Disclaimer: This post speaks specifically to the experiences of heterosexual, partnered, cisgender women, although individuals in other groups may resonate to the feelings discussed herein.
Do you feel overwhelmed by the never-ending list, running like a news ticker-tape across your mind every moment of the day? Does it feel that at the end of the day you’re exhausted physically and mentally, and yet, also that you might have forgot something you were “supposed” to do?
This is mental labor, sometimes termed emotional labor, and is most often referring to the work women do in managing household tasks, child care, and their own jobs. According to one study, a “majority of women reported that they alone assumed responsibility for household routines involving organizing schedules for the family and maintaining order in the home.” (Ciciolla and Luthar, 2019).
There are the big “to-do” list items: planning the grocery lists, making (and remembering!) doctors’ appointments for you, the children, your partner, creating carpool plans and (socially distanced) playdates interspersed with the emptying – and refilling – of the dishwasher, breaking up sibling fights, feeding the pet, bedtime routines and daily minutia. Societal norms continue to influence the roles in heterosexual households. Women continue to feel accustomed to and taking on the majority, if not all, household and child caring jobs. It is no wonder you feel completely wiped out by the end of each day! The pandemic has only increased the amount of mental labor women do, as we now school our children and work from home, blurring pretty much every boundary that exists.
Remember that running ticker tape? Mental labor is even more than managing the tasks at hand; it is constantly adding to the never-ending to-do list in one’s mind. It’s not just that while you’re trying to write this very blog-post, one child is asking you to watch his favorite show or another is asking you to look at his latest toy set-up, but more that while you type, you’re also thinking about when the playdate with your children’s “bubble” friends start and if you’ll have time to hit the pharmacy beforehand.
So as you try to balance all of this, your husband comes to ask “What can I do to help?” And internally your ideal response is “Why not just step in without asking permission?!” Yet, he is not entirely to blame, and neither are you. Our internalization of societal norms means you have become so accustomed to delegating tasks to your husband that you and he have become entrenched in the role of managers and employee. He does not recognize that he can in fact just do without direction. Not only does this leave you mentally spent, but also reinforces the lesson for children that it is women’s job to manage it all.
The expression “a woman’s work is never done” comes from a rhyming couplet that dates from the time of the American Revolution: “Man may work from sun to sun/but a woman’s work is never done.” Unfortunately, despite decades of advances in women’s rights and in the workforce, our home lives still reflect this old saying. Bringing this sentiment into this century, an excerpt from an essay by Kelly Gonsalves of MBG Relationships, may resonate with many:
“Even when husbands do unpaid work (like housework and child care), they still depend on wives to tell them what to do and when. So let’s say a husband is going to grocery shop for the family. The wife will be the one who looks at their fridge, their pantry, thinks about what they are missing, what they will need in the next week or so, and makes a list. The husband goes and shops, often even calling the wife if he can’t find an item to get her to guide him.” (Gonsalves, June 22, 2020).
So…where does that leave us? First and foremost, this not intended to place any or all blame solely on men. Rather, this illustrates that in a majority of households, with a man and woman, the emotional, mental and physical domestic load is not shared equitably. You did not need to read this post to know you feel this imbalance in responsibilities and mental fatigue, but now you are able to identify it by name. Naming a challenge can be a step towards confronting the causes.
If the message resonates and spurs you to action, what can that action be? How do you dismantle societal gender norms that are millennia in the making? That is well beyond my personal and professional expertise, but I can share simple tips that have worked for me…
- Remember to delegate! The more your spouse and/or children are given the autonomy to complete their day to day chores, the more (physical and mental) muscle memory is built up.
- Be open to mindfulness practices. I know, great, one more thing on your list! Or worse yet, how exactly does one find time to meditate or fully commit to it when mentally juggling a variety of to-do’s? By no means am I discouraging mindfulness; it’s an effective method of stress management, however, do not be hard on yourself if you cannot find the time.
- Journaling is often an encouraged mindfulness practice. It can be anything from a mental dump of your day or your current thoughts, to a gratitude journal. If you want to make it focused toward the household/labor debate, consider writing down every task you did in the day to contribute towards the household. Share this with your partner; a visual can give deeper perspective into just how much of an imbalance is present. Take that opportunity to start a conversation about the mental fatigue you feel and how your partner can help. I have also found that journaling my thoughts for the day – whether it is related to a mental fatigue or other day to day experiences – it grounds me and I am able to release any mental tension and move forward.
- If you are feeling this mental fatigue take a toll on you personally and affect your relationship, start a conversation with your partner.
Looking for further support? Join me at a weekly Pandemic Parenting Group. Held Wednesdays at 12 PM, the virtual group is a space for parents to share their experiences, find support, understanding and insights! Register for our upcoming session.
Claire Brown, LCSW
Ciciolla, L., Luthar, S.S. Invisible Household Labor and Ramifications for Adjustment: Mothers as Captains of Households. Sex Roles 81, 467–486 (2019).
Daminger, Allison. The Cognitive Dimension of Household Labor. American Sociological Review (July 2019)
Gonslaves, Kelly. What Is The Mental Load? The Invisible Labor Falling On Women’s Shoulders. MindBodyGreen Relationships. June 22, 2020.