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The Hidden Burden: Shedding Light on Unpaid Work and the Mental Load

Words by: Virginia Herlihy, HDYDI CEO

What have we heard most consistently across over 10,000 working parents about the sharing or not of the unpaid load? 

I’m making these comments based on the themes we’ve collected from coaching over 10,000 working parents across many years. There is no doubt that lack of clarity and ownership on who is doing what from an unpaid perspective creates tension in the relationship and adds stress to what already feels like an overwhelming workload. And when people are stressed, they are not at their best but this is when the conversations about the current arrangement not working flare – as parents argue for example about whose job/meeting is more important and who should stay at home if a child is sick.  

What working mothers most commonly say? 

In the case of heterosexual couples, the outstanding viewpoint from women is that unless otherwise negotiated all unpaid caring roles default to them and that includes the giant invisible mental load. They see themselves as and in fact generally still are, as the research shows, the drivers of making the unpaid machine work. They talk about their partner as helping them with the addition that “I’m very lucky, my partner is very supportive and does a lot” vs them, being a co-parent who shares the load. 

What working fathers most commonly say? 

Again in heterosexual couples, men generally talk about themselves as the support act. This is clear from their language – “I want to be able to support my partner and help her and my family and do what I can”. In other words, they tend to take the role of helping and doing vs thinking about and driving. We do not hear fathers talking about “how lucky they are to have a supportive partner” in relation to the unpaid work. In 17 years of doing this work, I have never heard that from a man but hear it regularly from women. 

What have we found is the reason for there being such an imbalance in who does what, and yet why men feel that it is more equally divided than women? 

Put simply, a lot of this is down to thinking, unconscious beliefs and assumptions. We are dealing with Individual’s beliefs, which have been influenced by the beliefs of those around them, along with what they experience personally. And more broadly we are dealing with societal beliefs and gendered stereotypes about who should do what and what makes a good father – provider stereotype, and a good mother – carer stereotype and the judgement that comes their way if they step outside the norm.  

And then we have the imbalance of parental leave and how it is taken, meaning that women get (and typically take) more and therefore get practiced at how to do the unpaid work in a way that the men often don’t, making them better or more confident at it. When they return to work, the workload is often not deliberately thought through and re-balanced and so the women continue to lead on it with men helping when they can. This impacts how much energy women have for their careers, especially in a transition, and how much energy men have for home.  

As for men, they are doing a great deal more than their fathers did which probably influences why they are feeling like they do a lot. They generally don’t feel as confident with the unpaid work initially, understandably because they are less practiced at it and it does not help when their partners, who are more practiced, criticise their approach.  

So what do we do about it – how do we make the sharing of the unpaid fair? 

We treat it like the job it is and a job that needs to be resourced in the way we would resource any big project at work. We so often have plans for work, but “wing it “when it comes to home, but managing work and family is a big job and requires active focus and thought.  

 When we are working with parents, we ask them what they do at work when they’re given a big project. Sensibly they say they plan it by looking at what needs to be done – the activities and responsibilities and how or who is going to do it, based on skills, motivation and capacity. We get them to apply the same approach to work and family by: 

  • Writing a job description for home and family which both parties complete answering the simple and yet big question of what needs to be done to make our family and home life work?  It is important to do this together vs one person doing it and then going to the other for them to add things, as this already claims an ownership and the purpose of this is to create the job together that WE will share. Key categories are domestic, children, finance, admin and across all of them the mental load. 
  • Allocating who will do what based on what you’d prefer to do, skills, and capacity – so if one partner works full time and the other part time, that is taken into account. Catch yourselves if the woman is ending up with all the children tasks because she is “better at them”, as she will be post a period of parental leave and if you want both parties to be good at this, you both need practice. 
  • Agreeing what to do with the things neither of you want to do – either outsource or share it. 
  • Talking about what it means to take responsibility for an activity e.g. cooking – this means you have got the necessary food, chosen the recipe and made it vs asking your partner what they want you to make. 
  • Having an emergency plan to cover sick children, child carer or partner. 
  • And very importantly reviewing how this is going – what’s working, what isn’t? This is not a set and forget and will need relatively regular check ins to ensure it is still working.  

And if you can and your organisation is offering it, take advantage of the working parents coaching that is offered, especially the voluntary session which How Do You Do It offer, where you can invite your life partner to work on the resourcing of the unpaid work – which is so often a game changing session for many couples since we introduced it into our coaching. 

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