Labours of love: Invisible work is wearing down women
Constant juggling and multitasking at home negatively affects mental health, say experts
A woman’s (invisible) work is never done – and makes overburdened moms cranky.
Women’s wellbeing is harmed when they are “overly responsible” for running their homes, says a new study.
This may come as no surprise to working moms, but not enough seems to have shifted in household management and parenting since a seminal book on the topic, The Second Shift, exposed the burden on them three decades ago.
“There’s no question that constant juggling and multitasking at home negatively affects mental health,” said senior author and psychologist, Professor Suniya Luthar from Arizona State University.
“Knowing who needs to be where, on what day and at what time. Buying a bigger pair of pants before a child outgrows what is currently hanging in the closet. Always having a jar of unopened peanut butter on hand are examples of the invisible labour women contribute to their families,” said the psychologists from Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University in the US.
“We need to attend to the wellbeing of moms if we want children to do well, and also for their own sakes.”
Nearly 400 American women, married or in a committed partnership, with children under 18 were surveyed by the team. More than 70% had a university education, 65% worked and they were mostly from middle-class and upper-class homes.
Professor Lucia Ciciolla, from Oklahoma State University, said: “Even though women may be physically doing fewer loads of laundry, they continue to hold the responsibility for making sure the detergent does not run out, all the dirty clothes make it into the wash, and that there are always clean towels available.”
Women are beginning to recognise they still hold the mental burden of the household even if others share in the physical work, and that this mental burden can take a toll.
Nearly nine in 10 women said they felt solely responsible for organising family schedules and seven in 10 were also responsible for other areas of family routines such as maintaining standards for routines and assigning household chores.
The researchers measured the division of household labour by asking questions about who controlled three sets of tasks: organising schedules, fostering children’s wellbeing and making major financial decisions.
The women who said they were in charge of the household reported that “they felt overwhelmed with their role as parents, had little time for themselves and felt exhausted”.
Luthar said moms’ distress levels, including feeling empty in their everyday lives, were linked to sole responsibility for household management and their children’s wellbeing.
Two-thirds of the women felt they were responsible for the children’s emotions and wellness, and nearly 80% said they were the ones who knew the teachers.
Luthar said: “Mothers are first responders to kids’ distress. That is a very weighty job; it can be terrifying that you’re making decisions, flying solo, that might actually worsen rather than improve things for your children’s happiness.”
This responsibility did show “strong, unique links with women’s distress” as well as being associated with low levels of satisfaction with their marriage or relationship, and life overall.
Men now participate more in housework and childcare than they did historically, and most women indicated that fathers shared the role of instilling values in their children, the researchers noted.
Major financial decisions were seen as shared responsibilities, with just more than half of women replying that “they made decisions about investments, holidays, major home improvements and car purchases together with their partner”.
Those who felt the buck stopped with them were generally more dissatisfied with their partnerships.
The happiness and wellbeing of mothers is the most important protection for kids to learn resilience and cope with stress. This means moms need support and nurturing too, the researchers noted.
“When mothers feel supported, they can have the emotional resources to cope well with the demands they face,” Ciciolla said.
In addition to talking about invisible labour, Luthar emphasised that mothers must maintain dependable, authentic connections with others who are supportive, like other working moms.
“As this is true for children, it is true for mothers who tend them.”
The study was published on Tuesday in the journal Sex Roles.