Much has been written about the unequal division of household labor and childcare, but the overwhelming majority of studies in this field examine specific behaviors; for example, how much time parents spend working at a job and how much time is spent on household or childrearing activities.
Researchers now say that mothers spend more time on “mental labor” – and associated increased stress and negative emotions – than do fathers. The researchers presented their findings at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.
“I assume that because mothers bear the major responsibility for childcare and family life, when they think about family matters, they tend to think about the less pleasant aspects of it – such as needing to pick up a child from daycare or having to schedule a doctor‘s appointment for a sick kid – and are more likely to be worried,” said study author Shira Offer, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Offer said that previous studies focused on the physical aspect of tasks and demands, which can be measured and quantified relatively easily. However, she added, “much of the work we do, both paid and unpaid, takes place in our mind. We are often preoccupied with the things we have to do, we often worry about them, and feel stressed not to forget to do them or to do them on time. These thoughts and concerns – mental labor – can impair our performance, make it difficult to focus on tasks and even hurt our sleep.”
The study relies on data from the 500 Family Study, a multi-method investigation of how middle-class families living in eight urban and suburban communities across the United States balance family and work experiences. Most parents in the 500 Family Study are highly educated, employed in professional occupations and work, on average, longer hours and report higher earnings than do middle-class families in other, nationally representative samples.
Overall, Offer found that working mothers engaged in mental labor in about one-fourth, and working fathers in one -ifth, of their waking time. This amounts to approximately 29 and 24 hours per week of mental labor for mothers and fathers, respectively. However, mothers and fathers both spent about 30 percent of the time they were engaged in mental labor thinking about family matters.
“I expected the gender gap in mental labor, especially those aspects of it that are related to family, to be much larger,” Offer said. “What my research actually shows is that gender differences in mental labor are more a matter of quality than quantity.”
As for why engaging in family-specific mental labor negatively affected the well-being of mothers, but not fathers, Offer said she thinks societal expectations push mothers to assume the role of household managers and lead them to disproportionately address the less pleasant aspects of family care. Offer also found that while fathers spent a greater percentage of the time they engaged in mental labor thinking about work-related matters than mothers, thoughts and concerns about work were less likely to spillover into non-work domains among fathers.
In terms of policy implications, Offer said her study suggests that fathers need to take a greater role in family care to make mental labor less stressful for working mothers and ease the double burden that they experience.
“It is true that fathers today are more involved in childrearing and do more housework than in previous generations, but the major responsibility for the domestic realm continues to disproportionately fall on mothers‘ shoulders,” she said. “This has to change.”