Women’s Invisible Household & Family Labor Physically & Mentally Overwhelming #womenslabor #householdlabor

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By Rebecca Ruiz – 2019-01-22
Invisible labor is a benign way of describing the never-ending, sometimes soul-crushing to-do list that women manage in order to keep their children thriving and households running smoothly. 
You might recognize the broader concept of unappreciated yet essential household work from a 2017 digital comic strip on “mental load.” Countless women saw their own exhaustion and simmering resentment in the comic’s feminist rendering of why women end up taking on tiny tasks like unloading the dishwasher to huge decisions like choosing a nanny. Of course, it went viral.
A new study, published Tuesday in the journal Sex Roles, offers original data to illustrate the widespread phenomenon of invisible labor — and its depressing impact on women’s emotional and psychological well-being. 
“Do [mothers] disproportionately feel like they’re running their ship on their own?” said Suniya S. Luthar, co-author of the study and foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University. “Just putting a number to that alone is a service to womankind.” 
Based on Luthar’s survey of 393 American married or partnered mothers, many of whom were upper middle-class, the answer to her question is a resounding yes. 
Nearly 90 percent of the participants said they bore sole responsibility for organizing their family’s schedules. Seventy percent said they were “captain” of their ship and routinely completed and assigned household tasks. That includes the everyday drudgery of getting grab bags for parties, finding someone’s socks, or coordinating rides to and from practices. Or as Luthar puts it: “All that nonsense that keeps churning around in our heads all the time.” 
While being solely in charge of household routines and tasks was associated with “a certain level of misery,” those responsibilities didn’t seem to influence psychological well-being. Yet Luther says the lack of variability in women’s responses to these questions made it difficult to evaluate those results next to a comparison group and find statistically significant links between high responsibility for routines and greater increased distress for moms.
What Luthar and her co-author did find, however, is that when women say they’re solely charged with handling their child’s well-being, including being attentive to their emotions and relationships, it can lead to lower satisfaction with their partner and their life, as well as feelings of emptiness. 
Two-thirds of respondents said they were responsible for being “vigilant” of their child’s emotions, and 78 percent said they were the parent who knows their child’s teachers and school administrators. 
“To feel like you’re the only person making those decisions, and you have a partner, has got to be terrifying.”
“You always want to have a sounding board,” said Luthar, referring to wanting to share the many observations, fears, or aspirations a mother has for her child. “To feel like you’re the only person making those decisions, and you have a partner, has got to be terrifying.” 
The researchers controlled for several factors that could influence the participants’ emotional and mental health. That included whether the women felt unconditionally loved and accepted as well as how they viewed intimacy with their partners. Even when taking such variables into account, Luthar found that being solely responsible for a child’s emotional development was negatively related to women’s well-being and satisfaction with their relationship. 
Women eager to use Luthar’s data to persuade their partners to do more should know that the study’s findings aren’t causal. In others words, while there’s a strong association between these experiences and maternal distress, Luthar can’t yet prove one leads to the other. The study’s sample also includes mostly heterosexual couples and few low-income women, so she cautions against generalizing its insights to every mom. 
Luthar’s solution to the stark gender disparity she’s captured in the study might also surprise some women who feel seen by her research. Though she urges women to have ongoing conversations with their partners about more equitably sharing the load of invisible labor, she believes it’s vitally important for them to meaningfully connect with other supportive, empathetic moms. 
She calls this “mothering mothers,” or relationships in which women are “giving to each other the very best of what you think of as good mothering that you offer to your children — it’s solicitous, tender, kind, thoughtful, vigilant, honest, with appropriate and firm boundaries.” 
Based on her work and research running groups that facilitate authentic connections for mothers, Luthar believes such solidarity and support helps build critical resilience, which buoys mothers no matter how much invisible labor their partner does. 
She also doesn’t want moms to mistake that recommendation as a directive to take better care of themselves. 
“I don’t want them putting another item on their already long to-do list,” Luthat says. “I want them to prioritize being taken care of. Visualize a gentle hand on your forehand. You need it every bit as much as your child does.” 

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