My favourite ring has a small split in it. It’s so small that nobody would notice except me. But it bothers me. Whenever it comes into my line of vision, I have a fly-by thought about dropping the ring into the Gold and Diamond Park to get it fixed. I have had that thought multiple times per day, every day, since I first noticed the split. That was approximately two years ago. It would take 10 minutes to drop it in and cost about Dh50. But, honestly, it is so low down my list of priorities that it doesn’t make it onto any day’s "to do" list. Even if it did make it on to the list, it would be the first thing bumped off – as, inevitably, superfluous missions like this always are – because I am time-poor. I am skint on seconds. I don’t have two minutes to rub together. Between work, kids and running a home, there really isn’t time or energy for much else.
Luckily, over my 13 years of parenthood, my brain has developed an amazing capacity for multi-thinking – scanning across multiple different topics in great detail, while I am driving, cooking, eating, cleaning, watching TV, walking and so on. This is pretty standard. When our conscious mind is engaged in repetitive or simple activities or jobs, our subconscious mind takes it as an opportunity to start thinking about other things. So the minutes that you get while brushing your teeth, or making a cup of tea, turn into intense brainstorming sessions in your own mind about stuff that you need to get done.
On a good day, this feels like I am playing Tetris with my life – blocks fall into place and rows disappear before the screen gets too full. On other days, it can feel like I am stuck in a revolving door that is spinning so fast that I can’t catch the exit. And it’s on days like these that life seems to play with me, like a cat that has caught a tiny bird and is toying with it for fun. Forgotten PE kits, gas cylinders being empty, phones dropping off a low table and inexplicably shattering (creating extra life admin that I could well do without), arriving home from the supermarket without the main thing I went for in the first place. (I have been known to make four trips to the corner shop in one evening...).
This is what’s described as the emotional labour of modern parenting. It’s the constant thinking that goes on behind the scenes. Thoughts that you are barely aware that you are even having (must buy toothpaste), because they seem to just tick along in the background (school trip money) while you are thinking (confirm playdate) so that, even if someone asked you to list (when is Book Week?) what you have spent time thinking about that day (where are those Harry Potter glasses?), you wouldn’t be able to if you tried (I can go to Creative Minds on the way to the playdate).
It’s the invisible side of parenting, which causes stress, anxiety, insomnia and other mental, emotional and physical health issues. And it is normally carried out almost entirely by the mother.
Did ‘Having it all” backfire for women?
Countless studies in recent years from a variety of sources show that women are much more likely than men to suffer from severe stress, anxiety and depression. A recent British study published in the journal Sociology reports that women working full-time while raising two children are 40% more stressed than women without children who are working full-time, and that flexi-time and working from home didn’t help to alleviate the stress of the working mum at all. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation, with the added pressure of homeschooling largely falling on the shoulders of mums.
Women are well and truly having it all – having all of the stress and pressure of building a career, while still having all of the responsibility of running a home, maintaining a marriage and raising children
The cause of all this stress? You guessed it, the simple issue of having too much on our plates. While ‘equality’ has seen women venturing out of the home into the workplace and staking our right to be there meritocratically, we haven’t as of yet been alleviated of the role of managing the home. It’s the modern mother’s predicament. Even if we can afford the luxury of out-sourcing some of our ‘women’s work’ to another woman (or women), we still have to manage that outsourcing (think nanny, cleaner, nursery), which means the mental and emotional load (in terms of the thinking time and emotional energy involved) still falls neatly on to our plates.
The "having it all" generation is well and truly having it all – having all of the stress and pressure of building a career, while still having all of the responsibility of running a home, maintaining a marriage and raising children. We are having it all to the point of exploding, or worse, simply disappearing.
We aren’t juggling, we are struggling. And our marriages, relationships, careers, identities, waistlines, health and children are being affected because of it.
NB: It’s not (necessarily) your husband’s fault
One important note: it’s not (necessarily) your husband’s fault. Most men are blissfully unaware of all the thinking you are doing behind the scenes.
How often does your husband do the meal plan for the week? Or the Kibsons order? Has he ever arranged your child’s birthday party? Who found and interviewed your nanny? Who manages your nanny? How many fathers are on the class Whatsapp group? Why is it all mums anyway? How many doctors’ appointments have you taken your children to, versus how many has your husband taken them to?
When asked by a friend about an upcoming social event, does your husband defer to you by saying he has to ask "the boss"? While this might make you feel momentarily empowered, why does the family calendar and scheduling fall to you?
This insidious, invisible layer of stress and responsibility that falls on mothers is hard to quantify and acknowledge, because it all happens internally - and you only really notice it’s happening at all when something goes awry. For as long as mum is quietly thinking and worrying about and taking care of every little thing – brain ticking frantically like a duck’s legs under water – all is smooth sailing from the outside.
So it’s not about pointing accusatory fingers at men, staging a witch hunt and finding them useless. It’s about asking why; why did you develop this apparent super-power when he didn’t?
