One of the biggest surprises for me about the work I do is that what resonates most with working mothers has nothing to do with what happens in the workplace. And everything to do with what happens at home. It is about the work, the unpaid work that happens at home and the lion’s share of this work is completed by mothers. This work can be hard to articulate because it is never finished, it is invisible, and it is unseen. And it is further complicated because sometimes this work gets tangled up in our own beliefs on what a mother is.
But the one thing that is clear about unpaid work is that women are doing more of it. Study after study confirm this. Melinda Gates says that globally, women are doing seven years more unpaid work than men over their lifetime. And Covid-19 hasn’t made this any better, in fact it has got worse. I saw this firsthand when I Zoomed into my client’s homes during various lockdowns. Without exception, mothers were always set up in the kitchen, supervising children at various stages of home schooling, complaining, or crafting. Fathers seemed to secure themselves a quiet corner of the house in a closet, hallway, or spare bedroom where they could dedicate focus to their paid work.
Unpaid work can have a physical component that includes shopping, cooking, driving, cleaning, enrolling, repairing, scheduling, holiday planning, and outsourcing. This type of work is mostly the hard grind of the everyday. It includes tasks like remembering that PE gear that needs to be washed and clean for the morning, planning what is for dinner that night, making lunches, registering for netball trials by a due date, booking the dog in for a groom and following up on missed tutoring appointments. And that is all before 9am in the morning! It’s not the fun part of parenting, but it keeps a family running.
Unpaid work can also have an emotional component that includes teaching, discipline, coaching, encouraging, problem solving, character building and role modelling. It’s about providing support; whether it is finding a lost protractor 30 minutes before an exam, offering a genuinely attentive ear about a friendship issue, or convincing a 4-year-old that they do want to go to day-care that morning. It is like riding an emotional rollercoaster and again that is all before 9am.
But in my opinion, it is the mental load that can weigh the heaviest. It’s like having an essay due, you can never truly relax, there is always something silently hovering over you. Always more to do. The mental load means always having to remember. It is like having a continuous ticker tape in your brain that is always ticking and always adding things. The mental load shows up as a conversation in your mind a little like this…
What are we going to do with the broccoli that is going yellow in the fridge? Oh no, the kids are scratching their heads again, I need to comb through their hair tonight. Did I pick up the dry-cleaning from last week? I’ll drop in and check next week when I take in the books that the kids don’t read to the Hospice shop. Hang on, have we returned the National Geographics to the Library that we had out for homework last week? Or did we chuck them in the recycling? Need to check that before the bins go out on Monday night. Have we sorted out whose doing Christmas this year? I need to ask Mum about that and figure out if she still wants me to list their juicer on TradeMe. Did I put the time for the dentist in my work calendar? And what about the two text reminders from the orthodontist for one of the kids? Have I got a gold coin for mufti day tomorrow? Who even has cash at home anymore? I still don’t know where Henry’s other Hockey shoe is, I bet the dog has taken it to their secret hiding place in the garden. I’ll look when it stops raining. Really? The dog looks like he is limping. Just what I need, a trip to the vet!
In my workshops, I hear from working mothers that a lot of families do split the physical load evenly, but it is the mental load that still seems to only remain in the mother’s head. The bad news is that there is no tidy solution, no worksheet you can complete or online course you can download to solve this inequitable distribution of unpaid work. I don’t have the solution, but I think it starts early. It starts with conversations you have with your partner even before have children. This may be too late for some of you, but you can start talking now with your partner about how you can both contribute equally to the unpaid work at home. You can make the invisible visible by writing down the mental load you carry and sharing it with your partner. Some couples have weekly check-ins to review what needs to be done and share out the tasks. Do what works for your family.
Don’t do it just for you, do it for your children. They are watching everything that happens in your home and how unpaid work is completed in our home, will be a major influence on what happens in their family homes in the future. We will never have equality with men in the workplace if we do not have it at home. Regardless of how much they earn, how much more “important” their jobs are, men need to be equal partners with women for lunches, laundry, and loo-rolls.