Unpacking Gender Norms Part 2: How to Share the Mental Load: Breaking Away From Norms and Redistributing Labour - Happy as a Mother

Unpacking Gender Norms Part 2: How to Share the Mental Load: Breaking Away From Norms and Redistributing Labour


with Gender Expert Kate Mangino, Ph.D.



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • Why We Reinforce Gender Norms At Home (Without Even Realizing It)
  • Ways We Justify the Imbalance of the Invisible Load
  • Why We Shouldn’t Justify the Unfair Division of Labour
  • Equality vs Fairness
  • How to Share the Mental Load at Home

Modern moms carry an unfair share of the invisible load—the mental and emotional labour of taking care of the house and raising the kids. The problem is widespread—and breaking out of the pattern can be tough. But with the right approach, we can learn how to share the mental load at home in a fair and intentional way. 

I sat down with Kate Mangino, gender expert and author of Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home for a two-part discussion on the way gender norms shape the distribution of labour in the home. In part 1, we discussed the impact of that imbalance. Today, we dive into ways we unintentionally reinforce gender norms and how to break away from them.

Shifting the Mental Load

The distribution of labour in my home is unrecognizable compared to what it was a few years ago. Back then, things looked a bit more stereotypical. 

I was home on maternity leave (three in a row, in fact), determined to become the “perfect mom.” My husband was commuting to downtown Toronto and working 12-hour days. 

I found myself taking on more and more of the labour in the home, working to protect his time, while I struggled to keep it all together. 

We never intended to fall into those patterns. In fact, we had actively tried to avoid them. My experience as a therapist and my beliefs about equality had taught me the importance of sharing the load. We tried to divide tasks in a fair way. 

But to my surprise, it didn’t turn out that way. I was still carrying far too much of the load. It took me a long time to realize that we were subconsciously continuing patterns that had been prescribed to us—roles based on gender norms that had been modelled for us. 

We had been reinforcing gender norms without even realizing it—something that Kate has come to realize that the vast majority of different-sex couples do. 

Once I understood that, we were able to come together and work on really sharing the load—not just the physical tasks, but the mental and emotional labour as well. 

Now, our home looks very different. My husband retired from corporate and works within my business. He manages more of the mental and physical labour in the home while I run the business. 

But breaking out of those roles wasn’t easy. We had to actively combat our own beliefs and the norms we’d been given, and learn how to share the mental load at home. 

This is something that Kate advocates for in Equal Partners. But it isn’t an easy journey. She and I sat down to talk about how we reinforce norms and how to break away from them in order to share the labour. 

Why We Reinforce Gender Norms At Home (Without Even Realizing It)

Kate identified a phenomenon that happens when we as modern, “liberated” women find ourselves carrying out stereotypical gender norms in the home. 

Most of us don’t want to do that. We don’t believe it’s fair or reasonable—it doesn’t align with our values or what we want for ourselves or our children. But when our values and our behaviour clash, cognitive dissonance happens. We can’t continue our behaviour and feel aligned with our values. We have to change one.

Changing our values is unlikely to happen—they are highly important to us. But changing behaviour is difficult. Researcher Allison Daminger says that most couples take a third approach—they start to reframe what’s happening in their minds to disguise the gendered behaviour. 

In order to convince ourselves that we are living in alignment with our values, we subconsciously justify the imbalance of labour in the home. 

Ways We Justify the Imbalance of the Invisible Load

There are several ways we reinforce gender norms and the unfair distribution of the invisible load. Kate breaks it down into several justifications we use to rationalize it:

  • The Economics Justification
  • The Personality Justification
  • The Priorities Justification
  • The “Bossy Wife” Justification
  • The Supervisor vs Employer Justification

The Economics Justification

One of the ways we reinforce gendered behaviour is by focusing on economics. If one partner earns more money than the other, we tell ourselves that the partner who earns less or works fewer hours has more time for household work. 

It almost sounds reasonable. But in reality, it’s a gendered excuse—studies have shown that when women earn more, men don’t carry more labour. Instead, the labour just gets outsourced to other women (a concept Kate calls “leaning down.”)

I have heard clients say that they have to be the one up with the baby all night or the one to carry more responsibility in the home because their partner has to be at work all day. But this overlooks the fact that care work is work—in fact, it’s some of the most important and strenuous work there is. 

Kate pointed out that this is a discussion we should be having before we get married or move in with a partner: Do you believe that if one partner earns more money, they should do less work in the home? 

The Personality Justification

Another way we justify the imbalance of labour is by claiming that we are “natural multi-taskers.” Men and women alike often believe the myth that women are primed to carry out the household tasks. 

Kate pointed out that if being a “multi-tasker” was a personality trait, we would see it spread across genders. But as it stands, women are the ones being assigned with this label. 

