Despite men being more hands-on at home than previous generations, mothers are exhausted and unhappy… and we know why.
Modern moms are in distress, and, according to a study from Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University, it’s thanks to shouldering the invisible labour of household management and parenting.
What is invisible labour?
Knowing who needs to be where, on what day and at what time. Buying bigger clothes before a child outgrows what they have, meal planning and knowing exactly what is in the pantry, are all examples of invisible labour that many mothers manage all while trying to stay on top of their careers.
“Until recently, no one stopped to think about mom herself,” says Suniya Luthar, Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and senior author on the study. “We need to attend to the wellbeing of moms if we want children to do well, and also for their own sakes.”
Women 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
Although men participate in housework and childcare more today than in the past, women still manage the household, even when they are employed.
“Even though women may be physically doing fewer loads of laundry, they continue to hold the responsibility for making sure that the detergent does not run out, all the dirty clothes make it into the wash and that there are always clean towels available,” says Lucia Ciciolla, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oklahoma State University and first author on the study.
“Women are beginning to recognise that 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.”
The researchers surveyed 393 women – from middle-upper-class homes with children under age 18 – who were married or in a committed partnership. Most of the women were highly educated, with over 70% having a college education.
Who managed the family schedules, kid’s wellbeing and finance? The team measured the division of household labour by asking questions about three sets of tasks:
- Organising the family’s schedules
- Fostering children’s wellbeing
- Making major financial decisions
A mother’s work is never done
In the category of family routines, almost nine in 10 women answered that they felt solely responsible for organising schedules of the family.
Luthar said that this is an extremely large percentage given that 65% of the women were employed.
At least seven in 10 women answered they were also responsible for other areas of family routines like maintaining standards for routines and assigning household chores.
The women who indicated 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.
Nine in 10 women felt solely responsible for organising schedules of the family. There’s no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health
“Sole responsibility for household management showed links with moms’ distress levels, but with the almost 90% of women feeling solely responsible, there was not enough variability in the data to detect whether this association was statistically significant,” says Luthar. “At the same time, there’s no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health.”
Mothers are kids’ first responders
A large percentage of the women also felt that it was mostly they who were responsible for being vigilant of their children’s wellbeing.
This invisible labour of ensuring the wellbeing of children did show strong, unique links with women’s distress. This category clearly predicted feelings of emptiness in the women. It was also associated with low satisfaction levels about life overall and with the marriage or partnership.
“Research in developmental science indicates that mothers are first responders to kids’ distress,” Luthar says. “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.”
Financial decisions were also listed as shared responsibilities, with just over 50% of the women answering that they made decisions about investments, vacations, major home improvements and car purchases together with their partner.
Because other studies have found participating in financial decisions to be empowering, the researchers predicted that it would be positively associated with women’s wellbeing. But financial decision-making was unexpectedly associated with low partner satisfaction, which the research team attributed to the addition of this job on top of the already high demands of managing the household and ensuring the children’s wellbeing.
Can we fix this?
Experts on resilience in children agree that the most important protection for kids under stress is the wellbeing of the primary caregiver in the family, which is most commonly the mother.
Mothers must also feel nurtured and cared for if they are to have good mental health and positive parenting behaviours.
Mothers must also feel nurtured and cared for if they are to have good mental health and positive parenting behaviours. When women feel overly responsible for the invisible labour of running a household and raising children, it can negatively impact their overall wellbeing.
“When mothers feel supported, they can have the emotional resources to cope well with the demands they face,” says Ciciolla. “Being able to address inequalities in invisible labour can allow women and families to create households that are more functional and less burdensome, and can also spare women mental gymnastics to find the space and time to care for themselves.”
In addition to talking about invisible labour, Luthar emphasises that mothers must maintain dependable, authentic connections with others who are supportive. Randomised clinical trials have shown that regular support groups with mothers in the workplace led to reductions in distress, burnout at work and the stress hormone cortisol.
“Resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships. As this is true for children, it is true for mothers who tend them.”
Source: All4Women and Arizona State University - www.sciencedaily.com