The commute’s a killer, the boss is a tyrant and the hours are exhausting. Meanwhile, the kids are a nightmare, the laundry’s stacking up and the drudgery never ends. Who’s under more pressure? Nick Harding and his wife let the scientists decide

It’s 7.15pm. I’m on a hot, crowded commuter train out of London. It hasn’t moved in 20 minutes. By 7.30pm, I need to be home. I’m one stop from my station. If I smash the window I could clamber out and be there in time. Instead I sit here, clenching and unclenching my jaw, squeezed between the twittering idiot on the mobile phone and the fat man with tinny soft rock bleeding out of his headphones.

Every now and then, the apathetic guard announces again that there are signalling problems. I imagine a primal flash mob, where passengers rise up, rage through the carriage, find him, grab him by the windpipe and rip out his trachea, turning to wave it like a floppy, glistening trophy at the hooting onlookers. Instead everyone sits there impotently, hot and prickly, pretending to read their papers, and boiling over inside.

A few miles away, at home, my wife is simultaneously trying to dress a wriggling, screaming two-year-old while drying a six-year-old’s hair as she dresses herself for work (a part-time evening job at a hospital). All the while she’s watching the clock, wondering where the hell I am. For added anxiety, Girls Aloud are playing too loudly in the background – and it’s not their half-decent new stuff. She’s wishing she was a million miles away, on her own, somewhere remote and peaceful.

Worse than all this, though, is the sad fact that, when we do meet, like two tectonic plates of compacted stress, neither of us will give way. We’ll tell each other what utterly miserable days we’ve had, me at work and she looking after the children, and we’ll argue about whose day was more stressful because each of us will want it recognised that our life is the harder. And we are not alone. The same flashpoint is rocking relationships up and down the country – a simmering tension between couples, each partner desperate for recognition that they are the most stressed.

And this stress-induced discord isn’t confined to traditional male breadwinner/housewife domestic set-ups. Claire Hendry, 32, is a full-time accountant and the main breadwinner in her marriage. Her husband Jack also works full-time and their two-year-old son Peter is in nursery care from 8am to 6pm five days a week at a cost of £800 a month. “I’m stressed most of the time, and I get chest pains. I feel guilty, because in an ideal world I would be spending all my time with Peter. It’s not how I envisaged motherhood. When Jack tells me how stressful his day has been, I have to remind him just how much I do,” she says.

Andrew Hartley, 37, is a part-time house-husband and freelance journalist. “Looking after a baby is hard, and I don’t think it comes as naturally to men as it does to women,” he says. “When my wife Caroline comes home she’s often tired but I have to hand our daughter Rosa over so that I can get some work done by the end of the day – which is stressful for both of us. I get the gift of seeing my daughter grow up, but it’s a constant juggling act and it’s not always easy.”







And, as the recession deepens and people feel less in control of forces affecting their everyday lives, both those caring for children and workers hanging on to their jobs in offices will face greater pressures. “Everyone is reacting to the bad economy,” says Karina W Davidson, PhD, director of the Centre for Behavioural and Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University. “Financial stress is both uncontrollable and unpredictable. With the current financial crisis, there’s no end in sight and stress is contagious.”

•••

Against this backdrop of doom, like so many other couples, my wife Carly and I, 34 and 29 years old respectively, were locked in a cycle of stress and bickering like toddlers about who was the most stressed. In the traditional male role as breadwinner, I could never accept that my wife was suffering anywhere near the same stress levels I was. In my frazzled mind, while I was receiving the hairdryer treatment from the boss, she was sipping coffee at the local playgroup. As a journalist, on a daily basis I make decisions that, if wrong, at best could lead to a drop in sales on the publication I work for and at worst, could lead to huge lawsuits. I have to worry about keeping the roof over our heads and the food on the table. As far as I could see, the biggest decision Carly had to make some days was what to get out the freezer for dinner.

She, in turn, felt that I was the lucky one. When she waved me off in the morning she felt like she was watching me through Alice’s looking-glass. I was strolling off to a fantastical world where free choice and adult conversation reigned, while she was stuck in grim reality, with a two-year-old and Iggle Piggle for company. I’d manage an hour in the gym at lunch; she’d spend 20 minutes on her hands and knees picking baked beans out of the carpet. When I got home, we would both compete to tell each other how stressful our days had been and neither of us would concede that the other could have experienced similar stress levels. Inevitably, dinner chat led to ill-feeling.

