and just think about something else while I was doing it. Some offices, including a company where I worked previously, actually frown on people wearing headphones.

  9. I’m training for a 1/2 marathon, which means that I’m out the door by 5:30am 6 days a week to either run or lift weights, so I’d say my leisure activity is quite tiring. The other thing I find tiring is trying to do a bunch of things at once. The time I spend when I get home from work with my son, get everything put away/in the laundry, give him my attention and get dinner on the table can be the most stressful of the entire day. And then there’s nursing 2-3 times a night. He is going to stop that before he goes to college, right? (*joke*)

    As a side note, I’m not sure that the statistics you quote really prove your point. For men, I’d imagine that the mean number of hours worked, spent caring for children, and doing housework really does represent the “typical” man with children. However, my intuition is that the mean number of hours worked is not a good measure for the typical woman. I’d guess that the distribution of working hours would be more uniformly distributed for women (roughly 1/3 don’t work, 1/3 work part time and 1/3 work full time). The women who work 0 hours pull down the mean # of hours worked which makes it look like the typical woman look like she’s worked less than she actually has (the median # of hours worked would probably be a better measure). I’d bet that if you took a man and a woman who worked the same number of hours outside the home, the woman would work more hours total once you add in child care + housework. If you look at it that way, then you’d say that women work more than men do.

    Plus you have the issue with women feeling the need to multitask more than men that other commenters have described above.

  10. maybe it’s hormonal 🙂 no, in all seriousness, i think part of it is that we ARE the ‘default’ caregiver in so many situations even when both partners work part time. my job is fairly high energy but i still find chasing around [and keeping happy!] a toddler more draining. and i only have one!!!

    like you, i work on explicit ways to change that [ie, purposefully carve out time for myself, whether it’s by hiring a babysitter or asking my husband for help during a specific time frame].

    additional note: i hate, hate HAAAAATE when people complain about their tiredness. i can’t think of a more boring and played-out topic, and the way some are actually slightly smug about it makes me crazy. i think i will try to brag about being rested from now on 🙂

    1. @sarah – the complaint Olympics drives me insane. Particularly if done where the children can overhear it. But even beyond that, even though I know it’s a way to establish rapport, what’s the outcome supposed to be? Wow, your life sounds so awful — we should be friends!

      1. The reason I tell people that I’m tired, when I do, is not to complain or to be smug, but to set expectations. I move more slowly, and process everything more slowly, when I’m tired, and I’m very aware of it. I don’t like to be rushed or barked at even under the best of circumstances, and when I’m tired I just can’t really handle that behavior at all. So I warn people that I’m tired. If people just don’t care and/or dismiss it as “complaining” or being “smug” and continue to treat me that way in spite of the warning, then I learn something pretty important about whether I whether I want to continue to have that person in my life at all.

  11. Hmmm… I know I am more tired than my husband, but that’s because of a very basic reason: I sleep less than he does! So I guess, why do I sleep less? He values sleep more than I do and hates feeling tired, so will cut his free time short in the evening to get to bed most nights by 10:30pm. Me? I’m a free time hog and so stay up many nights to midnight. Though really for me it’s more alone time than downtime I crave and I’m a natural night owl. I love the quiet once everyone is in bed!

    So there’s that, but also I know that even though my husband is a full partner with the kids and the house, I end up with the responsibility of organizing stuff – planning meals, getting birthday presents, sorting out the kids’ clothes as they outgrow them, booking dentist appointments, getting quotes for a new roof, etc – and I find all that quite exhausting. There’s always something to think about so it’s hard to relax.

    And it’s almost midnight here so I best get my butt to bed! 🙂

  12. Both my husband and I are pretty tired 🙂 I think we’ve reached happy equality there 🙂 We have two kids and we both do a lot of housework/cleaning/cooking (in addition to full-time jobs).

    For both of us, the issue is sleep. My husband often has to stay up late to do work (after the kids are in bed and we are finished with clean-up). I do my best to go to sleep earlier, but… I get to get up if the one of the kids starts screaming in the middle of the night (somehow, husband doesn’t hear it). Interrupted sleep is as bad as lack of sleep – it is not all about the quanity of sleep, a lot is to be said for quality!

    The most tiring tasks… vacuuming; garden work; having to come up with fun activities for kids to do while I am getting dinner ready; making lunch (hate it!); disciplining the kids when they get into trouble; dealing with temper tantrums and fights;

    I wonder if the men, in general, are just as tired as the women… but somehow it is not “cool” for them to admit it…

    1. @Natasha – that could be that men are tired too. For most men, there is not the socially acceptable out of cutting back on work, and when you know that you will work full time for much of your life, you may just build that into your expectations. Because there doesn’t seem to be a choice, there’s less debating it.

  13. “(I’m not sure that changing a light bulb is better or worse than throwing a load of laundry in).”

    Changing a light bulb allegedly gives one more of an immediate happiness boost than does a more frequent, everyday chore such as doing laundry. Gretchen Rubin mentioned this very item in “Happier At Home” – she even went so far as to suggest that changing a light bulb is never wasted time. Here’s a similar blog post:


    I find that “ridiculous sense of accomplishment” idea fascinating. Me, I hate chores and think they are all a huge waste of time and should be outsourced at every opportunity. I prefer to outsource to my kids, who do far more chores than their peers.

    1. @hush – yes, I spend no where near the 17 hours women are spending on housework. But that’s not just a function of outsourcing – my family outsources about 10 hours a week of housework and errands. I doubt I do 7 hours of housework on top of that. Maybe my house is just messier than average.

  14. I think changing a light bulb is easier than throwing a load of laundry into the washer. There is lass chance to make a mistake.

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