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Invisible labour can negatively impact wellbeing in mothers

Knowing who needs to be where, on what day, and at what time. Buying a bigger pair of pants before a child outgrows what is currently hanging in the closet. Always having a jar of unopened peanut butter on hand.

These caregiving tasks require mental and emotional effort and are examples of the invisible labour women contribute caring for their families. A team of researchers examined how invisible labour impacted the wellbeing of a sample of American women.

What the researchers say

"Until recently, no one stopped to think about mom herself," said the senior author on the study. "We need to attend to the wellbeing of moms if we want children to do well, and also for their own sake."

Though men participate in housework and childcare more today than in the past, women still manage the household, even when they are employed. Because this unequal burden can affect the mental health of women, the researchers decided to study how the management of a household was divided among partners and how the division of labour affected women's wellbeing.

"Even though women may be physically doing fewer loads of laundry, they continue to hold the responsibility for making sure the detergent does not run out, all the dirty clothes make it into the wash and that there are always clean towels available," said the lead researcher. "Women are beginning to recognise they still hold the mental burden of the household even if others share in the physical work, and that this mental burden can take a toll."

The researchers surveyed 393 American women with children under age 18 who were married or in a committed partnership. The sample included women mostly from middle upper-class homes who were highly educated, with over 70 per cent having at least a college education.

The team measured the division of household labour by asking questions about who was in charge of three sets of tasks: organising the family's schedules, the children's wellbeing, and making major financial decisions. The researchers looked at how these tasks affected the women's satisfaction with partners and their satisfaction with life overall. The team also looked how invisible labour was linked to feelings of being overwhelmed and feelings of emptiness in the women's everyday lives.

In the category of family routines, almost nine in 10 women answered they felt solely responsible for organising schedules of the family, which the researchers said is an extremely large percentage given 65 per cent of the women were employed. At least seven in 10 women answered they were also responsible for other areas of family procedures, like maintaining standards for routines and assigning household chores.

The women who indicated they managed the household reported they felt overwhelmed with their role as parents and had little time for themselves.

"Sole responsibility for household management showed links with moms' distress levels," the researchers said. "There's no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health."

A large percentage of the women also felt that it was mostly they who were responsible for their children's wellbeing and emotional states. Almost eight in 10 answered they were the one who knew the children's school teachers, and two-thirds indicated it was they who were attentive to the children's emotional needs. Yet, instilling values in children was a shared responsibility. Only a quarter of women said they were solely responsible, and 72 per cent said that this was generally shared equally with partners.

The invisible labour of ensuring the wellbeing of children did, in fact, show strong, unique links with women's distress. This category clearly predicted feelings of emptiness in the women. It was also associated with low satisfaction levels about life overall and with their marriage or partnership.

"Research in developmental science indicates that mothers are first responders to kids' distress," said the lead author. "That is a weighty job; it can be terrifying that you're making decisions that might actually worsen rather than improve your children's happiness."

Financial decisions were also listed as shared responsibilities, with just over 50 per cent of the women answering they made decisions about investments, vacations, major home improvements and car purchases together with their partner. Because other studies have found participating in financial decisions to be empowering, the researchers predicted it would be positively associated with women's wellbeing. But financial decision-making was unexpectedly associated with low partner satisfaction, which the research team attributed to the addition of this job on top of the already high demands of managing the household and ensuring the children's wellbeing.

Experts on resilience in children agree that the most important protection for kids against stress is the wellbeing of the primary caregiver in the family, which is most commonly the mother. Mothers must also feel nurtured and cared for if they are to have good mental health and positive parenting behaviours. When women feel overly responsible for the invisible labour of running a household and raising children, it can negatively impact their overall wellbeing.

"When mothers feel supported, they can have the emotional resources to cope well with the demands they face," the researchers found.

"Resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships," said the lead author. "As this is true for children, it is true for mothers who tend them."

So, what?

No matter whether the roles a person has is in the home or the workplace, the important point is that the role is recognised as being important. A lot of research has shown that the denigration of a person's roles leads to depression and other psychiatric disorders. This is true whether the roles are traditionally seen as "feminine" or "masculine". As we wrote in our book "Raising an Optimistic Child", to be functional, roles must meet the following criteria:

•    Clearly defined with specific tasks and as little overlap as possible
•    Agreed by all involved — most importantly by the person who takes on the role
•    Reflective of the natural skill or competency of the person
•    Acknowledged by everyone as being important
•    Sensitive to gender issues

A marvelous study done about 10 years ago showed that a person taking on roles that he or she didn't want or that they didn't feel competent to fulfil faced the same stress level as a fighter pilot going into action.

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