Unpacking Gender Norms Part 1: Understanding the Connection to the Invisible Load: How Gender Shapes the Imbalance of Household Labour - Happy as a Mother

Unpacking Gender Norms Part 1: Understanding the Connection to the Invisible Load: How Gender Shapes the Imbalance of Household Labour

with Gender Expert Kate Mangino, Ph.D.


  • What Gender Norms Are
  • How We Receive Messages About Being a Good Mom
  • How Gender Impacts Care Work in the Home
  • The Financial Impact of the Distribution of Labour
  • Different Ways Moms Experience the Imbalance in the Home
  • How Gender Norms Affect Dads

The vast majority of my clients who are in different-sex relationships share a common concern. “My husband doesn’t help around the house.” The invisible load in the home is real—and gender is the number one predictor of who carries it.  

Kate Mangino, gender expert and author of Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home, joins me to discuss the role gender plays in the distribution of invisible labour. In part 1, we focus on where gender norms in our relationship come from and how they impact all partners. 

(For the second part of our conversation, how to break out of gender norms and improve equality, catch Episode 128!)

Expectations, Gender Norms, and the Invisible Load

When I became a mom, I was fiercely determined to be great at it. I believed that my experience as a therapist had set me up for success. I was going to step into my role with everything I needed to excel. 

It didn’t exactly work out like that. In many ways, it was harder than I could have ever imagined. I was likely struggling with postpartum depression (although I didn’t get diagnosed until my third maternity leave). I found the role overwhelming. I felt like I was floundering instead of thriving. 

But one of the parts I didn’t expect to be so hard was watching my husband’s experience. In my eyes, it seemed as though his identity hadn’t changed. He was still leaving 12 hours a day for work, still growing and succeeding in his career, and he was able to be a person outside of fatherhood. 

In reality, he was going through his own transition. But mine was different. I was trying to keep it all together, adopting most of the cognitive labour in the home, and trying to protect his time in the process. Motherhood consumed me day and night, but I didn’t feel like I could let go of any of it. 

My husband wanted to take on his fair share. But we were both clinging to expectations we didn’t even realize we had around our roles. 

Fast forward to today—as I sit in meetings for most of the day, he’s the primary contact for doctors and schools. He picks up the kids and drops them off. He handles most of our dinners. 

Our distribution of labour is strikingly different than it used to be—different than it is for most homes with two different-sex partners. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of unlearning and deliberate work between the two of us to move things in a different direction. Both of us had to dig deep and address the gender norms we had carried into parenthood. 

My experience was eye-opening for me. It’s drawn me to the topic of the invisible load of motherhood. So when I started reading Kate’s work on gender and the invisible load, I was hooked right away. I couldn’t wait to discuss the way gender norms impact the imbalance of labour in the home. 

What Gender Norms Are

Kate said that gender norms are essentially the opposite of laws and regulations. Laws are written rules that dictate how we behave—for example, we have a law that affects what side of the street we drive on. 

But norms are the unwritten, unspoken expectations that dictate how we behave. Gender norms are the expectations that come along with being a man or a woman. Gender norms put us into boxes—but not everybody fits into those boxes. 

Those who don’t identify as male or female might struggle to determine where they fit in with gender norms that are male-coded and female-coded. But even those who do identify as male or female are pinned down by gender norms. 

Gender norms are so strongly and deeply embedded into each culture that they feel very real. We often mix them up with biological truths. It can become hard to see that they are socialized. It is also exceptionally hard to break out of those norms once they become ingrained. 

How We Receive Messages About Being a Good Mom

We receive messages about how to be “good moms” long before we become moms. These messages come from everywhere—our families, schools, faith communities, social media. We take in thousands of messages a day from the time we are children, centered around unspoken beliefs about what it means to be a mom, or what it means to be a woman. 

Many of us heard instructions when we were younger about how our perceived gender was supposed to behave. We saw who was respected and revered in our communities. We watched who performed what tasks, in and out of the home. 

The norms we take in become reinforced, repeated to us over time. We learn norms through feedback we receive from other people (like being corrected for “not being ladylike”) and feedback we see other people receive. 

Over time, those norms shape our beliefs and the way we enter into motherhood.

How Gender Impacts Care Work in the Home

Those norms directly play into the way we distribute labour in the home. In the United States, women do twice the household work that men do in different-sex partnerships. (The gap is slightly lower in Canada, and slightly higher in the UK.) 

That difference compounds over time. If a man does 10 hours of household work a week, and a woman does 20, the man has options on how to spend that extra 10 hours of time. He can spend it sleeping, engaging in hobbies, and taking on extra shifts at work. But the woman doesn’t have those options—she is carrying out labour for those extra hours. 

When you add the time up for the month, the year, and beyond, the difference is considerable. 

Gender norms are largely responsible for this difference. Even women who are in more equal partnerships before they have children find themselves carrying the load afterward. Gender norms become stronger with babies in the home. 

Kate points out that part of the issue is that during maternity leave moms shoulder extra labour in the home. But if they return to work, rather than actively working to redistribute that labour, they carry on those same roles and responsibilities. 

This leads to unsustainable expectations. As Kate said, it is physically and emotionally impossible to do all the things for your baby and work 40 hours a week. 

