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Oklahoma State University

Mothers’ invisible workload is damaging their mental health

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Spring flowers bloom on campus

Unseen mental checklists accompany motherhood, changing as children are shepherded from infancy to adulthood. Worrying over the contents of the diaper bag or the latest virus can change to organizing the calendar of appointments from doctors to recitals. Today, researchers from Oklahoma State University and Arizona State University have defined the price mothers pay doing this invisible labor: less satisfaction with their lives and their partnerships.

“Even though women may be physically doing fewer loads of laundry, they continue to hold the responsibility for making sure the detergent does not run out, all the dirty clothes make it into the wash and that there are always clean towels available,” said Lucia Ciciolla, assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, who co-authored the study. “Women are beginning to recognize they still hold the mental burden of the household even if others share in the physical work, and that this mental burden can take a toll.”

Invisible labor is the planning, coordinating, monitoring and anticipating that many mothers do to keep things running smoothly at home.

“We consider it to be invisible because it is often this internal mental checklist of what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and how it needs to be done,” Ciciolla said. “We also consider it invisible because it doesn’t tend to get the recognition that it deserves.”

Thad Leffingwell, professor and head of OSU’s psychology department, is grateful for Ciciolla’s efforts.

“Dr. Ciciolla is on her way to being one of the world’s leading experts on mothers’ and infants’ mental health, and we are lucky to have her in Oklahoma. Our land-grant mission compels us to try to improve the lives of Oklahomans, and this research can have a direct impact on thousands of Oklahoma families.”

Researchers surveyed 393 American women who were married or in a committed relationship and had children under age 18. The nationwide sample showed the women were mostly middle upper class and more than 70 percent had a college education. The findings were published Jan. 22 in the journal Sex Roles.

The survey measured the division of household labor by asking who was in charge of organizing the family’s schedules, fostering children’s well-being and making major financial decisions. Researchers were also interested in finding out how doing these tasks affected women’s satisfaction with their partners and life in general. Suniya Luthar, Foundation Professor of psychology at ASU was the other co-author on the study.

It is one of few studies that quantify the prevalence and impact of invisible or mental labor.

“Not so surprisingly, we found that women overwhelmingly felt that they were primarily responsible for managing the household,” Ciciolla said. “It was a bit surprising to find that a fairly large percentage of the women felt that they were solely responsible for the well-being of their children. Although the job of instilling values in children was generally reported as being shared equally between parents, a majority of the women reported they alone shouldered important tasks like getting to know children’s teachers or being aware of children’s emotional needs. These women who were the ones primarily ensuring children’s well-being reported more feelings of emptiness with their life situation; they were also less satisfied with their lives overall and less satisfied with their partners.”

Ciciolla is hopeful the findings will spark conversations and create a more equitable balance for mothers.

“I really hope that, as a society, we begin to consider the magnitude of responsibilities that mothers in particular take on at home and sometimes at work so that on a societal level we can make this type of labor more visible, valued, and better supported,” Ciciolla said. “In doing so, we should be able to bolster the mental and emotional well-being of those individuals who are often the ones that our families, and arguably our society, depend upon the most.”

For more information, contact Dr. Lucia Ciciolla at lucia.ciciolla@okstate.edu or visit camplab-ok.com.

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