It certainly goes against conventional wisdom, but according to a new study, reported in The Wall Street Journal, we experience more stress at home than we do at work, measured by cortisol levels in the blood.
There are several reasons for this, suggests the lead researcher on the study: “Paid work is more valued in society,” while on the other hand, “Household work is monotonous and not particularly rewarding.”
Then there is the fact that “We get better at our job with time (hopefully), and the increased competence means less stress and more rewards,” while “none of us…ever truly feels like an expert at parenting or even at marriage.
“We are more likely to feel appreciated at work,” she adds. “At home many of our efforts go unnoticed.”
Finally, “There is behavioral etiquette at work. No yelling, storming off or crying–at least, not if we want to keep our job and our colleagues’ respect.”
All these factors provide defenses against stress and anxiety.
But then there is the question of happiness. The Journal went on to say: “Both men and women showed less stress at work. But women were more likely to report feeling happier there. Men were more likely to feel happier at home.”
“The researchers say this may be because women still do more housework and child care and may feel they have less free time.” Yes, there is more work for women at home and, in many families, no time off. But I think the important reason for the difference is that men, by and large, are the major beneficiaries of that work. They are the ones whose laundry is done, whose beds are made, who are cooked and cared for. (See, Work Creates Less Stress Than Home, Penn State Researchers Find.”)
This is not to affirm the stereotypes of the sixties, the adoring wife of the sitcoms who greets her husband at the end of the day with a kiss and a martini, but just to observe that men can more easily experience the work women do to maintain the family as forms of attention and care. They can feel it as affection and love, even when that work is dutiful and routine. It may not be love in the full sense of the term, but it is calming and soothing. Built into the maternal role, often taken for granted it is powerful, even when unrecognized.
This dynamic is somewhat analogous to what I imagine animals feel who stick close to the caregivers who feed them, confident that their hunger is understood and will be responded to, grateful and secure, even if they cannot put those feeling into words.