On one such evening, I undertook to settle the argument once and for all. I proposed an unusual experiment: we would have our stress levels monitored, analysed and compared. I argued that not only would this help us to understand each other; it might also, in some small way, help other couples who have the same argument nightly. Quite rightly, Carly wasn’t convinced by my altruism (ostensibly I just wanted to prove her wrong) but she went along with it anyway.

We view stress as a modern-day plague, the catalyst for many of our woes – which undoubtedly it is. But stress is actually useful to human beings. Defined as physical, mental or emotional strain or tension in response to a stimulus, stress is what gave cavemen the adrenalin kick they needed when sabre-toothed tigers attacked. Stress is stamped into our genes.

Although it insidiously raises our blood pressure and chips away at our mental well-being, we like to “own” our stress, and even derive grim satisfaction from it. Stress as a badge of honour is not a new phenomenon; it is part of our heritage. Back in the Eighties, when Thatcherism and Reaganomics coupled to spawn a generation of self-seeking entrepreneurs, stress was a sign of success. A breeze-block-sized mobile phone wasn’t the only signifier of business acumen – a shiny new stress-induced duodenal ulcer was just as impressive.

Today, our stress responses are working as effectively as they did when we were knuckle-dragging ape-men. But rather than activating the fight-or-flight response and sending us skittering up the nearest tree, our stress now builds up with nowhere to go, increasing cortisol levels in our bodies and leaving us at risk of health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and depression. But is the stress of the child-carer and the desk-bound middle manager really comparable?

Before the Eighties, stress was apportioned very simply: it was the preserve of the white-collar male, it was shouldered with stoicism and it was cured after work with a Scotch and a Woodbine while the wife dished up the tea and put the children to bed. While men coped quietly with their work-related stress, women were not encouraged to mention their parental stress. Those who did were given Valium. To most fathers, parental stress was an alien concept because they were not part of the family unit in any meaningful way beyond financial provision. In 1981, when researchers asked newly married couples to rank values they hoped to instil in their marriages, “sharing responsibility and care of infants and young children” was rated 11th out of 15, probably below mutual respect and reciprocal orgasms.

Then, in the early Eighties, thanks to equality and more informed attitudes, society started to change. Men started to engage within the family. They even had an image to live up to; the best-selling Athena posters of male models cuddling babies. Nowadays, three-quarters of fathers say that spending more time with their families is their biggest daily concern. A generation ago, they couldn’t give a fig.

Times have changed, though, and today there is an open and honest dialogue about the difficulties of child-rearing. And greater changes are looming; thanks to economic uncertainty, parents are being forced to re-evaluate the mechanics of family life. Nannies are being let go, children are coming out of boarding school, flexitime is being adopted and retired relatives are being drafted in to fill in the gaps.

Some mothers are going back to work, others are being made redundant. Families are taking their children out of nursery care to save money. Last week Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, called on men losing their jobs in the economic downturn to consider becoming stay-at-home dads. “A savage recession, like a war, shakes traditional identities,” Clegg said. “Many women may become the only breadwinner.”

Children may be a wonderful gift, but they’re also a cause of much stress. Parents today are pressured to ensure that their offspring are constantly and correctly stimulated, for fear that if they are not, they’ll join gangs and start carrying knives. There is a bewildering choice of costly after-school options. Children can chose ballet, singing, fencing and piano lessons as well as courses in parkour, the urban discipline of running up walls and somersaulting off roofs, presumably to help them escape the knife-wielding thugs who didn’t sign up for extracurricular activities. There are even learning centres in supermarkets; for £90 a month, kids can have fun with grammar and long division, while their parents walk the aisles fretting about how to feed a family on reduced wages and a redundancy package. For the anxious parent, the opportunities to heap stress upon stress are endless.

•••

To finally settle the score between Carly and me, a scientific and wholly authoritative measure was required. I found a company called Optima-life, based in St John and St Elizabeth Hospital in London, which uses state-of-the-art technology to analyse stress patterns. The McLaren Formula One racing team uses this system to monitor their drivers’ stress levels. For 48 hours, my wife and I were both wired up to the system, which resembles a regular heart monitor. Our every heartbeat and stress reaction was recorded while we underwent our respective lives.

