More than 20 years ago, it was no surprise that women did the vast majority of child-rearing, as well as all other work around the house. I found that to be true in my dissertation research back in 1999 on gender roles of parents in households, regardless of whether mothers worked outside the home.
Two decades later, this ratio has not changed significantly. Moms still raise the kids. Moms still do the lion’s share of the cooking, cleaning, laundry and so on. As a result, I’m finding in the past few years that moms who are married to men are increasingly burned-out, spending their time and energy caring for their children, husbands and homes, when not otherwise occupied.
The distribution of labor with dads remains minimal. And unfortunately, the truth is we really haven’t done much to change the age-old attitude that housework is women’s work.
Once coronavirus lockdowns and stay-at-home measures began across the United States in March 2020, the tasks taken over by most moms at home increased exponentially. Daily household work that may have been manageable in the past grew as most American families spent their entire days and nights at home. And the nature of that worked changed immensely during the pandemic as well.
Far more groceries needed to be purchased and — until we knew more about how coronavirus spread — disinfected before storage. More food needed to be cooked, and dishes washed. Rooms needed to be cleaned more frequently. Homework assistance required expertise not only in math and history, but in technology to navigate various educational tools and video conference calls. And Mom needed to manage all the practical changes in her own life as well.
After more than a year on the pandemic treadmill, moms are exhausted. And that’s before even considering all the work they do that you can’t see.
The hidden addition of emotional labor
We know the practical elements of keeping a household running smoothly is mighty work in any home. But there is another element of work that is equally taxing, if not more so.
Emotional labor, in the context we will use it here, represents the work of managing all of the feelings-based elements of family life. That’s hearing a child out when she is disappointed to miss a game, season, play, dance or graduation, and holding that upset so that she can move forward. It’s reaching out to extended family or friends who may be lonely, or providing space for grief, fear or sadness for the family in the midst of a Covid-19 diagnosis or loss.
It can also mean providing a caring shoulder for a spouse to lean on when he is anxious about losing a job, acting short-tempered with the kids, or angry with you.
It is this ability and willingness to gauge the emotional temperature of the home — who is struggling, who may be nearing a boiling point, who needs some time alone, who might need therapy — that has kept our households reasonably sane for the length of the pandemic.
Emotional labor is mighty work. It’s esoteric, ongoing and endlessly taxing. And the emotional labor in most every household tends to fall squarely on moms. This emotional load adds enormously to the burden of an already worn-out population, especially now.
The changing roles of dads
In fairness, dads in heterosexual relationships are far more involved in the lives of their kids than they once were. They protect more time to play with their younger kids. They attend more games and recitals and parent-teacher conferences. They are more active parents, certainly, than their fathers were a generation ago.
But I find far too few husbands and fathers inside and outside of my practice really understand the amount of labor performed by moms and wives day-to-day. And they have little understanding of the emotional labor performed by their partners, too often dismissing it as unimportant, unnecessary worry.
Many straight, married dads I work with too often feel that setting up a home office and making an income suffices in terms of their contribution to the work of parenting and managing a home, even if mom is making an income as well. This too often leaves moms alone managing both types of labor, sometimes exclusively.
What can dads do to help
Dads can do so much more to ease the burden of moms in heterosexual relationships around household tasks, and they need to go beyond doing what their wives ask them to do. This keeps women in the role of house manager, as opposed to a shared sense of responsibility. It’s far better and more useful to delineate together the tasks that need to be performed in a given day, week or month. Find a balance that works for both of you, not just for the remainder of the pandemic, but from here forward. This is crucial.
More importantly, it’s time that men gain a higher degree of emotional intelligence, so that they can absorb some of the emotional work of the household. To teach themselves to do so, men can start by learning to better identify their own emotions at any given point in time. We also need to learn to recognize the feelings of those around us better, and respond in ways that are not solely pragmatic, but gentler and kinder. That involves listening better to those in our households.
We also need to be cognizant of the emotional burden we may be placing on our spouses and children. A lot of the wives I work with feel the need to navigate around their husbands, who may be cranky, distracted or otherwise emotionally unavailable.
We men need to recognize when our own fears, needs, judgment and ego play an oversized role in driving the emotions of the home. We need to consider our spouses’ needs, and check in regularly to make sure their needs are being met. For many men, this is a significant adjustment, but one well worth making. Marital satisfaction will increase for both of you, and your home will feel less stressful.
What moms can do to ease the burnout
Too often, wives and moms are forgoing self-care in the name of taking care of their family members. The problem many women I’m working with are finding is that the work, actual and emotional, never ends.
To you moms, be clear with your family about what you need, and protect time for yourself and your needs daily, whatever that looks like. Leave your husband with the kids and take time for yourself. Schedule that time to care for your mind, body and spirit. You may need to make your needs clear to your family, and be overt that you will be protecting time for yourself.
If your household works like most I’ve worked with, your family may need a bit of practice to get used to the fact that Mom may not be available at a moment’s notice. But stick with it. They’ll adjust over time.
Mothers remain the heart of most families, and the trend would suggest that this is not changing any time soon, even if men and fathers improve incrementally in the labor department. It’s so very important that you moms take care of yourselves, as your family is, no doubt, going to continue to need you for years to come.