Why Mothers Feel Exhausted, Even When Housework Is “Equally Divided”

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Why Mothers Feel Exhausted, Even When Housework Is “Equally Divided”

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Welcome back to ‘There’s A Word For That’: a series that names the experiences that can change the course of your career

Earlier this summer, publicist Sonya Bonczek tweeted jokingly about the fathers in her social circle:

“Been running into dads of my 3yo’s classmates and asking for their emails for his birthday party and so far 3 out of 3 dads have proceeded to give me their wives’ emails instead. This is now a social experiment.”

The tweet went viral, getting hundreds of thousands of likes and inspiring The New York Times to interview a sociologist about why moms tend to manage household scheduling.

That Bonczek’s experience resonated with so many people shows how much uneasiness there still is among parents, not only about the division of household and childcare work, but about who leads this work. In other words, who anticipates, plans, organizes, delegates, and makes executive decisions.

Resoundingly, those responding to Bonczek’s tweet agreed that in heterosexual relationships this invisible labor disproportionately falls on women.

There’s a term for this form of cognitive labor: Mental Load.

Broadly defined as all the thinking work that goes into managing a household, “mental load” comes into play with everything from restocking groceries and cleaning supplies to scheduling medical appointments to organizing extracurriculars and social events to arranging for domestic help and more.

It’s exhausting, often thankless work that nearly everyone has to contend with, but it can become a particular source of strain among couples – especially when they have kids.

While the disproportionate share of household labor still managed by women in heterosexual marriages isn’t a new problem, the specific term “mental load” lit a conversational fire, so to speak, in 2017 when French comic Emma Clit posted illustrations explaining the term with relevant examples.

On one of her comics is a tiny phrase that, translated to English, could be considered a pretty complete encapsulation of the concept of mental load: “You should’ve asked.”

Source: Emmaclit.com

Much like its close cousin “just relax,” the phrase functions as a subtle verbal weapon that discredits the complainer’s frustration – which is what makes it so acutely infuriating.

“You should’ve asked” implies that it’s the asker’s responsibility to notice what needs to be done, and that if she doesn’t want to do this task, she must take the additional step of delegating it. It also turns the tables of blame to make it seem as if the complainer is unfairly guilt-tripping when the other person of course would’ve pitched in, had she only given him the chance.

Given the popularity of the comics (the creator landed a book deal on the topic shortly after), she was clearly not alone in her frustrations. Writer and illustrator, Mary Catherine Starr’s @momlife _ comics on Instagram, similarly showcase the mental load of being a mom.

And in 2019, sociologist Allison Daminger published a study providing further evidence that women in heterosexual relationships still do more of the work of managing a household. The study concluded that there are four categories of cognitive labor:

  • Anticipating needs (“Our child’s birthday is next month”)
  • Identifying options for filling them (“Should we host a party at home? Will we be risking too much COVID exposure if it’s inside?”)
  • Making decisions (“We’ll have it at this park, invite these people, and buy this food”)
  • Monitoring progress (“Five people still need to RSVP”)

Daminger found that this kind of labor is a frequent source of conflict for couples, and that women in her study – in addition to performing more cognitive work overall – especially did more of the anticipating and monitoring work.

When the pandemic caused millions of women to take on more caregiving work due to remote learning and school cancellations, conversations about the need for more equitable division of labor gathered even more steam. It inspired Reshma Saujani, author of the recently published book, Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work, to found Marshall Plan for Moms, a national movement to center mothers in our economic recovery from the pandemic and to value their labor.

On a recent episode of the Money Confidential podcast, host Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez (also my co-editor at this newsletter) spoke with Saujani about how everyone – not just mothers but also employers, fathers, and policymakers – needs to make significant changes in how we support women so that they don’t have to fall behind at work when they have kids.

In the interview, Saujani points out that two-thirds of caregiving work is still done by women. In her own relationship, the inequitable dynamic began when she took paid parental leave and her partner did not.

“I don’t think we understood the impact of that decision on our family,” she recalled. “All of the sudden, I knew where the diaper bag was. I knew what froggie [our child] loved. So my to-do list just grew and his shrunk. Had we had leave together, [my husband] would’ve known from the beginning how to manage the household and the kids and he would’ve gotten his chores. And so ever since, we’ve been in couples counseling trying to renegotiate how this happens.”

Experiences like this, argues Saujani, are why it’s crucial that we recognize women’s unpaid labor as a societal issue, not a problem to be solved by women alone or even couples. Employers need to provide fathers with paid parental leave, and to create a culture that encourages them to take it without guilt or shame.

In the meantime, women should know that if they feel constantly overwhelmed despite having a partner who “helps out” a lot, it may be because of this element of mental work. As one blogger cleverly put it, the pressure isn’t “all in your head,” but the work probably is.

Listen to the full interview with Saujani here.

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