Dividing Labour Fairly in the Home: Redistributing the Mental Load of Motherhood - Happy as a Mother

Dividing Labour Fairly in the Home: Redistributing the Mental Load of Motherhood


with Dr. Darcy Lockman, Author and Psychologist



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • Why Household Labour Falls to Moms
  • Biology vs Learned Gendered Behaviour
  • How Gendered Labour Impacts Dads and Moms
  • The Role of Intensive Mothering in the Mental Load of Motherhood
  • How to Talk with Your Partner about Fairness and Helping with Housework

Do you feel like you’re drowning in the mental load of motherhood? Many moms struggle with this. They find themselves falling into gender roles in the home without realizing it, and they don’t know how to break out of the pattern.

Today, I’m joined by Dr. Darcy Lockman, psychologist and author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, to discuss why the gender imbalance in household labour happens and how to shift the dynamics in the home.

Gender Roles Trap Us All

When I was on maternity leave, I struggled more than I could have ever imagined. I was so lucky to have that paid time at home with my kids—it’s something that moms in the United States don’t often experience. 

But at the same time, I was unhappy with the roles that were being laid down in my home. I was caring for the home and the kids, while my husband was leaving the house at 6:30 a.m. and working 12 hour days. The mental load of motherhood was crushing me. 

I wasn’t the only one unhappy with these roles, however. My husband was battling his own frustrations. He wanted to spend more time at home bonding with the boys. 

We both were suffering from the gender roles that were being formed. But neither of us knew how to break out of them. 

It took years of tough conversations, a hard look at ourselves and our dynamics, and deliberate thought and planning to shift to a place of fairness in the distribution of care work. 

Of course, we were far from alone. The vast majority of different-sex couples end up carving out gendered roles in the home. And breaking out of them takes a lot of work. 

This is something Dr. Darcy talks about in her book. I was excited to pick her brain about why we adopt this gendered imbalance in the home and what we can do about it. 

Why Household Labour Falls to Moms

When Dr. Darcy became a mom, she found herself in a similar situation—struggling with the mental load of motherhood and taking on more than her fair share of the care work, despite being in a progressive, modern relationship. She tried to bring it up to her partner, but never really got through to him. So, she got curious about why this was happening, and began to research the subject. 

What she discovered is that the gender imbalance in the home ties back to a patriarchal social system. Society gives roles to gender—but these roles aren’t natural, and they can change over time. The qualities we associate with “masculine” and “feminine” aren’t based on biology. 

But those gender norms pave the way for an unequal distribution of labour, often leading to struggles for moms as they cope with the load. 

Biology vs Learned Gendered Behaviour

Often when people talk about the gender imbalance in the home, they tend to use biology as a justification. Women are “better multi-taskers.” Women are more nurturing. But the truth is that there is nothing biological about these roles. 

In fact, men are just as primed for parenthood and nurturing as women. When a man is in close contact with a pregnant woman, his testosterone levels start to drop, setting him up to be more nurturing and caring. 

So, why do we think of these roles as biological? Part of it is that we have been given stereotypical messages for our entire lives. But part of it is a coping mechanism. 

Dr. Darcy pointed out that if you attribute the gender imbalance to biology, it makes it much easier to not be angry about it. We often think of our roles as “natural” as a way to cope with the inequality. 

The problem with that line of thinking, however, is that not only is it not accurate, but it is also fatalistic. If our roles are biological, it’s harder to break out of them. 

Dr. Darcy also said that when we subconsciously take on gendered roles in the home, we create a cycle. Parenting behaviours are learned, not innate. (In fact, in many animal species, firstborns often don’t survive—parents are learning and adapting to their roles). 

When humans begin adapting to parenting, they also have to learn their roles. But if we believe that mothers are naturally better at nurturing, and we as moms take on the majority of the care work in the home, we gain the most experience. We end up becoming better at the roles because we took them on. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is one of the ways moms unconsciously build the cage of the mental load of motherhood. We start out taking on more labour in the postpartum period and end up creating patterns and cycles that are very difficult to break out of. 

It’s far easier to change the patterns before they become engrained. Research has shown that in countries where dads take more paternity leave, they end up taking on more of the care work, even after they return to work and their kids get older. 

Dr. Darcy pointed out that this is why paternity leave is so important. The time dads spend alone with their babies seems to help override our gender beliefs. In those countries, dads are gaining that hands-on experience that they often don’t get if they can’t take paternity leave. 

How Gendered Labour Impacts Dads and Moms

Part of the reason we fall into the belief that moms are natural caregivers is gender essentialism—the belief that genders are essentially different, with women being kind and thoughtful and men being ambitious go-getters. 

