Why women bear so much of the domestic burden

And what couples can do to achieve a more even household split.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Hi everyone, and welcome to my every-other-Friday Dear Melinda column! I’m trying something new today: All of my subscribers (free and paid) will get my essay as well as three of my related tips/strategies. The remaining three strategies will go out only to paid subscribers. So if you want to read this entire post, purchase a paid subscription now! It’s only $5/month or $50/year.

Today I want to talk about that unfortunately ever-relevant topic: The daunting gender divide in household labor, and what we can do to make parenting more egalitarian. This is a more pressing issue than ever, because in the U.S., the pandemic has widened a number of existing gender disparities. Even though, in some cases, both partners in two-parent households were home during much of the pandemic, women disproportionately bore the brunt of childcare and housework duties in those situations.

Yes, dads who worked from home typically became more engaged in raising their kids, but moms’ burdens increased as well — so ultimately, the existing gender gap didn’t shrink. Children spent more than twice as much time with remotely-working moms than dads, and one in three working mothers said they were their children’s main caregiver, compared with only one in 10 working fathers. Working mothers suffered far more job losses, too. Studies report that four to five times as many women of young children had to reduce their work hours compared with fathers. Who’s surprised, then, by the body of research showing that men are happier as parents than women are? Certainly not me.

A quick aside: I know that some couples do split things equally, and also that in some households, the father takes on the brunt of domestic labor. I also don’t mean to gloss over same-gender couples, some of whom divide household labor equally and some of whom do not. But because these domestic workload disparities primarily affect opposite-gender couples and typically disadvantage women, I’ll be focusing on these families and situations in this newsletter.

As I discovered researching this issue, the question of “who does what” — and the unequal distribution of household labor more generally — fuels the brunt of marital conflict. When Carolyn Cowan, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley, noticed that her own marriage was on the rocks after having kids, she and her partner Phil, also a psychologist, decided study the factors that incite marital conflict after couples have children. They quickly discovered that the division of labor issue fueled the vast majority of fights. “We didn't expect that to be the challenge for couples,” she told me. “We had no idea that that would come up as such a central piece of what [parents] were saying seemed to be leading to distress or unhappiness.” But it was.

One of the most difficult aspects of this gender disparity is that it is often invisible. Whereas the physical aspects of household labor may, in some cases, be distributed fairly equally — moms may cook while dads do the dishes — women often bear the brunt of what Harvard sociologist Allison Daminger refers to as “cognitive labor.” Cognitive labor can include so many things: Deciding what meals to cook; ensuring a consistent supply of groceries, children’s clothing, and household items; maintaining a family calendar; contacting teachers to ask questions or check in; hiring and communicating with babysitters; deciding when the sheets need to be changed; remembering to check that the children didn’t wet their beds; deciding when laundry should be done; coordinating playdates; remembering to schedule doctor and dentist appointments; buying gifts for birthday parties; planning weekend activities. There are, of course, hundreds more.

In her research, Daminger breaks cognitive labor down into four parts: (1) Anticipating needs, (2) Identifying options for meeting those needs, (3) Deciding among the options, and (4) Monitoring the results. As she has found in her research, women tend to disproportionately handle the first and last parts — the anticipating and the monitoring. This can play out in so many ways, but here’s an example: As autumn extracurricular activities began winding down, I realized that it was time to think about what, if any, extracurriculars my daughter should do this winter. (That’s the anticipation phase.) I next looked into the various options available (the identifying options phase) before conferring with my partner on what we should do (deciding phase). Once she starts taking the ceramics class we signed her up for, one or both of us will need to follow and reflect back on her experience to decide whether it’s something she should continue (monitoring phase).

Because so much cognitive labor is hidden, it’s difficult for mothers to pinpoint, and then make the case, that they are doing far too much of it. It’s “one of the most difficult inequalities in the division of childcare,” explained Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a psychologist at Ohio State who runs its Children and Parents Lab — “this invisible labor of not just actually doing things, but making sure things get done, like scheduling appointments and remembering things.” And that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s not so much the doing things (although yes, also very much that). It’s all the thinking and planning and anticipating we do to make sure shit gets done.

Why is it that women are saddled with so much more cognitive labor? Of course, there’s the obvious answer — men aren’t stepping up to the degree that they should. That’s undoubtedly a driving factor. But there are other, more insidious reasons, too. Schoppe-Sullivan’s research suggests that some women either actively discourage their partners from getting involved or don’t give them the chance to take on more domestic tasks, in part because they believe their partners won’t do a good job. She calls this maternal gate-closing, and she pointed out to me that even women who don’t want to be saddled with so much cognitive labor nevertheless sometimes fail to to cede control to their partners in order to reduce their burden.

Marsha Kline Pruett, a professor of social work at Smith College who often works with couples on these issues, told me that she remembers doing this when she was a new mother. “I'd say, ‘Oh, I'm so glad you're taking the kids for a walk. Here's their bottle, here's the food they like, don't forget to put the hat on when it's sunny,” she said. By the time she finished giving him all of her instructions, he wouldn’t want to go on the walk anymore, because he’d be afraid he would fail to conform to her standards and she’d get mad at him.

