Have you found yourself in the “default parenting” role without even realizing how you got there? And by default parenting, I mean that you’re the one who does the lion’s share of the day-to-day work to run your household — managing the kids’ schedules and all the accompanying text chains, making sure your pantry is stocked with food and thinking through meals for the week, getting all the laundry done, folded, and put away, knowing where your child’s favorite soccer jersey is or that special blanket that he/she loves so much, packing lunches… as well as being the primary homework helper, emotional support system and keeper of all things in your house.
Sound familiar? This is what researchers of gender equity in the home call the “emotional load,” “mental load” or “second shift,” and in many countries, the majority of women carry this burden on top of their responsibilities at work.
And it’s burning out working mothers at unprecedented rates.
According to Deloitte’s Women at Work 2022: A Global Outlook Report, 53% of women surveyed say their stress levels are higher than they were a year ago and almost half report feeling burned out. The disruption caused by the pandemic as well as shifts in company expectations led to the Great Resignation where more than a million women left the workforce (myself included) because their caretaking responsibilities became too much. And now we are seeing the “great breakup,” with female leaders demanding more from their employers and willing to leave their current jobs to get it.
It is estimated that women spend on average three to six hours per day on cooking, cleaning, and other domestic tasks, compared to men’s average 30 minutes to two hours. And according to a January 2020 report from Oxfam, the unpaid labor of women and girls around the world contributes an estimated $10.8 trillion to the global economy each year. Women’s unpaid labor at home increased by 153% during the pandemic, and it’s estimated they experienced approximately $800 billion in lost income.
These are mind boggling statistics and a huge challenge for the overall care economy, the fastest growing sector of work in the world. So how can we begin to solve these mounting gender equity issues and tip the scale to make invisible labor at home more equal?
Eve Rodsky’s New York Times best selling book Fair Play provides a framework for how to start. A Harvard trained mediation lawyer, the premise of her book is that our home is our most important organization and without systems and processes in place to make it run efficiently, other areas of our life will begin to crack. While I highly recommend reading the book, here are some simple strategies you can implement in your home right away:
1. Take a step back and ask yourself if there are better, more efficient ways to organize your home life
When you are operating on autopilot, hammering out the 22 things on your personal to-do list on top of a full day of meetings, the daily grind can be exhausting. And in many cases you may find yourself deciding that it’s easier to just do it yourself instead of delegating or asking for help.
This mentality leads to overwhelm and could eventually burn you out.
First: Take stock of everything on your plate and make a list of your invisible work — whatever you do to run your household. And do include everything — even small tasks like taking a minute to reply to a school email.
Then assess your strengths and weaknesses as they relate to each task, and consider your partner’s as well. Add these as notes next to each item on the list.
Next: Ask yourself which tasks you wish you had help with. Which tasks bring you resentment? Which ones do you absolutely hate doing? Ask your partner the same questions.
Finally: Ask yourself which tasks you’re willing to let go of completely. Sometimes for high achieving, people pleasing, Type A personalities, giving up control and allowing someone else to take over can be the hardest part.
Let’s say that through this exercise you discover that both you and your partner absolutely hate doing laundry. Then perhaps you could consider outsourcing it. Or maybe your partner would love to start taking your toddler to his/her wellness checks but you’ve just never thought of asking — it’s just a task you’ve taken on by default.
Depending on the ages and responsibility levels of your children, you may be able to start sharing more of the mental load with them as well. For example, think of that long school supply list you have to purchase every August. Perhaps you can let them select their own items on Amazon and add them to the shopping cart. Or maybe they can simply add those snacks they want you to buy to the master shopping list or Instacart basket.
Remember you are a team, and it takes a village to run a family!
2. No is beautiful
For people-pleasing personalities, saying no can be difficult. But learning to decline and set better boundaries are important skills to learn, especially when overwhelm and burnout start to set in.
Pause before you say yes to anything extra. Assess if you have room on your plate to host the Thanksgiving dinner, volunteer at your child’s school, or cook a meal for a friend. While we all want to be kind and do charitable work, “I’ll get back to you,” is a perfectly acceptable answer which can give you more time and space to decide whether you have the capacity to take it on.
At work, take control of your calendar to block out some time for yourself, whether it’s a workout or just an hour to focus on a task without distractions. Assess if every meeting request you receive is a valuable use of your time. Can the issue be solved another way? And make sure to work within established systems and processes. Is what you are being asked to do part of your core job responsibilities? Are there other ways you can delegate or are your perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of your successfully doing that?
Remember that saying no can feel empowering and provide autonomy if your mental load is starting to overwhelm you.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
While talking with your partner about complex gender equity issues may feel heavy and not particularly fun, it’s really important to try to communicate how the mental load makes you feel.
Chronic stress and burnout can lead to all sorts of emotional and physical symptoms, and there are lots of willing partners who want to help but may not even realize everything you’ve taken on.
From conception to birth and in the early days of caring for an infant, a woman’s body dictates the process, with our partners learning to assist. As an infant grows and reaches the toddler phase, it can be very easy to continue those early patterns where the birthing parent is in charge and the non-birthing partner waits for direction. Shifting that conditioning as your children get older takes open communication, patience, and a lot of practice!
Try discussing these topics when you’re out to dinner, over a glass of wine, or after the kids go to sleep when emotions are low and cognition is high. Or if you have a regular weekly check-in to discuss logistics for the week, use this time to discuss what’s working for each of you, what isn’t, and perhaps suggest swapping a few chores.
Sharing the mental load with others will bring you more energy, joy and patience — allowing you to thrive instead of survive.
Sarah Sperry is a certified Executive Health and Wellbeing Coach and a Fair Play Facilitator. She has over 20 years of experience working in the financial services industry where she was actively involved in DEI, leadership, advocating for better parental leave policies, and overall culture change. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media @sperrywellness.