We have made progress with these beliefs, but Dr. Darcy pointed out that the progress is one-sided. Now, the traits we historically attributed to men we also attribute to women, but not the other way around. 

For example, we now tend to believe that women can be ambitious hard-workers. But we haven’t expanded our societal beliefs to see men as nurturers. 

This makes it very hard to shift the gender imbalance, both from a societal and individual standpoint. We can only go so far in our equal partnership without seeing fathers as capable of nurturing and caring. 

Dr. Darcy pointed out that this stereotyping of traits by gender begins at a very early age. Young boys begin getting teased around the age of 7 for being sensitive and caring. They learn early on that they will be ostracized if they “act like girls.” 

Girls have a bigger window of time to develop their own traits. They aren’t as likely to be teased or demeaned for being “tomboys.” 

Dr. Darcy said that when boys learn these gender norms, they stop developing those nurturing traits—they grow ashamed of them and lose touch with them. She believes that we are doing a major disservice to boys by keeping them from developing more sensitive traits. 

This later reinforces the gender roles in the home, and both moms and dads end up suffering. While moms often struggle with more of the load, dads miss out on bonding and nurturing opportunities that they often want to take on. The confined parameters of masculinity and femininity hold us all back—and, as Dr. Darcy pointed out, they are made up, not biological. 

The Role of Intensive Mothering in the Mental Load of Motherhood

Another factor that plays into the gender imbalance in the home is intensive mothering—the belief that it is a mother’s job every waking moment to tend to her children, and that nobody but a mother can do that kind of care. 

Intensive mothering is a social construct that we have adopted over time. But now, most of us fall into it without even realizing it. 

Dr. Darcy pointed out that intensive mothering started to flourish right when women entered the workforce in larger numbers. It became a common struggle for working moms—with the expectation that they work as if they don’t have children and mother as if they don’t have to work. 

Intensive mothering often leads to increased pressures for moms. For example, Dr. Darcy and her husband both worked outside the home, but she felt like she could never miss a preschool performance or a parent-teacher conference. 

She associated those things with being a “good mom” and felt as if she would be judged if she wasn’t there. But her husband didn’t have that same shame and guilt if he missed an event. 

The expectations for moms and dads are simply not the same. Moms are expected to martyr themselves at all times, no matter the cost. In Dr. Darcy’s book, she refers to this as “24 hour lifelong shifts of unconditional love.” 

There is a relationship between these unrealistic, unfair expectations and Mom Rage. Sometimes, Mom Rage is a symptom of postpartum mental health issues. Other times, however, it’s a symptom of being unsupported by society

She pointed out that there is a correlation between the two—feeling abandoned and unsupported can potentially be a contributing factor to perinatal mental health struggles. In fact, when men take paternity leave, the rate of postpartum depression and anxiety decreases

How to Talk with Your Partner about Fairness and Helping with Housework

We all suffer when gender norms dictate the roles in the home. But it’s difficult to move the needle. 

Dr. Darcy pointed out that if we want to work toward equality, we need to do so both on an individual and a societal level. 

On a societal level, working toward policies like paid paternity leave is important. We also need to confront expectations and consider how society is playing into gender norms. 

In our individual partnerships, awareness is the first step. Sometimes our anger gets misdirected at our partners. But they are being driven by social conditioning and gender norms too. 

Dr. Darcy pointed out that it’s not our fault or our partner’s fault. None of us decided we wanted to live in a sexist society. But if we want to change it, we have to agree that this is happening and work together to confront it. This takes open, honest, and ongoing conversations. We have to take a look at our choices together. 

Remember that you and your partner need to be a team to shift the gender imbalance. When we’re in touch with our feelings, even our anger, we can use them productively as fuel to change. 

Sometimes we have to think about how to have conversations so our partners can hear them. Instead of coming from a place of blame, approach the conversation from a place of teamwork. This might take scheduling conversations and working hard to stay calm and explain our feelings. 

Dr. Darcy also pointed out that clarity helps when redistributing labour. Sometimes getting very specific with systems and spreadsheets can help us move through the gender norms and work toward fairness. 

Finally, remember that you can make changes. We aren’t biologically programmed to carry the load. We can break away from those roles and find ways to share the load more fairly. 

An imbalance in the home can lead to resentment, anger, and frustration. Our Unpacking Resentment workshop can help! Register now to learn how to share the load fairly, communicate your needs, and let go of resentment.

Darcy Lockman is the author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership (Harper Collins). She is a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City. Her first book Brooklyn Zoo: the Education of a Psychotherapist was published by Doubleday in 2012. She’s also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone, among others.


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