Why Sharing "Emotional Labor" is the Best Mother's Day Gift
Emotional labor is the invisible work in families, disproportionately by moms
Posted May 9, 2019
For many fathers and partners, Mother’s Day means getting up early with the kids, bringing mom breakfast in bed, and finding other ways to take the burden of parenting off mom’s shoulders for her holiday. But these actions are more than celebratory gestures. As you find yourself telling the mother of your children how much you appreciate her parenting efforts, communicating about tasks like feeding a picky child and soothing a tired one, and thinking about how to balance your own moods and desires with hers throughout the day, you’re working on your “supportive co-parenting” skills.
The movement to educate couples about supportive co-parenting comes on the heels of viral articles about the resentment that many mothers feel about unequally carrying the “mental load” or “emotional labor” in a family. Current theories suggest that these gendered patterns in families are based on the false assumption that women are “better” at dealing with the emotional and domestic needs of the home than men are.
The term “emotional labor” was coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild and applied to the ways in which employees regulate and express their emotions in the workplace, for example, the labor demanded when a flight attendant is expected to smile for hours whether she’s feeling happy or not. It’s the invisible work to make others feel cared for and comfortable. Later, the idea was expanded into conversations about gendered roles, with women being expected to assume more empathic responsiveness and caretaking in the workforce.
Recent books, including Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley and All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership by Darcy Lockman, Ph.D., expand on how emotional labor also applies to the home front where women disproportionately assume the role of being managers of invisible domestic work. Why are women the primary family managers of tasks like sending birthday cards, restocking when toilet paper is running low, and answering “What are we having for dinner?” These are more than household chores; they're the very organizing of the family, logistically and emotionally. “Mental load” is another dimension of this work and describes the cognitive demands of these responsibilities—the space it takes up in your mind that may deplete your energy from focusing on other things.
Supportive co-parenting is defined as both parents sharing overlapping practical and emotional responsibilities for the caretaking of children, openly communicating about their strategies and feelings in these roles, and supporting each other’s efforts. While your first reaction may be, “Of course, as a family we’re in it together,” in many relationships, one parent—often the mother—takes the parenting lead.
Studies show what you can probably guess: The long-term practice of supportive co-parenting can have positive psychological benefits for each of you, your relationship, and your children. It can improve the quality of your parenting and enhance your relationship satisfaction and marital health, even decreasing your frequency of fighting, parenting stress, and risk of divorce.
While the term co-parenting was originally developed to provide a family framework for couples after going through a divorce, psychologists have since used this term to advise couples on how to become a better team within the same home. Psychology professor Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan describes in her 2016 article “Supportive Co-parenting Relationships as a Haven of Psychological Safety at the Transition to Parenthood,” that co-parenting skills help couples support rather than undermine each other. Furthermore, the work of Allison Jessee, Ph.D. shows that while marital satisfaction may decline in new parenthood, mothers and fathers have happier marriages when they are better at thinking about how their own emotions influence their actions and impact their partners—the co-parenting skill known as “reflective functioning.”
These days, fathers are more involved in childcare than in generations past. However, even in dual-earning families, studies show that mothers are often still viewed as “the natural parenting experts,” leaving fathers to take on a helpful but still secondary role. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey shows that in two-parent families, parenting and household responsibilities are shared more equally when both the mother and father work full time, but even in dual-earning households, many report that a larger share of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities falls to mothers.
This phenomenon has been studied in both married and unmarried heterosexual relationships, and parenting imbalances crop up in same-sex couples, too. A 2015 study by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) shows that same-sex couples also may not consistently share co-parenting responsibilities equally. Similar co-parenting principles seem to apply to all parents: Regardless of roles, relationship satisfaction is improved when parents are more supportive and communicative about their division of labor.
Some studies have examined how some mothers who tell their partners that they want more help may still struggle with actually sharing control. It can be stressful for a mother who is used to shouldering the burden alone to accept help from a co-parent who has his own way of doing things. She may redo tasks that are not “done right,” canceling out the benefit. This type of behavior, described in some research as “maternal gatekeeping,” may discourage partners from stepping up.
Studies have shown that “maternal gatekeeping” may be a response that some mothers have to feeling overwhelmed by the lack of control that often pervades the experience of raising unpredictable, growing children. Maternal gatekeeping may also be a conscious or unconscious response that some mothers have to feelings of resentment about the imbalance of time and personal and professional sacrifices that they have had to make as primary caretakers.
Paradoxically, maternal gatekeeping may lead to a negative feedback loop that prevents successful co-parenting even for mothers longing for more support. If you’re feeling like your partner is dodging your parenting efforts, try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Like in basketball, a pass is only good if it can be caught; ask for her advice on ways to work better as a co-parenting team.
Whether childcare is evenly shared or one parent takes on more of the work, there are emotional benefits to talking about this division of responsibility. But just as there’s more to your family than childcare, there’s more to co-parenting than the logistics how you split that work. It’s also about giving each other permission, encouragement, and support to take better care of yourselves, one another, and your relationship. It speaks to the psychological recognition each parent experiences from the other and openness to reevaluate the balance of these roles over time.
Mother’s Day gifts make us think of flowers, chocolates, and gift cards. But perhaps our culture benefits from reconsidering what we give as gifts to the ones we love. Listening, asking, reflecting on our reactions, thinking before we speak, giving our partners the benefit of the doubt, and a good neck rub are priceless gems. Now, moms, it’s time to start thinking about Father’s Day.
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