Invisible workload of modern mothers is damaging their mental health

The invisible workload of modern mothers: Most women still carry most responsibility for the house, kids, and family plans – and it’s damaging their mental health

  • A study of hundreds of mothers found most carry the bulk of responsibility for the house
  • That was true even if they are employed and share many chores with their husbands
  • 65% of women were stay-at-home moms; 90% of women felt responsible for most parenting and organizing in the house  
  • The new study showed how that ‘invisible labor’ impacts health and stress levels 

They say a mother’s work is never done. 

Scientists agree – and they warn the insurmountable pressure of taking care of the house, kids, their partner, and themselves inflicts an enormous toll on their health.  

According to a new study of hundreds of mothers, most heterosexual, married women still carry the bulk of responsibility for the household – even if they are employed and share many responsibilities with their husbands.

That ‘invisible labor’, they found, leaves women less satisfied with their lives and relationships, and more prone to distress and stress-related diseases. 

‘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,’ first author Dr Lucia Ciciolla, assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, said.

‘Women are beginning to recognize 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.’

A study of hundreds of mothers found most carry the bulk of responsibility for the house, even if they are employed and share many chores with their husbands. That affects their health, experts say

Senior author Professor Suniya Luthar, of Arizona State University, said: ‘Until recently, no one stopped to think about mom herself.

‘We need to attend to the well-being of moms if we want children to do well, and also for their own sakes.’

It’s widely recognized that, while gender dynamics have shifted, a deep-rooted status quo remains. 

Though men participate in housework and childcare more today than in the past, researchers have consistently found that women still manage the household, regardless of whether they work more or less than their husband.

To investigate how this impacts women’s health, researchers at ASU and OSU decided to interview women to find out how their responsibilities were divided and how it affected them, for a study published today in the journal Sex Roles.  

The team surveyed 393 women with children under age 18 who were married or in a committed partnership.

Most of the women were from middle-upper class homes and were highly educated – more than 70 percent had at least a college education.

The team measured the division of household labor by asking questions about who was in charge of three sets of tasks: organizing the family’s schedules, fostering children’s well-being, and making major financial decisions.

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Separately, the researchers spoke to the women about their satisfaction with spouses or partners and their satisfaction with life overall, and how this related to housework.

The team also looked how invisible labor was linked to feelings of being overwhelmed and feelings of emptiness in their everyday lives. 

Sixty-five percent of the women were stay-at-home moms, while the rest worked full-time. And yet, 90 percent of women said they felt solely responsible for organizing schedules of the family.

At least seven in 10 women said they were also responsible for other areas of family routines such as maintaining standards for routines and assigning household chores.

Those in charge of the household felt overwhelmed with their role as parents, had little time for themselves and felt exhausted, according to the findings published in the journal Sex Roles.

Dr Luthar said: ‘Sole responsibility for household management showed links with moms’ distress levels, but with the almost 90 percent of women feeling solely responsible, there was not enough variability in the data to detect whether this association was statistically significant.

‘At the same time, there’s no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health.’

A large percentage of the women also felt that it was mostly them who were responsible for monitoring their children’s well-being and emotional states – something Dr Luthar said ‘clearly predicted’ feelings of emptiness in women.

Almost 80 percent said they were the one who knew the children’s school teachers, and two-thirds felt they were the most attentive to the children’s emotional needs. 

‘Research in developmental science indicates that mothers are first responders to kids’ distress,’ Dr Luthar said.

‘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.’ 

The one things that women felt their partners did help with was when it came to instilling values in children – a stereotypically fatherly role, further cementing the old-fashioned gender dynamics.

Only a quarter of women said they were solely responsible, and 72 percent said that it was generally shared equally with partners.

Financial decisions were also listed as shared responsibilities, with just over half of the women saying they made decisions about investments, holidays, major home improvements and buying a car together with their partner.

The researchers suspected that having an equal say, or more say, in determining finances could be empowering, and therefore positive. 

However, they found the pressure of organizing finances on top of everything else was too much. 

Experts on resilience in children agree that the most important protection for kids under stress is the well-being of the primary caregiver in the family, which is most commonly the mother.

But the researchers said that mothers must also feel nurtured and cared for if they are to have good mental health and be a positive parent.

When women feel overly responsible for the ‘invisible labor’ of running a household and raising children, researchers said it can have a bad impact on their overall well-being.

Dr Ciciolla said: ‘When mothers feel supported, they can have the emotional resources to cope well with the demands they faced.

‘Being able to address inequalities in invisible labor 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.’

Dr Luthar said 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.

She added: ‘Resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships. As this is true for children, it is true for mothers who tend them.’ 

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