It’s Not Fair: Mental Load and Emotional Labour

Maddie McMahon on the invisible work mothers have to do

In twenty years of watching new families and listening to mothers, one aspect of family life has stood out to me: the emotional burden that mothers carry. Working women, business owners, highly regarded academics, busy mothers of many, teachers, mentors, friends doing all the practical planning that keeps a family afloat.

It seems it is mostly the women who are thinking ahead, planning the family holiday, balancing the preferences of everyone, making the shopping lists, remembering birthdays and anniversaries, planning the social activities, inviting friends to dinner, noticing when the dishwasher tablets are running out and all the other tasks, big and small, of family life.

It is often the mother who takes active steps to support the physical and emotional health of everyone else – making doctors appointments, listening to everyone’s problems, dealing with the emotions of every family member, booking childcare, worrying about childcare, communicating with schools and nurseries, reminding partners to go to the dentist and increasingly often, looking after aged parents and in-laws too.

Feminists have been noting this phenomenon for years; calling the practical forward planning we do ‘the mental load’ and the regulation and care of everyone else’s emotions ‘the emotional labour’ – phrases that, in my experience, really resonate when I talk with clients. Whatever a woman’s background or class, almost everyone recognises this inherent unfairness, especially those in heterosexual relationships.

It’s the perpetual noise in our heads that I notice. And the research bears this out – multiple studies have found that the organisation of family life very often falls into very gendered roles and that, in general, men tend to feel happier when caring for children – it is thought because the ‘admin’ has been taken care of by the woman and he can just enjoy having fun with the kids. And when women attempt to even up the balance by asking for help, this is often interpreted as ‘nagging’. There is evidence that these differences, and the feelings of frustration associated with them, have been exacerbated by the pandemic, perhaps because men have been at home more, but still haven’t picked up a more equal share of the ‘home admin’.

It seems a lot of men just aren’t great at this stuff. But why? Is it nature or nurture? This, apparently, is up for debate but one thing is clear, if women are going to be shouldering the burden of both work and family work, we need infrastructure that supports parents; services that require government commitment and investment. Because right now, our culture does much to push women into traditional gender roles, whether they like it or not. This invisible work is what keeps the wheels of life turning and it’s about time it was recognised and rewarded as the vital labour it is.

Postnatal doulas have a key role to play in this – not just being another pair of hands but perhaps by being able to have these conversations with women. It’s not until we understand what the mental load and emotional labour is that we can start unpicking how it happens within our own family and relationship dynamics and begin to work out how to share the load a little more equally with our partners.

How does all this play out in your family? How have you approached it? We’d love to hear your experiences as a parent or doula.

Further reading:
Research on the mental load: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13668803.2021.2002813

Great Cartoon explaining why is happens:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/26/gender-wars-household-chores-comic



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