It’s not just the mad rush to get the kids fed, dressed and out the door that can stress out a working mom.
If she also has a high level of work-related stress, it can add an extra level of tension to weekday mornings.
A new study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, found that working moms with high parenting stress tended to have higher levels of cortisol (indicating more stress) on weekday mornings than on weekends. Not a huge surprise.
But the study also found that those women who reported high job strain and high parenting stress had significantly higher cortisol levels on workdays.
“Workday mornings create a “collision” of two worlds, as mothers of young children are charged with caring for, and attending to, their children while also mentally and physically preparing themselves for the workday ahead,” wrote the study’s authors, Leah Hibel, Evelyn Mercado, and Jill Trumbell from Purdue University.
Past studies have shown that women in general have higher morning cortisol levels than men. The authors suggested this may stem from the challenge of balancing both work and family demands. The past studies have specifically found that having a child, having high levels of family strain, and spending more time on household chores are associated with higher cortisol levels on workdays.
Chronically high cortisol levels may place these mothers at risk for exhaustion, cardiovascular problems, or other mental or physical health problems.
The Purdue team measured the morning cortisol levels in 56 mothers working outside the home, with children between the ages of two and four. They took saliva samples on two weekday and two weekend mornings.
The results were interesting (though not entirely surprising):
• Working mothers slept about an hour less on nights before work than nights before a non-workday.
• Working mothers with high parenting stress had higher morning cortisol levels on weekday mornings than weekends. Mothers reporting lower levels of parenting stress do not experience this workday difference.
• Cortisol levels were significantly higher in those women reporting high parenting stress and high work strain on workdays.
Here’s what you can do to lower your morning stress—and presumably the cortisol levels:
1. Organize the night before. Many of the mothers in the study reported rushed and hectic mornings. They had, “intense mornings where they are trying to get a lot accomplished with little time, and seemingly constant barriers (like uncooperative kids),” says the study’s lead author Leah Hibel, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Purdue. It’s helpful to organize outfits, pack lunches and stuff backpacks the night before.
2. Delegate to dad. For some moms, it might be helpful to delegate one or two tasks to their partner—that means the partner is completely in charge of those tasks.
3. Be in the moment. If you’re worrying about the upcoming workday, that stress may seep into and intensify your morning stress.
“I think it is important for moms to stay mindful of the ‘here and now’ and try to only tackle one issue at a time,” Hibel said. “Worry about work once you get there, for now, focus on the kids.”
4. Examine the stressors of the morning. What are the major barriers you face each morning? What are the specific things that happen that cause stress or conflict? Try to address these issues separately. If, for example, you have to repeatedly tell your kids to get dressed or brush their teeth, try making a list (with pictures if they’re younger) of their morning tasks and tape it to their door.
5. Let go of some control. “Stress tends to arise when we feel out of control but our natural response might be to desperately try to regain control,” Hibel said. But for some moms, it might be helpful to let go of some of that control. You can do that by allowing your partner to be in charge of certain morning jobs (see No. 2). Or you can also allow the child to take some responsibility and do something to the best of his ability, without controlling how it’s done.
That means if your child pours himself cereal and half of it lands on the table, that’s OK. Or if she brushes her hair but misses a few rather large knots, again, it’s OK.
6. Recover on weekends. The fact that women had lower cortisol levels on weekends shows that moms are decompressing, which is great. Try not to sabotage this natural recovery time by over scheduling your weekend mornings.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.