The role of gender programming
The answer lies in the past. While we are undoubtedly in an age where gender equality is being woven, slowly but surely, into everyday life, we can’t undo the years of programming that happened beforehand. Most of us grew up in homes where our mothers (and their mothers and grandmothers before them) were largely responsible for the running of the home and the parenting. By assuming the lion’s share of the domestic plans and responsibilities, you – and your husband – are simply adhering to gender roles that were role-played to you throughout your entire childhoods – in your own home, in other people’s homes, in books, films, TV programmes and countless other sources – and role-playing them out to your own children.
There is nothing shameful about this; most of us have been guilty of this, without even knowing it. But it begs the question: can we change? Also, how can we raise our children differently so that our daughters are not stoically bearing the emotional and mental stress of managing a household alongside pursuing their careers and passions, and so that our sons are, not only more aware of the issue, but better equipped to think like a woman? I decided to start investigating close to home.
Can men learn to share the mental load?
My ex-husband was my first port of call. As a single dad without a full-time housemaid, who has our children for 50% of the time, he says he is overwhelmed by the emotional labour of parenting. "The weeks I have the kids, I would say it takes up 70% of my thoughts. What are we going to eat for dinner? Are they playing enough sport? Are we going to eat together? What will we do together this evening? Is that productive? Does it need to be? Will they remember it when they are older? I have had to employ a part-time, live-out maid to help me. Being PA to two kids is a full-time job."
This experience has given him a good insight into equality, or lack of it. He says, "It definitely isn’t fair for mums, especially working mums, to have to think about all of this on their own. It’s too much.
"If someone said they would do all the thinking for me, I would jump at the chance. There is no glory in making lunchboxes, or thinking about what to make for dinner. I don’t think I am closer to my kids for it. If someone could alleviate my parenting admin so that I could spend more time kicking a football in the garden, that would be great."
Next stop, my sister. As a working mother of two young children, aged six and three, I have watched with my own eyes as she has tried to squeeze an entire day of domestic chores into the 20 minutes she gets between the kids leaving the house in the morning and leaving for work herself. She says, "I can’t put it into words how much of my time is spent thinking about this stuff, but I do regularly think about how much more productive I would be if I had a driver to drive me to work – which is only 10 minutes away. I could get so much done in that time."
The true meaning of emotional labour
As the name suggests, emotional labour is not just about the mental strain of having to think about all of the different elements that make up your family’s day-to-day life; it’s also about the emotional toll of being the family rock that is ‘Mum’. The effort and strain it takes to dig deep and put on a smile even though you are so exhausted you would happily sleep in your baby’s cot, or so stressed that you could just sit in the corner and cry into a packet of chocolate biscuits.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ in 1983, in her book, ‘The Managed Heart’. In relation to parenting, Hochschild says that emotional labour is not the job of having to pay the housemaid, or to organise PE kits, but the stress or anxiety that results from it. She says, "Managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labour…. Males not participating fully in that, that’s a problem, too… One of the trends bearing down on the family is that women are forced to change faster than men are forced to."
Notions of good fatherhood are changing. We expect men to help with changing diapers and to do a lot of the physical care work. And yet, we don’t see them as ultimately responsible for the child’s development and happiness in the same way.
But it’s about more than men just not participating in the stress of emotional labour. They do not feel the stress because our ingrained cultural expectations do not hold men to account in the same way we do women. “I think part of it is that if something goes wrong, like if the kid is not prepared with the materials they need for school that day, the mum is going to be the one who is held to account,” says Harvard sociology researcher Allison Daminger in an interview with The New York Times about her research into emotional labour.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily something that is at the top of people’s minds as they’re making decisions, but part of the worry comes from fear of something bad happening,” continues Daminger. “And part of that is: I will be judged as a bad mother. I think notions of good fatherhood are changing. We expect men to help with changing diapers and to do a lot of the physical care work. And yet, we don’t see them as ultimately responsible for the child’s development and happiness in the same way.”
Emotional labour is leaving women exhausted
Since Hochschild’s book launched the concept into existence, there have been many studies looking into the impact of emotional labour on home life. One study, published in the journal Personnel Psychology in 2014, suggested that ongoing emotional labour at work can lead to emotional burnout, with anxiety being one of the symptoms and emotional exhaustion being the end result – all of which, they report, can spill over into the home and family life, causing insomnia and arguments in the home.
In a more recent study, published in January 2019 in the journal Sex Roles, researchers found that 90% of women feel solely responsible for organising the family schedules, while 80% said they were the parent who knew the children’s teachers, 70% said they were responsible for assigning household chores and 60% said they manage their children’s emotional wellbeing. These are huge percentages given that all of the women surveyed were either married, or in long-term relationships, and two thirds of them had full-time jobs. These women reported feeling overwhelmed with their role as parents, having little time for themselves and feeling exhausted.
90% of women said they feel solely responsible for organising family schedules, while 80% of women said they were the parent who knew their children's teachers
Psychology professor and study author Suniya Luthar says, "Sole responsibility for household management showed links with mums’ distress levels… There’s no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health."
