The mental load invisible labor puts on mothers

The Invisible Labor of Love

Understanding the Mental Load Invisible Labor Puts on Moms.

My so-called friends really should have warned me! There is a silent, dark side to motherhood that no one talks about. Beyond the joys of watching your child grow, there lies an invisible force that often goes unnoticed and unacknowledged – the mental load of invisible labor that mothers carry.

When I first decided to become a mother, I was a starry-eyed pregnant woman, dreaming of the perfect nursery and snuggles with my little bundle of joy. Fast forward a few years into motherhood, and I found myself drowning in a sea of responsibilities I didn’t even know existed.

A mothers load

No one warned me about the sheer amount of invisible work that goes into being a mom. Who knew that keeping track of doctor’s appointments, making sure everyone has clean socks, and managing the household budget all fell under the realm of motherhood? And the mental load of this invisible household labor! Even more than this being physically draining, motherhood is the most mentally exhausting job I’ve even had.

Invisible labor defined The mental load invisible labor puts on mothers

Invisible labor is a term coined by sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels in 1986. It’s used to describe the seemingly menial yet essential tasks that take up most of a mother’s day. Tasks that quickly fill up our minds and our schedules.

Tasks like remembering birthdays and buying and wrapping the gifts. Scheduling doctor appointments. Reminding your partner to do laundry or empty the dishwasher. Managing kids schedules. Acting as a human GPS for where everyone needs to be at what time. Caregiving for elderly parents (even your in-laws). Grocery shopping, and cooking dinner.

Really, any household management task that helps a home run smoothly falls under the category of invisible labor. And it’s enough to make even the most organized mama’s head spin.

The history of household responsibilities

Since the dawn of time, in all cultures, women have taken on the tasks of household manager and primary caregiver. Men were designated hunters and gatherers. They were responsible for providing food, shelter, and clothing. Women, on the other hand, had the daunting task of keeping the household in tip-top shape. They weren’t just housewives, they were farmers, child-rearers and took care of the elders.

It seems that women have always been the ones “in charge” of the caregiving department. Whether it’s because we were born with an extra dose of nurturing genes or because we were taught that it’s our duty as women to take care of others, the fact remains that women have traditionally been the glue that holds families together.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Fast forward to today, and not much has changed. Sure, women now have the opportunity to work outside the home, but guess what? They’re still expected to handle the lion’s share of household responsibilities. It’s no wonder women have been known to have eyes on the back of their heads and the ability to read minds (or at least our kids’ minds).

In fact, according to the United Nations, women around the world take charge of three out of four hours of invisible labor in a household. There’s a part of me that finds that stat empowering. But mostly, it just exhausting.

The mental load

Because as a mom, I know the truth. With these household chores comes an incredible amount of mental labor. Sure I have amentally exhausted mom fabulous husband who will lend a hand whenever I ask. Laundry, groceries, cooking dinner, cleaning toilets, you name it. But I have to ask. Always. It’s never just something that’s on his radar that I know will automatically get done without asking, reminders or nagging.

And even if we did have a chore chart that clearly defined our roles and responsibilities and timelines, we know there’s way more to it. There’s still the mental labor of opening the fridge door and seeing that we’re running low on ketchup, eggs and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

As mom’s we know that without ketchup, we’re never getting Bobby to eat his fish (don’t judge, I know ketchup and fish is gross… but a mom’s gotta do). Without eggs, we won’t be able to make a cake for our mother-in-law’s 75th birthday party this weekend. And if there’s no Frank’s Red Hot, well life as we know it in our house will grind to a halt. We put that $#!t on everything!

Going to the grocery store and buying items on a shopping list is easy! Anticipating what needs to be on the list – now that’s the tricky bit.

Invisible household tasks

mom jobs are like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole

It’s these kinds of invisible tasks that take the most mental work. I often wonder if my husband understand how much planning goes into making our day to day life run so seamlessly? Sure, I make it look easy. Organization and time management are in fact just a couple of my super powers. But some days, my ongoing role as our households’ project manager is causing me mental health issues.

It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. And this work (that I’m not being paid for) is directly competing with my actual job. Although I don’t make as much money as my husband, I love my job and want to be great at it. But to be great, requires time and attention. Two things I don’t always have.

The mental load is real

Let’s be real. Most of us have experienced the mental load of trying to find time to get it all done. It’s like having a never-ending game of whac-a-mole playing in your head where you’re constantly trying to remember everything that needs to be done.

You know those days when your brain is about to explode from the constant mental to-do list running through it. And if you’re anything like me, that checklist never seems to get any shorter.