The truth is that multi-tasking isn’t a personality trait—moms have just developed skills to manage the load they’ve been tasked with. They have to cope with the household labour, so they have learned to multi-task. 

The Priorities Justification

We also justify the imbalance through a difference in priorities. We have been raised to prioritize different things, and gender norms play into that. 

For example, moms often bear the brunt of judgment on how the children appear or the home appears, so they are more likely to prioritize those things than their partners. 

Kate shared the example that for “dress like a book character day,” she might spend two weeks hand-creating a costume, while her husband is more likely to say, “This doesn’t really matter, let’s just throw something together the day before.” 

But this becomes an issue when it’s used to justify the imbalance of labour. If a dad goes to bed at 9:00 p.m. and a mom stays up until midnight cleaning, he might say, “oh it’s her choice to stay up late and do that. She could have just gone to bed.” 

But for moms, this often doesn’t feel like a choice. They know that if they don’t do it, nobody else will—it will still be there for them in the morning. 

The “Bossy Wife” Justification

The other common way we reinforce gender is the idea of the “bossy wife.” We have come to believe in the persona of a “bossy wife” who calls the shots, while her husband just goes along for the ride and tries to keep everyone happy. 

This often becomes a humorous shield for gender norms—we cover up the imbalance with a joke. (Kate shared that she once had a neighbour who wore a shirt that said “Mom. Wife. Boss.”)  

Some moms cling to this idea—the belief that they are in charge. It feels like a form of power, like we’re running the home. Letting go of the load can feel painful, as if we’re giving up some of that power. 

But if we are still performing the majority of the labour, we’re not necessarily in charge. We’re still being driven by gender norms. 

The Supervisor vs Employer Justification

One of the most common frustrations I hear clients express is that they don’t want to have to tell their partners what to do—they want them to step up and do it. 

When we put the burden of managing, directing, supervising, and instructing on moms, we fall into the Supervisor vs Employer justification. Dads might say, “I’m happy to help, just tell me what to do.” But that management of tasks is labour—labour that primarily falls to moms. 

Managers and supervisors do more work than employees who can just clock in and clock out, leaving their work behind when they go home. They are left with the cognitive tasks—worrying about inventory, thinking about scheduling, fixing problems that have come up. When dads put moms in charge, they’re saddling them with big picture labour. 

This can also lead to moms becoming maternal gatekeepers, overfunctioning and not allowing their partners to do their fair share, which in turn leads to dads underfunctioning, unmotivated to step in. 

Why We Shouldn’t Justify the Unfair Division of Labour

Kate was quick to point out that if you find yourself in a home with unequal labour, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, most different-sex families fall into that pattern. It might even work for some families. 

But when we make excuses, prioritize and protect men’s time, and justify the imbalance based on gender, all partners are negatively impacted. 

If we work to have these conversations, stop rationalizing gender norms, and establish a different way to approach labour, we can become more transparent—not just for our own relationships, but for our children and future generations. 

Equality vs Fairness

Kate and I also talked about the very concept of “equality.” It doesn’t mean a 50/50 split of household labour. 

If that’s what we aim for, we’re setting ourselves up for conflict and disappointment. Not only is it unrealistic and unattainable, but it can lead to scorekeeping. 

It’s not about keeping a checklist or divvying out physical tasks—it’s about analyzing the underlying beliefs and unlearning the norms we’ve fallen into automatically. When we have awareness, we can take ourselves off of auto-pilot and seek more fairness in the way the labour is shared.

When we invite our partners to become “equal,” what we’re really asking is to come together as an equal team—where everybody is valued. It’s a fluid conversation, an ability to communicate, and an ebb and flow as we work together. 

As we do that, we can stop blaming each other or approaching the situation from anger. Our partners haven’t purposefully saddled us with the invisible load, any more than we have consciously taken it on. The systemic gender norms we’re carrying are responsible, and they negatively affect us all. 

How To Share the Mental Load at Home

Once we are aware of the problem, and of the ways we rationalize it, we can begin the work of shifting the load. We won’t be able to fix the patriarchal system as parents of young children, of course, but we can reach more satisfaction, more fairness, and more collaboration. 

Kate said that the first step is to practice gender awareness whenever we have the bandwidth to do it. It’s important to find gender allies—in family, friends, or our support system. We can’t always change gender norms alone—we need to call in others as well. 

We can share articles, have open discussions, and work to notice gender and use language that will empower us all. 

If you’re not sure where to start, I can’t recommend Kate’s book, Equal Partners, enough. It’s written for both moms and dads, and is a great place to learn practical steps to shifting the load and working together. 

Do you feel like the imbalance in your home is impacting your relationship? Our Unpacking Resentment Workshop can help you uncover your unmet needs and learn how to communicate them positively. Register now

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.

  


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