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Moms, Are You Victims of 'Invisible Labor'?

HealthDay News
by By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter
Updated: Jan 23rd 2019

new article illustration

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 23, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Mothers not only take on the lion's share of physical chores, they also shoulder most of the "invisible labor" involved in making sure the household is humming along, new research suggests.

Going beyond cooking and laundry, this means the mental strain of making sure there's enough food for bag lunches, teacher meetings are on the calendar, and that science project gets done by tomorrow.

But that mental and emotional effort can take a toll on mom's well-being. Women who felt overly responsible for invisible labor tasks reported feeling less satisfied with their lives and with their partners, the study found.

"It's a tedious, exhausting task to always be captain of the ship," said study senior author Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

Luthar said that 9 of 10 women in the study were responsible for maintaining household schedules. Two-thirds of women felt that they alone were responsible for their children's emotional well-being.

"It's one thing to be responsible for pick-up and drop-off at practice. If it falls through, it's not that bad. But if you're responsible for making sure your child isn't cutting themselves or falling into depression, and you feel like it's only you that's on vigil here, that's got to be very onerous because the stakes are so high," she explained.

Work plus home

The study authors noted that gender norms have been shifting and men are contributing more to child care and housework than in the past. However, women are still responsible for most of these tasks, even when they're employed full-time, the researchers said.

For the study, nearly 400 American women were surveyed. All had children under the age of 18, and all were married or in a committed partnership.

Sixty-five percent of the women surveyed worked full-time, and almost two-thirds of the families made between $50,000 and $200,000. Seventy percent of the women had a bachelor's degree or even higher education. Eighty-three percent were white.

The women answered questions about three sets of tasks: Who was in charge of the family schedules, fostering children's well-being and making major financial decisions.

Nearly 90 percent of women said they were the ones who kept track of their families' schedules. Three-quarters of women said they assigned tasks to family members to keep their homes running smoothly.

Two-thirds of women kept tabs on their children's emotions, and 80 percent of women knew the children's teachers and school administrators.

Being solely responsible for kids' emotional health showed strong links with women's distress, the study reported. It was also linked with low satisfaction with life in general and in the marriage or partnership.

Personal sacrifices

Women reported that more often than not, both parents were responsible for instilling values and shaping the character of their children. Both parents were also equally likely to forgo something that they personally wanted for the good of the household.

Financial decisions and management tended to be done by both partners. Women only took on financial decisions alone between 10 and 18 percent of the time.

Luthar said some of the financial findings were surprising.

"We thought being in charge of finances would be a good thing, perhaps empowering, but it turned out to be linked with distress. When you're already doing all the tedium of scheduling and in addition, you have to manage finances too, it may be over the top," she explained.

So why do women do it all? Luthar said there may be an underlying biological mechanism, such as maternal instinct, that makes mothers more responsive to things like a child's cry.

Women 'overwhelmed'

But Lauren Sardi, an associate professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., pointed out that societal norms may be more at play.

"Culturally, we are a very traditional society. Even when the father wants to be involved, it's difficult. For example, there often aren't changing tables in men's bathrooms," said Sardi, who wasn't part of the study.

But she added, "If we're hearing women are feeling overwhelmed, we need to take those concerns seriously and not just say, 'Oh, that's just what you have to do.'"

On the flip side, Sardi said it's important for people to realize that men are not incompetent with household matters. "A lot of times, we don't give our partners a chance to do these things, but that's not how it has to be," she said.

Luthar said it's important to recognize when the division of labor isn't even. And she suggested talking to your partner. But she said you should know going in that a talk may not lead to substantive changes.

She said it's also vital that women carve out time for themselves.

"As children need gentleness and acceptance, so do mothers. Women need to be replenished from the exhaustion. You need to have someone tend you and soothe you," Luthar said, adding that a mother has to be doing well for her kids to do well.

The study was published Jan. 22 in the journal Sex Roles.

More information

If all that invisible labor has worn you out, read more about managing stress from the American Psychological Association.