Well, my friend, welcome to the world of cognitive labor, otherwise known as the mental load. It’s like being the CEO of a household without the fancy title or pay check.  A study published in the American Sociological Review describes the mental load as “an obligation for anticipating needs, identifying options for filling them, making decisions, and monitoring progress.” I don’t think this does it justice.

The mental load is a relentless burden that many moms are carrying, without even realizing how heavy it weighs. It’s the responsibility of understanding the bigger picture and juggling many every day tasks without fail.

Unequal divisions exacerbated

2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year of many letdowns, but nothing hit women harder than the pandemic. Millions of women decided to leave their jobs in droves to care for their children as schools and daycares closed. Suddenly in addition to work performance, every mom had more responsibilities. A full-time teacher, chef, referee, and therapist.

And not surprisingly, a report by McKinsey and Co. found that women were disproportionately affected. Women who had children were almost 40% more likely to leave their jobs than men in the same situation.

It’s a stark reminder of the challenges and mental load that many mothers face when it comes to balancing work and family. And it sheds light on the disproportionate burden that caregiving and household chores often place on women.

Household maintenance redistributed

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be this way.

Moms. We have power. A lot of power. And we can use the power for good – our own good.  We can use it to change the way our families function. To redistribute the responsibilities and reduce the burdens that are weighing us down.

You could try to get your point across by simply no longer performing household tasks. My one girlfriend just stopped doing her teenagers’ laundry one day. When they finally ran out of clean clothes and came to her with astonished eyes, she introduced them to the washer, dryer and Tide and hasn’t looked back since.

But this doesn’t always work out so well. I believe the solution to invisible labor lies in communication and sharing the ownership of responsibilities. It may not sound like the most exciting solution ever, but trust me, it’s a game-changer.

Here are some tips on how to make the invisible visible and ensure everyone shares the load.

Eliminate the ‘should’ve asked’

If you never want to hear the words ‘you should’ve asked’ ever again, it’s time to take control and get get your family working like a fine oiled machine.

The key to divvying up tasks is to find tasks that each person can own from start to finish. From conception to planning to execution. They are in charge of every single aspect of that task. This is the only way to reduce the mental burden of invisible tasks.

Whether it’s planning date night, organizing the laundry, grocery shopping or taking care of the kids, each partner can take the reins in certain areas and have complete control.

By deciding ahead of time who owns each aspect of a task, everyone clearly knows their role and where they need to be focused. But the key to success is communication. If someone drops the ball or needs help, don’t quietly stew about it or put the job back on your list. It’s important to speak up right away. Like everything new, it’s going to take a little time and patience.

Age appropriate chores

toddler putting toys away

Get your kids involved early. There are tons of things that your kids can do to help reduce your work load and the mental burden you’re feeling. Kids as young as two can help with the household chores like picking up their toys and putting laundry in the hamper. In fact, most toddlers love helping with chores. It may create some extra work for you in the short term, but the long term gains are priceless.

Quickly, young children graduate from setting the table and making their beds to feeding the dog, vacuuming and emptying the dishwasher. Even folding laundry and packing their own healthy lunches.

As tweens and teens they can help with physical labor like cutting the grass or snow blowing the driveway. Almost and all the chores you want to eliminate from your list can be delegated to your kids. It’s as easy as that.

Make a schedule

The solution is simple – create a schedule! Divide the workload evenly among everyone involved so that nobody is left feeling overwhelmed or overworked. Set rules of when you expect everyone’s chores be completed by. And make sure everyone knows what the penalties are for not following the schedule.

I know a mom that pays her kids for folding laundry. She also charges them back the same amount if she has to fold the laundry at the end of the week.

My son missed the debut of Marvel’s Endgame because he refused to get his homework done in time. To add insult to injury, I also made him pay me back for the pre-paid tickets from his birthday money. He was really upset with me, but those were the rules I’d laid out in advance.

Tada! Invisible tasks are now visible

You might have thought you were imagining things. Or that your state or perpetual exhaustion was just another sign of aging.

Not so.

And now that we’ve shed light on the fact that invisible labor is a thing and it’s a big burden on so many moms, it’s time to stop the insanity and take back our mental health.

Our families shouldn’t be living in some kind of parallel universe where dishes magically get washed and laundry folds itself. Where the fridge is always stocked and dinner is on the table. Ain’t no woman got time for that.

It may not be always easy to give up ownership and delegate tasks, but this is exactly what needs to be done to reduce the mental load of woman’s work. And by rotating responsibilities, everyone gets a chance to contribute and help out.

So say goodbye to the burden of invisible labor and hello to a happier, more balanced home. More importantly, a happier, more balanced mom.

share the household chores