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Emotional responsibility of being a mother damaging women's mental health, study finds

'They still hold the mental burden of the household even if others share in the physical work and this mental burden can take a toll,' says report's author

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Tuesday 22 January 2019 15:01 GMT
Researchers looked at how so-called 'invisible labour' was linked to feelings of being overwhelmed and a sense of emptiness in the women's day-to-day lives
Researchers looked at how so-called 'invisible labour' was linked to feelings of being overwhelmed and a sense of emptiness in the women's day-to-day lives (Getty Images)

The burden of round-the-clock responsibilities of being a mother and the emotional responsibilities of raising children is damaging women’s mental health, a new study has found.

The research, which was published in the journal Sex Roles, found that while more men do housework and childcare than used to in the past, women are continuing to manage the household – even when they are employed.

Researchers from Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University looked at how so-called “invisible labour” was linked to feelings of being overwhelmed and a sense of emptiness in women's day-to-day lives.

Almost nine in 10 women said they felt solely responsible for organising schedules of the family.

Professor Suniya Luthar, one of the report’s authors, said this is an "extremely large" percentage given the fact 65 per cent of the women were employed.

At least seven in 10 women said they were also responsible for other areas of family routines such as maintaining standards for routines and assigning household chores.

A large proportion of the women also felt it was chiefly them who was responsible for monitoring their children's well-being and emotional states.

Almost eight in 10 said they were the one who knew the children's school teachers, and two-thirds indicated they were the person who was attentive to the children's emotional needs.

The invisible labour of ensuring the well-being of children showed "strong, unique links" with women's distress.

Professor Luthar said the category "clearly predicted" feelings of emptiness in the women. It was also associated with low satisfaction levels about life overall and with the marriage or partnership.

She said: "Research in developmental science indicates that mothers are first responders to children's distress.

"That is a very weighty job; it can be terrifying that you are making decisions, flying solo, that might actually worsen rather than improve things for your children's happiness."

The researchers surveyed 393 women with children under age 18 who were married or in a committed partnership. The sample included women predominantly from middle upper class homes who were highly educated – more than 70 per cent at least had a university education.

The study’s findings suggest women who feel overly responsible for household management and parenting are less satisfied with both their lives and partnerships.

Researchers say tasks – such as knowing who needs to be where, on what day and at what time, and buying bigger clothes before a child outgrows their current garbs – necessitate mental and emotional effort.

They argued these tasks are instances of the “invisible labour” women contribute while they are caring for their families.

Dr Lucia Ciciolla, assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University who is one of the report’s authors, said: "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.

"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 women who were in charge of the household reported they felt overwhelmed with their role as parents, had little time for themselves and felt exhausted.

Prof Luthar said: “There's no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health."

Just over half of the women said they made decisions about investments, holidays, major home improvements and buying a car together with their partner.

Researchers predicted this would have a positive link with women's well-being as previous studies have found that participating in financial decisions is empowering. However, it was linked with low partner satisfaction – with researchers attributing this to the fact the task was an addition to the already high demands of managing the household and keeping tabs on the childrens' well-being.

Experts agree the well-being and happiness of the family’s primary caregiver – who is most frequently the mother – is the most imperative protection for children experiencing stress.

Professor Luthar said: "We need to attend to the well-being of moms if we want children to do well, and also for their own sakes."

Additional reporting by agencies

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