Everyone’s body reacts to stress in different ways. The Optima-life system measured our heartbeats and our heart-rate variability (the beat-to-beat variation in heart rate), and also measured the time we spent recovering from stress. Using all these parameters, the stress specialist Simon Shepard was able to compare the amount of stress we were feeling and how we were coping.

I assumed from the outset that I was on to a winner. I work long hours and feel stressed most of the time. I often feel pangs of anxiety for no apparent reason and regularly wake at night with my mind racing, worrying about work. To counter this, I try to lead a healthy life. I make sure I do at least 30 minutes’ exercise four times a week, I do not drink excessively and I try to eat healthily. I was monitored in the middle of a normal working week. During the period, I had to contend with morning and evening commutes, meetings, pressured email and telephone exchanges and deadlines. Ultimately, I expected that I would have higher stress levels and, because of the regular exercise, I expected that my body would cope better with that stress.

Carly, on the other hand, contends with the pressure of making the house work and dealing with a demanding toddler and child, our son Lucas, two, and our daughter Millie, six. Carly maintains that the stress she dealt with when she worked full-time before the children were born was easier to deal with, because in a work environment you deal with adults and can act on the cause of the stress. With children, she argues, the day is far more unpredictable. You can’t reason with a toddler having a tantrum. Carly copes by reaching for the Rescue Remedy.

Besides looking after the kids, she also helps out her partially sighted father and works two to three evenings a week in a local hospital. On the days she was monitored, she worked evenings and had the children during the day. They were normal days; dropping Millie off at school in the mornings, taking Lucas to playgroup, running her dad around, doing the weekly shop, feeding the children, ironing, cleaning and visiting the in-laws. She expected to see a general level of stress much higher than mine.

After the two days we sent our monitors off for analysis. When the reports were presented, I was shocked by much of what the experiment showed.

Carly was subjected to much more acute stress than I was. Her graph showed several angry, red spikes where her heart rate shot up. My stress levels remained constant. I assumed this was because I was fitter, but the analysis also showed that my regular gym sessions, about which I was so smug, were having little effect because, outside of them, I was sedentary, sat immobile on a seat in the office. Carly, who hates gyms, was actually burning more calories a day than I was; her physical workload meant she was doing what amounted to three hours of beneficial exercise a day. I was lucky to muster 30 minutes.

The results also showed that when I exercised in the evening, it actually had an adverse effect because the heightened physical state just added to my broken sleep-patterns. Worryingly for me, I hardly recovered at night – so overall I was the one with the unhealthy lifestyle.

By far the biggest spike on my stress chart came courtesy of National Rail, when my train was cancelled one morning. The stress reaction I had then was comparable with the stress felt by Lewis Hamilton when he takes a hairpin bend.

It was also worrying to see that, one night when I came home from work, my stress levels shot up as I walked through the front door. On several occasions I was more stressed by being at home than by being at work. Simon Shepard explained that this was probably because home is an environment where I feel less in control over events than I do at work.

Comparing the two charts proved that Carly suffered the most stress over the two days, albeit by a small fraction overall. Not only that, but she was better able to recover from her stress because she had better sleep patterns. So: final vindication for mothers and stay-at-home dads everywhere – not only are your lives more stressful, you’re also better fixed to cope with your burden.

In the end, though, in this contest, nobody was a winner. Adrian Lord, clinical director of Cygnet Healthcare, which treats people with psychiatric conditions, sums it up: “Our lives are changing, and have changed immensely in a short time, and roles have blurred. Women are told that they can have it all and compete with men on an equal footing. But they are still hard-wired to take on the maternal and housekeeping roles and this leads to more stress in day-to-day life. Men are faced with more financial insecurity and longer working hours, and are also expected to take a much more involved role in the household; that, too, adds to anxiety levels and, in many cases, ultimately to conflict.”

For my part, since the experiment I’ve come to a better understanding of what Carly goes through day to day. I’m no longer dismissive when she explains how bad her day has been. But I seriously doubt that our experiment will promote global harmony and peace between the sexes; there are still plenty of days when I get home and state point-blank that no one on God’s green earth has had a more stressful day than I have. I can’t help it; I’m a child of the Eighties, and it’s my birthright to be stressed.

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