By Nicola Appleton
Nope, you’re not imagining it. There’s a gender gap existing right in the heart of your home – and it’s called the mental load. It’s a term that’s gained a lot of traction in recent years and describes all the behind-the-scenes tasks – big or small – that you do to keep your household running smoothly. From arranging dental appointments, navigating school admissions paperwork, shopping around for cheaper car insurance or just chucking out the yoghurt from the back of the fridge that’s growing its own ecology system, it’s tasks like these that make you the project manager of your own home, despite sharing it with another functioning adult.
And that’s before you factor in all the extra chores mamas do. Here in Australia we do 72% of all of the unpaid labour at home – think childcare, cooking and cleaning. Is it any wonder, then, that recent research shows that women suffer from higher levels of work-family tension than men? What’s more, further research shows that women who do more housework than their male spouses are less happy in their relationship and occasionally consider breaking up (which should come as no surprise to any female anywhere).
“I am the main breadwinner yet I also expect myself to do the household chores, clean the clothes, keep everything organised for the kids’ school and nursery and manage the money,” says Rebecca Lockwood, a 29-year-old mother-of-two.
This is a common occurrence, says Dr Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and author of the book The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to do More Parenting and Housework. He notes that despite being more dual income households than ever before, that hasn’t translated down to the division of labour at home. The underlying reason being that women are held to a higher standard than men.
“There’s a gender policing that persists to this day,” says Dr Coleman, who points out that a woman is more likely to be scrutinised for a messy home or unruly children than her male counterpart, regardless of whether or not they both work full time. It’s for this reason that women are much more likely to do what sociologists refer to as the ‘shadow work’ of family life, such as booking doctors appointments, organising birthday parties or paying bills on time.
While most couples tend to begin their relationship with a clear and fair division of household responsibilities, women deftly fall into the trap of carrying the mental load shortly after having children.
“Most couples get married with the egalitarian model in mind, but once they become parents, they’re much more vulnerable to the more traditional models of what each person should be doing,” says Dr Coleman.
“Women, for example, are much more likely to engage in gatekeeping behaviour,” he continues, referring to a set of behaviours that some women employ after having baby. Typically, this is when mothers control the father’s involvement with the children and/or housework. Unsurprisingly, men tend to contribute much less when maternal gatekeeping is at play. “When women are more collaborative and more willing to share the standards around housework, the men tend to do more,” says Dr Coleman. But is it that simple?
While mum-of-two Pippa Best admits to feeling lucky that her husband is so hands-on with the household chores, she feels he’s unable to help with the invisible responsibility of running a home and looking after children because he just doesn’t see it.
“I work from home, so I’m often trying to juggle work and family,” Pippa, 47, says. “On top of script editing and running my own business, I’m constantly thinking about whether enough uniforms are clean, what everyone’s going to eat that night, and trying to stay on top of the general house chaos.”
The key to helping men see and appreciate the invisible labour we do is to talk them through it before resentment builds, advises Dr Coleman. “A sentence like, ‘I’m aware that I’m doing X, Y and Z. Which of these do you feel like you’re willing to take responsibility for?’ Don’t micromanage him but instead check in at the end of the week,” he continues. But don’t expect a quick fix. “It’s not like you can have one conversation and then you’re done. These are things that need to be revisited.”
For Rebecca, things turned around when she began offloading some of her to-do list to her husband. “The biggest realisation that I had was that it was only me who expected this of myself, and just because I did it my husband didn’t even notice,” she says, admitting that she had to force herself not to take back responsibility of certain tasks. “I can be quite controlling over how things are done but it has become a lot easier.”
“If you are always the expert,” concludes Dr Coleman, “Your husband will always be the amateur”.