For a healthy mind, body and business

The mental load and doing it all: A reflection of work-from-home motherhood

So the work-from-home revolution has backfired.

At least, it has according to a new German study, which the Times reported, found that the cultural shift to working from home has in fact ‘entrenched old-fashioned gender roles.’

Instead of freeing up both sexes to achieve a more balanced lifestyle, it turns out work-at-home mums are spending more hours on childcare than their work-at-home dad counterparts, who are devoting more hours to their work.

At the same time, it found whatever your gender, most people who work from home are actually spending longer slaving over the computer.

The study seems to show that while dads who work from home evade childcare duties to give more time to the job, work at home mums have “double the burden”, taking on extra childcare hours as well as extra time doing work.

Culturally, this has been the norm, and for some mothers, it’s not an issue, it’s a choice; they want to be present with their children and working from home is part of that solution.

But it got me to question, do these findings imply that work at home dads are doing the work part better? Are they more focused, more able to compartmentalise? Or, are they’re just shirking the nappy changing and using work as an excuse? (Giles Coren’s more light-hearted piece in The Times would lead you to believe the latter.)

And as mums, is it the “mum guilt” that’s forcing us to try to be all things at all times to all people?

Or, are we still falling into the ‘being busy’ trap that means we’re trying to impress with our constant multi-tasking efforts?

Let’s not also forget the other part of this equation. Mums working from home are not just having to work, but they’re also constantly reminded of what else has to be done for the household because they’re living and working in the same place.

It’s the whole ‘mental load’ which often seems to fall to women.

Just days after the Times report, the Guardian featured a cartoon, by French comic, Emma, illustrating the concept of the mental load, which, she says “means always having to remember.”

Her drawings perfectly depict the constant list of things which women have to hold in their heads when it comes to the running of a home and family life.

A picture of a working mother

Both these articles start to paint the familiar picture that women are not only having to do more emotional labour with their mental load but also more of the physical, round-the-house labour, on top of extra work hours if they’re based at home.

Interestingly, Alison Beard, writing in the Harvard Business Review recently, also talked about her identity being formed only around her job and her kids. She writes, “If I’m honest, trying to excel in both realms is a constant, draining, exasperating struggle.”

She looks at some new book releases on the topic of motherhood and work, which are leaving behind the tips around “chore charts and carpool schedules” and take a broader view of the cultural norms and policies which have “shaped the lives of working mothers” and offer insights into the challenges we face.

Beard says the books “paint a bleak picture but also offer a weird kind of comfort. They assure me that the tension and guilt I feel as a working mother isn’t something I can relieve on my own…”

So while women are taking on the burden of work, childcare and the mental load, is there anything we can do to help ourselves?

Progressive government policy might be needed to mirror those of the Nordic countries where parental leave is far longer and dads are generally more involved in childcare and as a result, housework as well.

Cultural shifts need to happen. Admitting we can’t do it all at the same time and being comfortable with that, without feeling as if we’ve failed somewhere down the line, will require our own self-talk and personal narrative to change.

Practically, when it comes to keeping our focus on work, not spending longer on the laptop than necessary, being present for our children and keeping a home functioning, it seems, if we’re not going to move to Finland, we need to create our own microcosm of a progressive society.

Helping ourselves

Emma’s cartoon on the mental load tells us that even when the most helpful dads ask for our help, we delegate a task and reinforce the message that we’re in charge of the household, and therefore need to keep tabs on everything that needs to happen.

Perhaps we need to help ourselves. Instead of giving them a chore to do, give them a vaccination schedule, clothing sizes, the nursery letters about various events, the payment schedule for activities and household bills, the basics shopping list, the phone numbers of the doctor, dentist, optician, hairdresser and school, the logins for websites and parent portals and the dates of all the friends’ and relatives’ birthdays and say, “Yes, just input and memorise, thanks.”

Flippancy aside, involving dads more, taking ownership of our lives rather than allowing them to be governed by lists, and creating more structure to our work at home day, might help to relieve some of these burdens.

There are small steps we can take within our work practices that can help us not blur the work-home boundaries such as disciplined hours, a dedicated workspace and even wearing the right clothes.

But, more than anything, we work at home mums probably need to start changing our language and our expectations, which society has placed on us. Doing it all is tough, not being perfect at everything is inevitable, and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for more help.

the homeworker magazine print issue, guide to working from home

Read the fantastic article on successfully integrating work life and parenting without the guilt, written by parenting expert and positive discipline coach, Joy Marchese, in the first volume of The Homeworker magazine

About the author

Louise is an award-winning journalist and speaker who focuses on working from home, remote work and wellbeing. She is the founder of  The Homeworker, which is dedicated to helping you thrive when you work from home. The Homeworker publishes articles that are designed to keep you healthy, happy, fulfilled, and more productive in work and life.


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