Being a mum is bad for a woman’s health, suggests a new study.
A ‘mother’s work is never done,’ according to the old saying, and researchers found that the mental toll of the round the clock responsibilities of being a mum wears women down.
The findings suggest that women who feel overly responsible for household management and parenting are less satisfied with their lives and partnerships.
Researchers say tasks – such as knowing who needs to be where, on what day and at what time, and buying bigger clothes before a child outgrows their current threads -require mental and emotional effort.
They said such tasks are examples of the ‘invisible labour’ women contribute while caring for their families.
Researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) and Oklahoma State University examined how invisible labour impacted on the well-being of a sample of American women.
Senior author Professor Suniya Luthar, of ASU, said: “Until recently, no one stopped to think about mom herself.
“We need to attend to the well-being of moms if we want children to do well, and also for their own sakes.”
Though men participate in housework and childcare more today than in the past, the research team said women still manage the household – even when they are employed.
Because the unequal burden can affect the mental health of women, the researchers decided to study how the management of a household was divided among partners and how the division of labour affected women’s well-being.
First author Dr Lucia Ciciolla, Assistant Professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, said: “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.
“Women are beginning to recognise 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.”
The researchers surveyed 393 women with children under age 18 who were married or in a committed partnership.
The sample included women mostly from middle upper class homes who were highly educated, with more than 70 per cent having at least a college education.
The team measured the division of household labour by asking questions about who was in charge of three sets of tasks: organising the family’s schedules, fostering children’s well-being, and making major financial decisions.
The researchers looked at how these tasks affected the women’s satisfaction with spouses or partners and their satisfaction with life overall.
The team also looked how invisible labour was linked to feelings of being overwhelmed and feelings of emptiness in the women’s everyday lives.
In the category of family routines, almost nine in 10 women said they felt solely responsible for organising schedules of the family, which Prof Luthar said is an “extremely large” percentage given 65 per cent of the women were employed.
At least seven in 10 women said they were also responsible for other areas of family routines such as maintaining standards for routines and assigning household chores.
The women who indicated they were in charge of the household reported they felt overwhelmed with their role as parents, had little time for themselves and felt exhausted, according to the findings published in the journal Sex Roles.
Prof Luthar said: “Sole responsibility for household management showed links with moms’ distress levels, but with the almost 90 per cent of women feeling solely responsible, there was not enough variability in the data to detect whether this association was statistically significant.
“At the same time, there’s no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health.”
A large percentage of the women also felt that it was mostly them who were responsible for monitoring their children’s well-being and emotional states.
Almost eight in 10 said they were the one who knew the children’s school teachers, and two-thirds indicated it was them who were attentive to the children’s emotional needs.
But instilling values in children was a shared responsibility.
Only a quarter of women said they were solely responsible, and 72 per cent said that it was generally shared equally with partners.
The invisible labour of ensuring the well-being of children showed “strong, unique links” with women’s distress.
Prof Luthar said the category “clearly predicted” feelings of emptiness in the women.
It was also associated with low satisfaction levels about life overall and with the marriage or partnership.
She said: “Research in developmental science indicates that mothers are first responders to kids’ distress.
“That is a very weighty job; it can be terrifying that you’re making decisions, flying solo, that might actually worsen rather than improve things for your children’s happiness.”
Financial decisions were also listed as shared responsibilities, with just over half of the women saying they made decisions about investments, holidays, major home improvements and buying a car together with their partner.
Because previous studies have found participating in financial decisions to be empowering, the researchers predicted it would be positively associated with women’s well-being.
But it was unexpectedly associated with low partner satisfaction, which the research team attributed to the addition of the task on top of the already high demands of managing the household and ensuring the kids’ well-being.
Experts on resilience in children agree that the most important protection for kids under stress is the well-being of the primary caregiver in the family, which is most commonly the mother.
But the researchers said that mothers must also feel nurtured and cared for if they are to have good mental health and be a positive parent.
When women feel overly responsible for the ‘invisible labour’ of running a household and raising children, researchers said it can have a bad impact on their overall well-being.
Dr Ciciolla said: “When mothers feel supported, they can have the emotional resources to cope well with the demands they faced.
“Being able to address inequalities in invisible labour can allow women and families to create households that are more functional and less burdensome, and can also spare women mental gymnastics to find the space and time to care for themselves.”
Prof Luthar said clinical trials have shown that regular support groups with mothers in the workplace led to reductions in distress, burnout at work and the stress hormone cortisol.
She added: “Resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships.
“As this is true for children, it is true for mothers who tend them.”
The study was published in the journal Sex Roles.
By Stephen Beech