The mental load of motherhood

The mental load of motherhood

Doing laundry, cooking healthy family meals, ensuring everyone has clean and fitting clothes, enrolling children in swimming lessons, and buying a farewell present for the teacher.. a mother’s job is never done! Good thing dad’s around to do his share. Or does he?

Since 1957 Dutch women are no longer required to quit their job after becoming pregnant. This has resulted in a large increase of mothers in the workforce, who now combine a part-time job with taking care of their children. In more recent years fathers have also been given opportunities for a more equal division between work and family life, by taking parental leave or reducing their working hours to spend more time with their children. In theory this could result in both parents working the same number of hours and therefore spending the same number of hours at home. Even so, there is still an unequal division of household labor in most families.

Division of household labor

You might think that living alone would result in the largest amount of time spent on household tasks. After all, if you can’t share these tasks with a partner they will automatically take up more of your time, right?

Wrong. Decades of research have shown instead that the amount of time women spend on housework increases when they move in with a romantic male partner. This pattern is even stronger for women who become mothers: most mothers increase their household tasks, whereas paternal household time decreases. In addition to this clear gender difference there is also an evident distribution of household tasks: Women take on relatively more tasks such as cleaning and cooking, whereas men spend more time on tasks such as taking care of the garden, repairing things around the house, and taking out the trash. However, the tasks performed by women are done more frequently, which results in women spending more time on household tasks than their male counterparts. Not surprisingly, the larger amount of time spent on housework takes time away from women’s opportunities for personal leisure. In addition, women who feel unhappy with such an unequal division of household tasks more often suffer from feelings of depression and experience lower levels of satisfaction with their relationship.

Mental load of motherhood

In addition to time spent on physical household tasks, women also take on a larger share of cognitive household labor. This cognitive household labor or mental load can be seen as the time spent thinking about what needs to be done in the household, but not actually doing it yet. Women often assume the role of ‘manager of the household’ which might include setting up a cleaning schedule (“When was the last time I deep-cleaned the kitchen cabinets?”), reminding other family members (including partners) to complete their cleaning tasks (“Don’t forget to clean the sink after shaving”), keeping track of family and social obligations (“I still need to buy a present for grandma’s wedding anniversary”), and keeping an eye on long-term plans for child care and family needs (“Can we find daycare for the new baby that’s closer to the primary school of the eldest?”). As a result, women also function as a back-up for other members of the household in terms of what needs to be done or what was planned for a specific day. In contrast, men often assume the role of decision-maker, only being called on for specific decisions (“Shall we enroll the kids in swimming lessons at pool A or B?”).

Keeping up appearances

Now what could be a driving factor in this unequal division of household tasks? Part of the answer may lie hidden in the finding that an unequal division of household labor seems specific to heterosexual couples, as both gay and lesbian couples report a more equal division of household tasks. It may then be assumed that the commonly unequal distribution of household tasks between men and women has to do with gender expectations:

As the partner of a man, a woman is expected to keep up daily rituals such as home-cooked family dinners. In contrast, men might be held accountable for financial wellbeing of the family, but not so much for the household running smoothly. These societal norms are especially strong for couples with children. Even when parents both work part-time and share childcare equally, other parties such as daycare or medical specialists often assume that one parent (usually the mother) is the primary caregiver that is most responsible for the children. As a result, mothers may be held more accountable if their children are not wearing an appropriate outfit for their school photo, or if they forget to bring a dish for the Christmas celebration.

A next step in terms of equality

So how to solve this problem? There may not be a single solution to this widespread issue. An important step forward might be to continue increasing equality in time that can be taken off work after children are born (following examples set by Norway, Sweden, and Denmark). This allows both parents to be more involved in and responsible for their child’s care, and might ultimately lead to a society where men and women can really be partners in every sense of the word.