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Who Does the Work of Worrying in Your Family?

This Sunday's New York Times featured, "Mom: The Designated Worrier," by Judith Shulevitz, who argues that managing a family's schedule and activities, also called "worry work," requires "large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all." Oh, and the parent who handles the worry work? Well, she's called the "designated worrier."

Guess who is almost always the "designated worrier," even in families where all other chores are shared equally? Moms.

But you knew that, right?

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At first, I argued with Shulevitz, thinking that my marriage has escaped the paradigm she describes: "Whether a woman loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path. This distracting grind of apprehension and organization may be one of the least movable obstacles to women's equality in the workplace."

Oh Shulevitz, don't be so dramatic.

Then, I reflected on my own worry work.

Exhibit A: Two weeks ago, I had a nightmare that my kids, who do not know how to swim, fell into a pool. I woke up sweating and vowed we would start swim lessons ASAP.

During my next two lunch hours, I researched the swim schools in our area—I made calls, put the information in a spreadsheet, and came up with a tentative schedule of lessons for both our kids. After I had already put 90 minutes of work into Project Swim, I filled my husband in, and we agreed on a swim plan.

While I spent those 1.5 hours working on swim research (fueled by my terrifying nightmare), my husband was free to focus exclusively on his work.

Exhibit B: One week ago, we realized it was time to find a new after-school babysitter. Without any discussion between me and my husband, I set up an online profile for our search, screened candidates by phone and scheduled in-person interviews. I spent approximately 10 hours dealing with the sitter search.

Those were 10 hours my husband was able to devote to his career.

Exhibit C: Today, here are the things on my to-do list for our household:

  • Do initial research on finding a company to run a background check on our new sitter.
  • Order birthday presents for three upcoming birthday parties.
  • Email the swim coach to see if he will hold lessons over Memorial Day weekend.
  • Text the babysitter with information about the kids' schedule for the afternoon.
  • Order my daughter shorts online.
  • Role-play firing my current sitter with a friend who has fired many a sitter.

My husband is an extremely capable man and one of the most hands-on fathers I could possibly imagine. He never said, "Handle all this, Toots, while I advance in my career. Don't hurt your head on that glass ceiling. " I have zero doubt that if I asked him to take over any of these tasks he would. He'd likely do them more efficiently and quicker than I would.

But I haven't. The question is: Why not?

Is ordering pastel chino shorts from Old Navy such a specialized task that I couldn't possibly cede control of it to my husband?

The answer is simple. I've taken it for granted that I should take care of the after-school activities. I get the schedule. I talk to the kids about what they want to do. Then, I undertake the Herculean task of coordinating with other mothers so our kids can be together. I've never questioned my assumption that those tasks should fall on me. It's just my thing.

But the same feels true of buying birthday presents, ordering the kids clothes and getting our childcare squared away.

I have to ask myself: Is ordering pastel chino shorts from Old Navy such a specialized task that I couldn't possibly cede control of it to my husband? Of course not.

There's nothing simple about the notion that it's my job to handle all of this. After all, both my husband and I have full-time jobs. By now we are both well aware that parenting is much more than sitting down to dinner together and reading bedtime stories with our kids snuggled under our arms.

Parenting is paperwork. It's phone calls, spreadsheets, and schedules. It's texts—oh my God, so many texts—to other mothers, the nanny, the babysitter and the teachers. I have hoarded these tasks for myself and never stopped to consider the toll it takes on my ability to concentrate, perform and advance in my career.

The genesis of my kids' swim lessons confirms Shulevitz's theory. She writes, "So we worry. When we worry, we coordinate. When we coordinate, we multitask." That sums up the days following my swimming nightmare perfectly. Meanwhile, my husband, who has a healthy respect for water and knows that our children cannot swim, never felt compelled to research the options and get them enrolled in lessons. He figured they'd learn sooner or later. He wasn't worried.

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I can't stop worrying, and I'm not ready to completely turn over the kids' schedule to my husband. But Shulevitz's article puts me on alert, so now I am willing to pay attention to the tasks I unquestioningly assume. I can feel my grip loosening slightly—at least until I have another nightmare.

Image via Twenty20/robinmccauley

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