I have always been irritated by the notion that women are better multitaskers than men. I prefer to compartmentalize. I like doors. Literally: the more separation between activities the better. Open plan houses make me nervous. When I was pregnant for the first time I thought a lot about the myth of the multitasking female: I feared my days of compartmentalizing were numbered.
But I resisted. I raged to my husband that this was just a sexist ploy to get mothers to live cluttered, hellish, secretarial lives. Being told we’re natural multitaskers was supposed to somehow engender pride. To me it engendered fear.
But sure enough, as time wore on, it became abundantly clear that I could multitask very well. In fact, I am a master multitasker. I now have two young children and a husband who loses his glasses four times a day. All I do is find things. And it’s easy. I am not even that organized, it’s just that I seem to register visual information in a kind of bionic way. I walk down the hall and somehow my brain files that the blue goggles are over the stack of library books; the toy cell phone is crammed in my rain boot. This information is inevitably put to use at some point later in the day or the next morning in a panic before swim class.
So I was particularly interested to read about a new study out of The University of Hertfordshire’s School of Psychology, showing that women may indeed be better at doing a million things at once. The study, involving 100 college students, showed that women outperformed men when it came to multitasking. Of particular interest: “women far excelled men when it came to planning how to search for a lost key.”
Professor Keith Laws, who authored the study, says he embarked on the research because “despite the universal notion that women are better than men at multitasking, their review of the literature unearthed no previous scientific evidence to support this claim.”
So, I had been right all those years! It was a myth. Until now. This new research supports my new revelation (or admission): Mom is better at finding the keys.
I do know plenty of mothers who cannot find their keys. This is not THE LAW, but I do see more and more that despite everyone’s most egalitarian intentions, mothers are able to handle several menial tasks, and fairly complex ideas for that matter, in a more efficient fashion than their male partners.
In her book, Pink Brain/Blue Brain, author and neuroscientist Lise Eliot claims that while there are many innate differences between male and female brains, it’s of utmost importance that we don’t collapse into those modes. She says, for example, that because a five year-old girl is better at one-on-one social interactions we should do more to get her in group or team situations. Just as the boy– who fares well in a bigger group– needs some support with his one-on-one activities. If we go with the flow of these few small differences, we start to sink into the culture of gender difference. And the fact is, boys and girls and men and women have far more in common than not.
Which is why I still work hard to compartmentalize. And it’s damn hard. There is no doubt that my life as a mother has a huge secretarial component: the blue health form needs to be mailed in today is a thought I am holding simultaneous to the one contained in this sentence.
I try not to write while running a load of laundry, waiting for the plumber to come and casually overseeing the care of one or two children. But sometimes I’m forced to do just that. The fact is that while sometimes efficient–and clearly doable for us clever mothers– it’s not always ideal. When real work is involved, multitasking tends to diminish the quality of what’s being done. If I’m just packing a lunch and remembering goggles, that’s one thing.
Writing, cooking a great meal, having a meaningful conversation– these are things worthy of focus. In fact, my idea of pure pleasure these days is a closed door. Now where is that blue health form?