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Women Carry Most of the Mental Load of Running a Household

Research shows women disporportionately anticipate and monitor household needs.

Key points

  • Women shoulder a disproportionate share of household duties.
  • Women also take on a larger share of the "mental load" of running a household.
  • Discussing a clear division of specific responsibilities is one way to balance the load.
fizkes/Adobe Stock
Source: fizkes/Adobe Stock

It’s well-documented that in the majority of U.S. families, women do more of the household chores compared to men, even when both spouses work full-time jobs. When you factor in that women working outside the home tend to work fewer hours compared to men working outside the home, women still take on a disproportionate share of household chores. This is amplified when kids come into the picture, and frequently leads to psychological distress for women.

Data show that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these problems, with more than 900,000 working mothers leaving the workforce at the beginning of the pandemic to care of children when schools and day-care centers shut down.

In recent years, sociologists have attempted to study another aspect of women’s household workload: the mental work of keeping a family running. You can think of this as the brain power that goes into running a household such as remembering to stop for a gallon of milk on the way home, keeping track of the registration deadline for a kid’s activity, or supporting children’s emotional ups and downs.

While there isn’t a broad range of evidence on mental load, there are studies that demonstrate women are primarily responsible for keeping household routines, organizing schedules, maintaining order, and providing emotional support to children. The available evidence shows this disproportionate share of the mental workload is associated with a poorer sense of well-being for women and lower levels of satisfaction with their relationships.

A recent paper, published in the American Psychological Review in 2019, attempted to break down exactly what’s going on here. For this study, Harvard doctoral student Allison Daminger divided the mental load process into four parts: anticipate, identify, decide, and monitor. For example, when thinking about signing up your kindergartener for school, “anticipate” means looking for schools the year before; “identify” involves setting up tours and talking to others about your options; “decide” requires choosing the best school for your child; and “monitor” entails making sure the paperwork is turned in, school supplies are purchased, and your child is ready for the first day.

In her study, Daminger conducted in-depth discussions with 35 sets of parents to figure out exactly what tasks women manage within families. She found that women are much more likely to handle the “anticipate” and “monitor” steps in the process. In the majority of families, women are more likely to put an item on the agenda and more likely to follow up to make sure it got done. This was true even for household tasks assigned to the male in the household.

She found that male and female participation in decision-making was roughly equal; essentially, once the item was on the agenda and the research completed, couples tended to make decisions together.

What can we do about this? While data don’t point to a clear answer, one logical solution is to clearly and specifically divide household duties between couples, and then get out of each other’s way. For example, if one member of the household is responsible for household maintenance duties such as mowing the lawn, it is also their role to make sure the lawnmower is working and filled with gas, plan how often the grass needs mowing, and adjust this schedule based on changes in the weather. Likewise, the person responsible for laundry needs to anticipate when clean clothes will be needed and keep track of when detergent is about to run out.

The take-home message: Evidence shows that women are more likely to do the mental work of keeping a household running – specifically the “anticipating” and “monitoring” stages. Spelling out specific responsibilities and sticking to them is one way to balance the workload.