As women, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be good at everything.
When it comes to friends, we’re everything from a perennial shoulder to cry on to an encyclopedia on the stores with the deepest discounts.
On the job—whether we manage hundreds of employees, or our kids and their myriad activities—we aim to excel.
But when it comes to juggling family life and work, things can get dicey. (Check out our story on how wanting it all can make you unhappy.) And you might assume that the busier our professional lives get, the more our home lives would suffer.
But a new study suggests the opposite is true: Mothers who are busier at work are actually happier with their marriages. By contrast, when men become busier at the office, the same marital bliss principle doesn’t apply.
Our first thought was … that can’t be right. So we dug deeper and found three possible explanations:
1. When the Going Gets Tough, the Men Get Moving
The study, which analyzed four years’ worth of data from 169 newlywed couples, measured changes in workload and marital satisfaction, including the extent to which spouses liked their work and their parental status. For couples with kids, increases in wives’ workloads went along with their increased marital satisfaction.
The study authors hypothesize that one reason for the phenomenon is that husbands tend to help out more at home when their wives are busier at work. This helps relieve some of the burden many women feel when juggling work and family.
2. We Handle Stress Differently
Another explanation is that men and women handle stress in different ways. For women, there’s “good” stress and “bad” stress: Good stress comes from tasks that make us feel competent and give us a sense of mastery. Bad stress comes from things that make us feel the opposite, or bad about our own abilities.
So, even if it’s stressful to manage children and a fulfilling job, this is the type of “good” stress that makes us happier in life, says Stephen Goldbart, Ph.D., co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute and author of “Affluence Intelligence: Earn More, Worry Less, and Live a Happy and Balanced Life.” This stress tends to be empowering for women, providing strength rather than draining energy. (If you’re not feeling strengthened by your workload, read this to find out if you’re too busy.)
How Do You Handle Stress?
When you’re overly busy, do you feel energized and happy, or is it more of a drain?
For men, it’s different, Goldbart told us. When men are stressed in one area, they typically apply that stress to other parts of their lives, too. “For example, if a man is stressed out at work, coming home to housework, a family and a wife might just add to that stress. Meanwhile, a woman is more likely to feel exhilarated by everything she accomplished.”
3. We Worked Really Hard to Get Here
It’s no secret that women fought long and hard to climb the corporate ladder, get paid fair wages and be taken seriously at work … and we’re still working at it. But society still tells us that it’s our job to be good mothers and hold the family together. Although holding ourselves to an unfair standard of “having it all” is psychically harmful, we still feel good when we manage to pull it off.
We’re not saying women should have all the burden of responsibility at home and at work–that’s simply impossible. But if, potentially with the help of a partner, we manage to cultivate a job that gives us satisfaction and we have a family we’re proud of, the personal and emotional results are so much greater.
How to Pull It Off, If You Aren’t Already
The real takeaway here is that women who feel challenged and cultivate a sense of accomplishment every day are happier in their family lives—no matter what they do between nine and five. (Check out a list of the cities with the happiest people here.)
If you enjoy the job title Mom, make sure that you’re still growing your brain in addition to your heart. (And making time for the types of conversation that five-year-olds just can’t handle quite yet.) If you work but don’t always feel stimulated on the job, the answer isn’t to simply make yourself busier.
First, make sure you’re getting as much fulfillment as you can out of work. Could you take on different projects? Teach a skill you have to other employees?
Or, if you’ve already maxed out your on-the-job satisfaction, it may be time to reconnect with a personal passion, whether that’s cooking, taking an art class or volunteering in your community.
Whatever path you choose, consider it reason enough to get someone else to do the dishes tonight.