Think of the parenting stereotypes you know. Mom is usually the one who thinks about buying diapers, packing lunches, homework, doctor appointments, playdates and all the daily kid responsibilities. Dad typically helps but doesn't have to carry as much of the weight.
If these stereotypes are even somewhat true, maybe it's not surprising that a new research paper finds that fathers are happier than mothers.
The research, out of the University of California Riverside, was an analysis of three different studies involving more than 18,000 people, comparing measures of emotional health like happiness, well-being, depressive symptoms and stress.
The first two studies compared parents to people without children and found that fathers are happier than their peers without kids.
The third study compared fathers to mothers. They found that fathers were happier while caring for their children than mothers. One possible reason is that men reported playing more with their children.
"Fathers may fare better than mothers in part due to how they spend their time with their children," said study author Katherine Nelson-Coffey, an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South, in a statement.
The research paper was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The issue with emotional work
The authors suggest that moms would be happier if they spent more time playing with their kids.
Sounds easy, right? Dads have it figured out, so moms just need to hop on board and play more. But that means adding more to an already-busy schedule.
As MNN's Angela Nelson points out, emotional work adds to the mom-dad gender gap. No matter how awesome dads are, moms still take on most of the mental labor. They sign kids up for classes and sports, stock diaper bags and snack shelves, buy toilet paper and school supplies, make appointments and keep track of everything.
Says Kristi Pahr in Parents, "Even when dad helps with food prep, carpools and cleaning toilets, in most two-parent, two-gender households, the majority of the thinking work still falls to mom. Which means despite more progressive attitudes toward parenting, moms tend to be keeping track of to-dos and schedules while dads play."
Maybe dads are happier because they're not worried about scheduling playdates and planning birthday parties, so that's why they feel more playful.
"It's certainly plausible that fathers who are feeling happy are more likely to initiate play with their children," Nelson-Coffey tells the Chicago Tribune. "I would expect it would become a kind of feedback loop where fathers are feeling happy, so they might initiate more play, and that might make them feel happy, and it becomes kind of an upward spiral."
How moms can be happier
There are plenty of moms who are very happy and spend a ton of time playing with their kids. (And probably lots of cranky dads.) But if being happier and playing more is on your overwhelming parenting to-do list, there are ways to sneak it in: Just make the things you're already doing a little more fun.
"I don't think it hurts for parents to try to incorporate play into mundane tasks. So instead of just focusing on changing my child's diaper, I might try to bring some play into that moment to make it a little bit more joyful for everyone involved," says Nelson-Coffey. That could be singing silly songs in the car, tickling a baby's toes during diaper changes or making a grocery store trip into a great imaginary adventure.
"We can't stop taking care of our children. We have to do those things," says Nelson-Coffey. "But if we can introduce play into those moments, hopefully it will make those moments feel a little bit better."