‘Invisible labor’ taking a toll on mothers’ well-being: What you need to know

Women carry the load of emotional and mental baggage needed to run a household.

January 22, 2019, 4:55 PM

Whether it’s keeping track of groceries, coordinating the kids’ schedules or helping children cope with schoolwork and relationships, mothers traditionally do a lot of work that’s often unseen and can feel unappreciated.

Moms have been calling out the push-pull of work that's necessary but unappreciated and exhausting for decades. But now, researchers are calling the cognitive load of the mental and emotional labor put into running a household “invisible labor.” And it may be taking a toll on everyone in the household.

It seems that men now are more committed to creating an equal division of labor. More than ever, many men are helping with a variety of household tasks, whether that’s meal preparation, carpooling or being present for children.

Yet, traditional gender role expectations persist. Women are still reporting that they carry a majority of the burden of managing a household. In Gemma Hartley’s popular essay, “Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up: Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand,” she notes, “Bearing the brunt of all this emotional labor in a household is frustrating.”

Researchers at Oklahoma State University and Arizona State University looked at the impact of invisible labor on 393 women across the United States.

All of the women included in the study were in relationships and had children under the age of 18 in their homes. Sixty-five percent of them worked outside of the home. The study had questions about the mothers’ sex lives, friendships, feelings of being overwhelmed with the parental role and more.

PHOTO: A working mom holds her child in this stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

At least 70 percent of mothers felt more responsible for routine household tasks, being mindful of children’s emotional needs and coordinating children’s schedules.

So, how do these dynamics impact a mother’s life? And what do they mean for the long term?

ABC News spoke with Lucia Ciciolla, Ph.D., who co-authored the paper with Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., a Foundation Professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

“We wanted to see how much behind the scenes management was being done,” Ciciolla, an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, said. “And whether this might affect mothers’ well-being.”

The study found that managing the psychological needs of children was linked to women feeling less satisfied with their partners and in general. Women also reported greater feelings of emptiness and being overwhelmed with the role of being a parent when they felt that they alone were carrying the bulk of managing children's well-being and the household.

“We were surprised to find that a large percentage of the women, 50 to 78 percent, felt that they alone were carrying the responsibility for children’s well-being, whether that was managing their emotional needs or coordinating with their teachers,” Dr. Ciciolla noted.

When it came to tasks that mothers felt they shared equally with their partners, two stood out: responsibility for financial planning and instilling values in children.

Even with societal changes occurring with regard to gender roles, research shows that women continue to do a majority of household work. Couples with children have been identified as having the biggest differences in sharing household work between partners.

When women take on a higher burden of household work, it impacts multiple parts of their lives. This highlights that there's still a ways to go and women need more support.

“Our findings speak to how important it is for men and women alike to recognize and consider invisible labor in the discussion of the division of household labor more broadly,” Ciciolla said. “We encourage people to really think about how invisible labor and the mental gymnastics that go with it can be taxing on mental and emotional resources. Recognizing the reality that mothers are disproportionately carrying this burden might help us understand why many moms are feeling burned out. Recognizing this allows steps to be taken within a marriage or within a household to address inequalities. When a family is aware of the true distribution of labor in the household, they can make more informed decisions about how to ease that burden across parents and other family members.”

Being mindful of a household’s dynamics may be the key to making sure things continue to change in the right direction.

Dr. Saumya Dave is a resident physician in psychiatry in New York City and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.