It’s no secret that compared to men, women do more housework: about three hours more every day, according to global survey. Among mixed-sex couples, women will shoulder the burden of housework, including cases where both partners have full-time jobs and even if the woman works longer hours. And in households that strike a good balance, men are more likely to do more pleasant dutiessuch as gardening or entertaining children.
But what’s less documented is how this imbalance creeps into our inner world—the invisible strain that sociologists call mental strain, or the cognitive and emotional strain that comes with being a family administrator. (In other words, the person who takes responsibility for spotting problems, delegating tasks, and managing emotions.) According to Lea Rupaner, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne, it differs from cognitive labor in that it carries emotional weight. It’s more than planning and making plans, it’s the background anxiety of being expected to micro-manage everything and keep people happy.
Once you know about mental strain, it’s easy to spot. There is, for example, when a father drops off his children at a birthday party but still expects his partner to buy and wrap presents, then reminds him when to pick them up. Or when men take responsibility for laundry but forget to buy detergent or have clean towels ready when guests come to stay.
A gender issue
Mental workload is an internal process, making it invisible and essentially limitless, says Ruppanner. “You don’t bring your plates to work. But you take a mental toll everywhere you go,” she adds. This can affect productivity and prevent women from putting in the physical or mental work needed for promotions and pay increases. Endless cognitive effort can even lead to insomnia or mental health problems.
The reason it usually falls to women to do these things isn’t because women are naturally better at planning, delegating, or multitasking; studies prove that men are just as capable. Women are simply expected to do them more and are judged more harshly when things go wrong.
In a 2019 study, participants were given a picture of a messy house: dishes strewn across the dining table, blankets strewn across the floor, chairs strewn about. When participants were told that the house belonged to Jennifer, they judged the house to be dirtier and its occupant to be of lower moral character than when they believed that someone named John lived there. For some of us, a dirty house suggests depravity when owned by a woman, but can be dismissed as a harmless mess when attributed to a man.
In her book The motherhood complex, journalist Melissa Hogenboom describes how, as a result of more time away from work after the birth of their first child, she naturally did the mental work involved in childcare. When she returned to work, she bore the brunt as there was no “handing off” of these invisible tasks. He couldn’t just leave his role as project manager for the afternoon.
To make the invisible visible, sociologists have proposed talking openly about domestic labor so that all work, physical and mental, can be distributed more equitably. Instead of assigning separate duties, for example, both partners could take responsibility for entire areas of responsibility, managing family life together. Another option is for women to simply do less, Ruppanner says. This may be painful at first, but in the long run it can help some men appreciate the behind-the-scenes preparation that previously went unnoticed.
Workplace changes, including telecommuting or flexible working, can ease childcare concerns during working hours, improving employee well-being and increasing productivity, Rupaner says. Policy changes on childcare allowances and paternity leave could also help: men who take more paternity leave take on more responsibilities after both parents return to work, according to a 2008 study analyzing parental leave in Sweden.
At the societal level, we must begin quantification of mental workload the same way we measure unpaid physical labor, Rupaner says. She suggests expanding national statistics surveys to ask respondents about time spent organizing family life. Reliable data on how long people engage in emotional strain, the impact it has on physical and mental health, and how the burden is distributed among non-heterosexual couples will help policymakers make informed decisions and lay the foundations for future change.