I don’t love the concept of maternal gate-closing, because it feels like yet another reason for moms to feel guilty. But after talking with Daminger, I realized that gate-closing happens in part because women are so harshly judged. It’s not that mothers are intrinsically more perfectionistic than fathers are; we know that men can handle complex and intricate tasks in their jobs just fine. Instead, we need to consider the role that sexist expectations and judgments play in making women more fastidious. Mothers have to be exacting when it comes to parenting and household tasks in large part because, compared with men, women are held to higher standards, and they are judged more harshly when they don’t meet them.

We know this from research — like from this depressing but unsurprising study that found that a room will be judged as messier if it’s thought to be a woman’s room than a man’s room. As Daminger explained to me, “women often do have higher standards for how clean something should be, or whether it's important to send a thank you note” — and that’s because “women are going to be held accountable in a way that men are not . . . We're working from different starting points when we approach questions about how important it is and how urgent it is.” Whenever my partner and I have friends over for dinner, I’m the seemingly crazy one tidying the rooms and scrubbing the floors, while my partner wonders if I’ve lost my mind. But that’s largely because I know that I’m more likely to be judged by visitors if the house they enter is a dirty one.

The bottom line is that women are judged no matter what they do, Daminger said. They’re “between a rock and a hard place, where you can choose to be labeled a bad mom for not caring, or you can choose to be labeled uptight and stressed,” she said. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

This is all terribly depressing, I know. But there are things we can do to make our domestic lives more egalitarian — assuming our partners are also on board. I asked Daminger, Cowan, Pruett and Schoppe-Sullivan for their ideas on what we can do to equalize the household load. Here are six expert-backed tips — the first three are available to both free and paid subscribers, while the last three are only available to paid subscribers.

  1. Bring the issue out into the open.

This may sound obvious, I know — but the gender disparity isn’t going to improve unless you are willing to talk about it with your partner. “You need to have a conversation about what is currently happening, and whether and how it differs from what you would like to be happening,” Daminger said. Ideally you want to bring the issue up before you’re extremely resentful, while you’re feeling calm rather than worked up and angry. You might start by saying, There’s something I’ve been thinking about and I’d love to talk about it with you and hear your thoughts.

Your partner may well think he’s doing more than his fair share of household labor (research suggests people overestimate their own contributions and underestimate those of their partners). If that’s the case, do your best to not lose your temper, Cowan suggested. “Take a deep breath and listen respectfully,” she said. Then talk about the things you feel aren’t fair, and what you think could be done to make a productive shift.

  1. Make real-time cognitive labor logs with your partner over the course of a day or two, then compare and discuss your findings.

If your partner is resistant to the idea that you’re taking on too much household labor, or if you want to investigate just how large the imbalance is, it may be helpful to make a log to illustrate the differences. Daminger even has a free template you can download to make this easier. (The template also includes tips for making your logs more consistent and comparable.)

Essentially, you and your partner should track, in real-time, all of the thoughts you have, decisions you make and actions you take over the course of a day for the sake of your household and family. This should include things you remember, notice, research and manage, Daminger said, like “added cereal to the shopping list,” “ordered more masks for the kids,” “realized the car needs an oil change,” “researched birthday gift options for the dog” and “emailed the school to let them know our kids just got the first Covid vaccine.”

Once you’ve done this for a particular day (or maybe you want to do it for one weekday and one weekend day), you should set aside time to compare and discuss your logs. Notice if patterns emerge, and talk about them. Do you resent that you’re doing more of a certain kind of task? What could be done to make things feel more fair? Daminger has some excellent suggestions in a newsletter she wrote on the topic:

Once you’ve digested the facts, move toward (kind, constructive) assessment mode. Ask yourself whether these logs reflect your ideal division of cognitive labor, or if there are any imbalances you’d like to address. Try to get specific here. Does it bother you that one person is doing all the anticipating and noticing, while the other only jumps in when it’s time to make a decision? Does one person take point on an area of life you’d rather share equally? Is nothing wrong, per se, but one partner feels like their invisible work is going unrecognized by the other?

  1. Avoid fixed-mindset language when talking about familial roles and skills.

When Daminger interviews couples who split domestic duties equally, she finds that they often use fluid language to discuss their roles in the family. Whereas more traditional couples often use fixed language that suggests “this is who we are,” like She’s uptight and I’m laid back, or She’s the cook in the family because I’m terrible at it, non-traditional couples often focus more on choices and strategies. They might say things like We've made a decision to prioritize her career at this point, and as a result, she's stepped back some from the household duties, but we'll re-evaluate if an opportunity comes up for him, or if we decide it's not working. These parents aren’t as rigid, and they aren’t tightly bound to a particular division of labor, Daminger said.

Try, then, to catch yourself if you hear yourself using fixed-mindset language to describe yourself, your partner, or either of your roles in the family — and point out when your partner does the same. Avoid characterizing yourselves as inherently good or bad at household tasks, too. (The husbands who say they can’t cook? That’s probably because they haven’t had enough practice. In a growth mindset world, skills are a function of effort and practice.) Consider your family’s division of labor to be a choice, and one that can shift at any time — it’s something intentional that you’re tackling together as a team, based on what’s best for the family in the moment.

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