The Financial Impact of the Distribution of Labour

The difference in labour also has a major financial impact for women. In college-graduated, different-sex couples at the age of 25, women make 90% of what men make—putting the wage gap at 10%. But by the age of 45, that wage gap widens to 45%

What happens between the ages of 25 and 45 to account for the difference? Families start to expand. Women are more likely to step away from their careers than men, but even if they continue to work they are still carrying twice as much labour.

Kate pointed out that women in that situation are exhausted, bogged down in mental work, and trying to balance their extra responsibilities—of course, they’re going to be less likely to seek promotions and take on additional roles at work. 

So women often leave income on the table—and not just in the short-term. They continue to juggle the load, seek flexibility, and stretch themselves thin. In the process they lose even more earning potential, leaving concrete and lasting financial implications on them for the rest of their careers.

They also battle unrealistic expectations and immense pressure while trying to juggle work and home responsibilities. 

This is one of the things that I had to battle with myself as my husband and I worked to redistribute labour in a new way in our home. I have had to instruct assistants at the pediatrician and the school that they are not to contact me during the day unless it’s an emergency—my husband is the primary contact. It’s so outside of the norm that I sometimes have to repeat the request. 

It can be hard to break out of the expectations we have, and that society has for moms. Every once in a while, a situation creeps up that causes a little voice in my head to tell me I’m not being a good mom if I’m not the one to do those things. 

But Kate shared a helpful tidbit for trying to gauge expectations to see if they are based on gender norms. Ask yourself if someone would say the same thing to your male partner. 

For example, would someone tell a male that he was a bad dad if he wasn’t the primary contact? No. If an expectation doesn’t make sense when you flip it that way, it’s probably gendered. 

Different Ways Moms Experience the Imbalance in the Home

In our conversation, Kate also pointed out that it’s important to remember that not everybody is unhappy with the imbalance in the home. There are some moms who are happy in that situation, and it works for those families . She doesn’t advocate for any one specific way to approach the imbalance. 

She identified four different categories of how moms react to the imbalance of labour:

  • Those who embrace it
  • Those who accept it
  • Those who are coping
  • And those who are resentful

Those who embrace it: In most cases, these aren’t moms with little children in the house. Their kids are older, and the labour doesn’t bog them down in the same way. They might be open to helping others find equality in their partnerships, but it isn’t a priority for them. 

Those who accept it: If they could snap their fingers and have their husbands do more, they would, but they can handle it. 

Those who are coping: These are the moms that are holding it together but barely. Kate said that the biggest difference between acceptance and coping comes from your network, support system, or ability to outsource work (such as hiring a nanny or a housekeeper). Those who fall in the acceptance camp don’t feel the load quite as much because they have extra hands. 

Those who are resentful: They are starting to think it might be easier to leave. They feel angry, dismissed, and unheard, and their relationship is suffering because of it. These are the moms that I often see as a mom therapist. They are unable to cope with the load and don’t know how to keep going. 

(If you are struggling, our Wellness Center can connect you with a mom therapist who can help. Book a free virtual consult to assess your needs.)

Kate also highlighted a concept called “leaning down.” Sometimes, when we are privileged to hire or outsource work, we end up leaning down on other women—especially women of colour. The invisible labour we outsource becomes easier to cover up—we can appear as though we are managing everything with ease. But that labour still exists, and it has to be a part of the conversation—we can’t just sweep it under the rug. 

How Gender Norms Affect Dads

It’s important to remember that moms aren’t the only ones struggling under the gender norms and expectations. Dads suffer from it as well. 

There are negative effects on men for not participating in an equal partnership—including financial pressures to prioritize work can come with a lack of bonding with the family, which has been linked to mental health struggles for men.

That’s why Kate thinks we need to reframe the conversation—we aren’t just asking men to do more  and help take the burden off of us. We’re also asking them to do more for themselves and for their relationship with the rest of the family. 

I think back to my husband’s long commute and 12-hour days. If we hadn’t reprioritized and shifted the way we handle work and labour in our home, he would be missing out on so much. Now, he gets to have a more playful, nurturing relationship with our boys—something he might not have had the opportunity for if he was gone all day at work. 

We all suffer when dads don’t help around the house, when we live under harsh gender norms and unequal partnerships—and we all deserve more.

For more about gender norms, be sure to read the second part of the blog post where we break down how to redistribute the balance and reclaim more equality in your home.

If the invisible load, the imbalance in the home, and the sheer weight of motherhood are impacting your relationship, our Resentment Workshop can help. Register now to learn how to break out of the cycle of resentment and begin to repair your relationship!

Kate Mangino is a gender expert who works to change harmful social norms through writing, training and facilitation. She brings 20+ years of experience working in the international development sector, writing and delivering curricula in over 20 countries in a range of issues: gender equality, women’s empowerment, healthy masculinity, women’s economic participation, HIV prevention, and early and forced childhood marriage. Her debut book, Equal Partners, investigates gender imbalances in our personal life – and most importantly, what we can do about it.






leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


want to be a
happy as a mother VIP?

back to top

BASED IN ontario, 
serving ON, BC, AB, SK, MB