Among the more interesting psychology studies recently published in academic journals is the one Emily Mailey conducted at Kansas State University that dealt with parents and the issue of work-life balance. The study revealed that fathers feel guilty, just as mothers do, in making decisions that impact family time - and the results are in contrast to the way fathers are often portrayed in pop culture.
With the persistent increase in dual-earning households, men have moved into taking a more active role in household chores and child rearing. What's more, they're taking this new role very seriously and to the extent that they are feeling tremendous guilt about taking personal time for sports and physical activity.
That's what Mailey, an assistant professor of kinesiology, and her research team at Kansas State University, discovered after conducting a qualitative study focusing on working parents. In particular, Mailey and the team wanted to understand what helps and what hinders maintaining a commitment to physical activity while trying to raise a family. Their findings, published in Bio Med Central Public Health, found that, overall, fathers are experiencing similar internal struggles as their female parenting partners.
The results prove that at least some fathers are challenged by what has been labeled "role overload." Until recently, the act of balancing kids, work and fitness was viewed primarily as a mother's issue. Similarly, the emotion of guilt has been largely associated with female caregivers socialized for generations to put the needs of others above their own.
"Until very recently, parental guilt has been viewed as a problem relevant to mothers and that parenting was something that disrupted mothers lives more than father's lives," says Mailey.
That's one reason why she was initially interested in including fathers in the study. Mailey had expected conversations with working mothers to involve time- management issues, but she noticed that these women weren't just grappling with schedules, they were also grappling with powerful feelings of guilt and of being overwhelmed.
Mailey's team wondered if fathers would express the same feelings and then set about becoming one of the first teams to research men's thoughts about work-life balance.
Participants were recruited through two Midwestern Universities' email lists. Respondents were asked to fill out a brief screening questionnaire to ensure they fit within the study's parameters. Participants had to have been working out of the home at least 20 hours a week while also parenting at least one child under 18 who was living at home. There was no requirement about physical activity levels and participants ranged from active, engaging in more than 150 minutes of exercise per week to inactive, to nearly no physical exercise built in to their schedules.
Eligible participants were invited to join one of four focus groups where questions designed to facilitate a discussion about parental experience regarding physical exercise and how the commitment to doing so had changed since becoming a parent. Mothers and fathers - mostly white, married and highly educated - were kept separate during the focus group. After the team transcribed the discussions verbatim, it sifted through the data and organized common themes.
Mailey and the team were struck by how often the theme of guilt came up. "One takeaway is that we didn't see many gender differences.... Fathers were reporting feeling guilty and were reporting that guilt was a barrier that kept them from exercising as much as they would like to sometimes."
"There's a measure of guilt to it...it's hard to really justify," revealed one inactive father. "The first thing I'm gonna do is... go run, and get away from you guys [family]? You know it's not what you want to tell them."
"I feel guilty, like if I'm going to get up in the morning and go work out, then that might be time where [my wife and I] wouldn't talk," revealed a moderately active participant dad.
In contrast to these participants, the study's more active fathers (and mothers) were better able to see time spent exercising as beneficial and contributing to their enhancement as parents. In general, they expressed a positive attitude about exercising and understood that they weren't cheating their children or spouse of their time; instead, they equated being active with modeling healthy habits.
"They were saying, 'activity helps me to deal with stress so I don't see that as a bad thing for my family because it makes me a more patient parent,'" says Mailey.
Finally, these parents tended to get more support from their spouses, and - sometimes - their bosses. They were also more creative in scheduling activities with their children as opposed to away from them.
"They were doing things like taking their kids to sports practice and walking around the track to exercise," says Mailey.
On the whole, however, both mothers and fathers in Mailey's study expressed that their priorities had definitely shifted after having children. They were no longer thinking of life as "all about themselves, but rather about their families." Fathers - like mothers - reported feeling selfish when scheduling gym time.
"I hope parents will now see that being a good parent and being someone who exercises regularly are not incompatible," says Mailey about what she hopes parents will learn - at the very least about this study. "I want parents to see that by exercising, they are increasing the likelihood they'll be around longer to continue taking care of their family."
Longevity, potential or realized is certainly worth the guilt, which is why Mailey would like to see health programs and work schedules designed to "acknowledge the power of guilt as a relevant barrier to exercise at times."
The implications of Mailey's study might be more far reaching than her team has addressed at present. Multiple studies, including an important recent one from Duke University, have shown that both mothers and fathers gain significant weight during pregnancy and they continue to pack on the pounds after their children are born.
Given Mailey's findings, it's not out of the question that parental guilt may be a valid cause or key factor in this weight gain. Further studies may establish a definite link. In the meantime, however, parents need to drop the guilt in order to drop the extra pounds.