The pandemic has put the traditional gender roles in the spotlight even more. With homeschooling duties often falling on the mothers’ shoulders – despite the fact that both parents might be working from home – mums have become more stressed than ever. It’s led millions of them to leave the workforce all together and reversed much of the positive movement towards gender equality - female workforce participation has dropped to 57, the lowest level since 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
What’s the solution?
While there’s no doubt that expectations of men and women have changed in a positive way in recent years, there is still much work to do.
But the first step is something you’ve already done – making the effort to understand the nuanced language of emotional labour, so that you can communicate effectively with your other half about it.
Without the language, it can be hard to pinpoint why you feel like the weight of the household is on your shoulders, when perhaps your husband usually loads the dishwasher and helps put the kids to bed.
But once you drill down into the specific areas of emotional labour, things might look quite different. It’s about “being explicit about what each of those tasks entails and including both the physical and cognitive labour in it,” sociologist Allison Daminger told The New York Times. “So, if one partner is in charge of laundry, does that also mean that they’re responsible for monitoring the supply of detergent? Sometimes you have to get really granular and agree on what’s a shared standard of acceptable practice.”
Daminger recommends Eve Rodsky’s book “Fair Play” for explaining how when you’re assigning tasks, you have to not just delegate individual chores, but whole areas of responsibility.
The next step is for mums to just stop doing so much, sociologist Daniel Carlson of the University of Utah told the BBC. Stop anticipating every intricate need of every family member. Let a few balls drop, and see what happens. While there’s bound to be some short-term stress or judgement, it will be a learning curve for next time. “It’s kind of classic operant conditioning,” Carlson told the BBC. “We're not putting men through mazes or shocking them for food pellets… but it's kind of like, ‘Oh, I didn't remember to do this last time and there was a negative consequence’.”
And finally? Give yourself a break – I don’t mean a physical break, I mean a mental and emotional one. A moment of not thinking about all the stuff you still have to do and not berating yourself for it. Say something kind to yourself. In your mind, give yourself a massive pat on the back and some recognition for all of your effort so far today. I’m pretty sure you deserve it.
"Emotional Labour is a term that was coined in the 1980’s and originally referred to jobs where the employee is charged with evoking and suppressing emotions as a core part of their role. A responsibility to manage the emotional environment is not necessarily in the job description but is more often associated with jobs where there is a positive bias towards females such as teaching, nursing, or child-care workers. However, sociologists suggest that even in a boardroom setting, it is not unusual for tasks such as remembering birthdays and ordering the birthday cakes; the management of the emotional milieu, to be led by female board members.
"Over time, the term has been used more and more broadly to refer to the invisible emotional load associated with certain roles, often female. For example, within many families, it is the mother who stays on top of the medical appointments, the shopping lists, planning celebratory meals and making sure there is a change of clothes in the kid’s bags. Sociologists have been researching this for decades, expanding on the original concept and exploring the feminist impact of emotional work and labour. The concept may also have become more prominent as more and more women have entered typically male workspaces, as the extra emotional labour they typically carry is highlighted.
"In the context of the current global pandemic, it is quite likely that many of us, male and female, are feeling the extra weight of this emotional labour. While there is much to be said for the new normal where families are dusting off the board games and cooking family dinners together, the emotional load is considerable. Our children are missing their friends, their hobbies, their teachers and the freedom to roam. Adults are having to balance work with home schooling and keeping everyone engaged and occupied. Some may have responsibilities to employees, and business to keep afloat. I suspect the emotional labour load has gone up exponentially across the globe as we try to evoke and suppress emotions in order to maintain happy, content families, workplaces and communities. I believe social media is complicit in this. Instagram shows you the fabulous roast dinner your neighbour made and the incredible craft creations and flower arrangements that are being displayed aplenty. The pressure is on to show that we can keep everyone not just happy, but blissful!
"The original author of the term emotional labour suggests that some of these day-to-day emotional jobs reflect “mental labour” rather than what she originally described. I think this is a helpful term in creating awareness of how it might feel when it all gets too much. Almost a sense that we are mentally overloaded by everything that we are trying to manage and hold in mind. Feeling overwhelmed, resentful, or undervalued may all be signs that you are experiencing the increasing emotional load of the current situation. Noticing that this is not because you, or indeed anyone else is doing anything wrong, but that there is a balance to redressed. These feelings can lead to irritability and other changes in mood. It is important that we address these as quickly as possible.
"First of all we have to notice that we are overwhelmed and take time to reflect on where that feeling is coming from. Being able to talk this through with someone can definitely help. But ultimately, we have to look at how to reduce the load and the pressure to manage the emotional environment. Ask for help or delegate and give yourself permission to have a slow day if you need one. Let the children plan the day and be guided by them, even if it isn’t what you would have done! Resist the temptation to recreate what you see on social media and instead focus on connection and closeness, in whatever form it takes. Finally, take care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well and try to maintain some movement. Use your own connections to family and friends to lighten your load. But be careful these are not also adding to the emotional labour!"