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Moms confess: Husband versus kids, who stresses them out more?

Dena Fleno and her family
Deno Fleno jokes that her husband, Phil, is like a third child. “A 7-year-old is going to be a 7-year-old. But a 35-year-old acting like a 7-year-old is more stressful, because they should know better,” she says.Rebecca Davis / Today

When people ask Deno Fleno’s husband, Phil, how many children they have, he replies that he has two, and she has three – their 7-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter, and him.

It’s a family joke, Fleno said, but there’s sometimes an edge to her laughter.

“A 7-year-old is going to be a 7-year-old. But a 35-year-old acting like a 7-year-old is more stressful, because they should know better,” said the New Britain, Conn., working mom.

An exclusive TODAY Moms survey of more than 7,000 U.S. mothers reveals that the average mom rates her stress level an 8.5 out of 10. What’s got them so stressed? For 46 percent of moms, husbands are a bigger source of stress than kids.

Often, moms complain, the fathers of their children are more like big kids than equal partners. Mom stress is fundamentally different than dad stress, women say, and the inability to see eye-to-eye with a partner can lead to, you guessed it, more stress.

“We both work full time and we both try to split the childcare, but somehow I’m always freaking out way more than he is,” said Fleno, who blogs at CT Working Moms. She admits she tends to project 20 years ahead with every little parenting decision – if she lets her daughter have an extra cookie or lets her son quit karate, how will that affect their development into mature, responsible adults? “My husband, obviously he worries about their future, but he doesn’t worry the same way,” she said.

Add to moms’ stress about the future their stress about the day-to-day work of parenting, which moms say falls largely on them. According to the survey, mothers stress most about not having enough time in the day to do everything that needs to be done. Three-quarters of moms with partners say they do most of the parenting and household duties. One in five moms says not having enough help from their spouse is a major source of daily stress.

“Moms think, my primary job is to be a mom, so she looks to her husband to be a support,” said Hal Runkel, an Atlanta-area therapist, married father of two teens and author of “ScreamFree Parenting” and “ScreamFree Marriage.” But when dads get relegated to a support role, they’re less likely to be the equal partners that moms say they want.

The problem is not men, it’s marriage, Runkel said: Marriage is stressful by nature, even good marriages.

“Marriage is a more difficult relationship than parenting,” said Runkel, 41. Combine the two and it’s a recipe for stress.

Meanwhile, dads feel like they’re doing more than ever with the kids – and not getting any credit. A 2012 TODAY Moms survey of 1,500 fathers found that two-thirds of dads say what they want most from their partner is just a little verbal acknowledgment, a “good job” now and then.

Maybe they shouldn’t hold their breath. Resentment and bitterness bled through many of the anonymous comments on the Mom Stress survey conducted last month such as:

“I am exhausted emotionally and physically when my husband comes home. He feels like another job.”

“Even though I have a committed spouse, I still feel like all the pressure is on ME to get everything done. I work just as many hours as my husband does, but yet I do all the scheduling.”

“Often times it seems like I am the only adult in my house. My husband and daughter compete with me for my attention.”

“He gets all the time he wants and I get none. I can't even take a relaxing bath without my husband bringing the baby to me.”

“I feel like I am figuring out a lot about parenting on my own without the input of my husband. This stresses me out because when something goes wrong, it is all my fault.”

It’s not necessarily a guy thing. Anecdotally, lesbian couples with kids report feeling the same frustration with their partner. Raising kids is just stressful; adult relationships are even more so.

“It’s easy to blame your stress on another person,” said Runkel. “Marriage is emotional weight-lifting. It’s exercise. And when you choose to exercise, sometimes it feels miserable,” Runkel said. “I don’t believe what wives really want most are husbands who are acquiescent and stress-free.”

Mom blogger and author Glennon Doyle Melton says that while she expected motherhood to be hard, the amount of work her marriage requires took her by surprise.

“When you have young kids you feel like … I should just be able to put all of myself into parenting and my marriage should just go along smoothly,” says Melton, 37, a mom of three (the most stressful number of children to have, according to our survey), blogger at Momastery and author of “Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on an Unarmed Life.” Unfortunately, coasting isn’t really an option.

“My husband is a really great dad, but I do find marriage to be stressful. I’ve had to put so much energy into my marriage,” said Melton, who lives in Naples, Fla.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the stress of moms who feel frustrated with their partners pales in comparison to the intense stress of single moms. It’s one thing to say you feel like a single mom sometimes; it’s another to actually be one. Single moms reported the highest levels of stress in our survey.

Perhaps part of the solution for stressed-out married moms is to emulate their relatively laid-back partners rather than resenting them. No dad ever stayed up until 3 a.m. obsessing that the cupcakes he made from scratch for the school bake sale don’t measure up to the pictures on Pinterest. “Daddy judging” just isn’t a thing like “mommy judging” is. They might not notice the mess in the living room, but does it really matter?

Runkel, who travels a lot for work, says the stress of parenting with a partner is worth it in the end. He and his wife were high-school sweethearts who have been married 20 years. Whenever he gets back home from a trip, he said, his wife usually tells him, “It was easier when you weren’t here.”

“But she always follows up with, ‘That doesn’t mean it was better.’”