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The effect of stress on New Yorkers, super moms and scientists

January 19th, 2005 · 2 Comments

When I saw Clive Thompson’s link to his New York magazine piece on The Ecology of Stress I knew I had to spend some of my daily unwinding time reading it. Years ago I worked in a lab where we were researching the effect of stress on the immune response to viral infection. Through a group collaboration on a grant, I met Rockefeller University’s Bruce McEwen who is quoted in the piece.

As I read about the effect of stress on the health of New Yorkers, how the intense work environment impacts people’s bodies and blood pressure, the documented rate of death from heart attacks in the city, I began to wonder – after a stressful day here myself – what happens to people who work at home and moms at home, those who don’t have a separate workplace, a home distinct from pressures of employment and duty. Then I saw:

Whether they were married or single, Pickering discovered that mothers’ blood pressure did not go down when they got home from work, unlike everyone else in New York—including married men with children. Why? Probably because of the supermom syndrome; they’re stuck with an unfair amount of home and child care. Some studies also suggest that even when men and women split the housework 50-50, women react more powerfully—and thus with higher stress—to their share.

The description of commuting stress helped me again be grateful for the ferry ride to Seattle, probably one of the more relaxing ways to get into the city. A commute can make you crazy, especially one with connections, and I also mean people connections like little kids waiting for you….

What’s more, he found that, once again, women with children were hit the hardest. Their cortisol levels were considerably more elevated than those of men or childless women taking the train. “This makes sense,” he says, “because women with children really have two jobs. When my kids were small, if I missed my train, I’d call home and say, ‘I’m going to be late.’ But if that happened to my wife, she’d have to organize someone to pick the kids up.”

Then, via David Weinberger I read a Harvard Crimson article referring to a speech made by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers on the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities :

Early in his speech, Summers noted that women remain underrepresented in the upper echelons of academic and professional life—in part, he said, because many women with young children are unwilling or unable to put in the 80-hour work-weeks needed to succeed in those fields.

After reading the article on stress, I thought this quote about women being unwilling or unable to put in 80 hour weeks to be relevant. I don’t think women are unable, as much as many women with young children may be unwilling to sacrifice the hours and years now necessary to establish a scientific career in academia. Given the cost of supermom syndrome to mind, body and family, one has to wonder whether it is a price worth paying. Especially if one has studied the effect of stress.

Related link: Allison’s Fruit of the Womb post on work/life balance.

Tags: news

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Betsy Devine // Jan 19, 2005 at 6:06 am

    Yes, that 80 hour a week thing really reminded me of my own experience as an engineering grad student. In the early 70s, we were all married-with-children. My male colleagues spent most of their waking hours in the lab–cooking, childcare, and laundry were all magically taken care of by their wives.

    The only successful woman engineer I knew tried to imitate this style. When daycare pick-up time rolled around, she’d be on the phone with her husband, bitterly fighting over which of them would have to go fetch their daughter. I’m glad I didn’t choose that life for our family, but I regret that such choices still shape the lives of young women and young families.

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