The invisible labor of motherhood is real—and it’s burning us out

Almost 90% of mothers feel solely responsible for their family's schedule—and it's making us feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

The invisible labor of motherhood is real—and it’s burning us out

When you're parenting with a partner household responsibilities can, in theory, be shared by both parents, but too often they are not. We know that while today's dads are doing more at home than previous generations mothers still shoulder more of the childcare and housekeeping duties. But there are other responsibilities—often invisible ones—that are also disproportionately burdening moms.

Motherly's 2019 State of Motherhood survey found the majority of moms (61%) report handling most household chores and responsibilities themselves and 62% report having less than an hour to themselves in the last day in which they didn't have some kind of obligation to take care of.

Our survey isn't the only data highlighting this trend. It is common for American mothers in heterosexual relationships to say they shoulder more household responsibilities than the men in their lives, and much of this work is invisible. Making appointments, keeping track of activities and school schedules, booking the babysitter and replenishing the toilet paper is the kind of work that doesn't get noticed when it's been done, only when it hasn't.

A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles found almost 90% of the 393 married or partnered American mothers researchers surveyed say they are solely responsible for their family's schedule. Nearly 80% say they are the one who deals with the kids' teachers and school, and two-thirds feel they're the one responsible for attending to their children's emotional needs as well.

In short, the study proves that in so many ways, mama is still the default parent in most American households (even though 65% of the moms surveyed are working outside the home, too).

The study's first author, Lucia Ciciolla, calls mothers' invisible labor a prerequisite for all other labor in the family, the "behind-the-scenes directing that keeps the show running."

"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," Ciciolla explains.

It's not a shock to hear that the women who indicated they were in charge of everything at home reported they felt overwhelmed with parenthood, exhausted and have little time to themselves.

"Sole responsibility for household management showed links with moms' distress levels, but with the almost 90% of women feeling solely responsible, there was not enough variability in the data to detect whether this association was statistically significant," says Suniya Luthar, Foundation Professor of psychology at Arizona State University and the study's senior author. "At the same time, there's no question that constant juggling and multitasking at home negatively affects mental health," she explains.

According to Luthar, research in developmental science indicates that mothers are first responders to kids' distress and being that responder 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."

Some people parent with partners so that they have a partner, but in a very real way too many of us feel alone. We don't have a co-pilot, we've only got passengers. Ciciolla agrees, and says that measuring the mental labor of mothers is important because it can allow steps to be taken within marriages or partnerships to alleviate some of this stress on mothers.

"We really recommend families take stock of their household and recognize all that goes into making things run so that families can be more aware of the true distribution of labor and make some informed decisions about how to ease that burden and share that burden across parents," says Ciciolla.

So mama, if you're overwhelmed ask your partner to come up to the cockpit and co-pilot with you. Ask them to try making some of the kid's appointments, meet their teachers or prioritize detergent purchasing. According to Claire M. Kamp Dush, Ph.D., an associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University, mothers should feel empowered to move some stuff off their plate, even if that means you might end up with Gain instead of Tide, or someone misses a soccer practice.

"Have a conversation with your partner parent about 'what are some things that you can take off my plate because I'm really overwhelmed,'" Kamp Dush previously told Motherly. "Let your partner actually takes these things on and then trust [them] to do it."

For single moms, reach out to your village for support. See if you can split duties with another mom friend or ask Grandma or Grandpa for help with scheduling. Luthar says that all mothers need dependable, authentic connections with others who are supportive, and that science shows that for working moms regular support groups with other mothers led to lower stress levels and fewer cases of burnout.

Ciciolla says these conversations at home are really important, but so is the wider cultural conversation as it will allow "society to consider the magnitude of the responsibilities that our mothers take on at home and often in the workplace."

She hopes that this research will help people realize that in order for mothers to thrive, we need to lighten the load.

So do we.

[This post was originally published January 23, 2019. It has been updated.]

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