Being a hands-on dad is cool these days. More fathers are vocal about how present they are in their kids’ lives, and how much they split the burden of childcare. I applaud these fathers; research shows that involved fathers make an enormous difference in the future academic, emotional and professional success of their children. They’re doing a lot and deserve to brag about it.
But what you may not have noticed is that their partners are frequently sitting to the side, quietly rolling their eyes (or sometimes obviously seething) at their partners’ cluelessness. How is it that an entire cohort of well-intentioned fathers genuinely believes it is equally involved in parenting, when mothers feel the reality is wildly different? The answer lies in something feminists call mental load.
Mental load is the pressure, distraction, energy, and effort it takes to build and maintain a complex infrastructure; in this case, it’s the mental acuity required to keep track of everything that keeps households running, and children healthy and thriving. Even for those mothers that have help, the coordination and management of these things is a full-time endeavour. Mental load isn’t about how much time it takes to complete each of these individual tasks, it’s the energy, focus, and strategic planning it takes to anticipate the medical, nutritional, and emotional needs of multiple people.
Picture this scenario: Dad leaves work early to attend his kid’s football game. He’s so hands-on! What a great dad! Mom also leaves work early to attend the football match. She’s a great parent, too! But their contributions to this football match are usually drastically mismatched. In order to get the kid to that football match, Mom has also ensured the football uniform is laundered, foreseen the need for snacks, coordinated car rides to and from the match, scheduled and taken the kid to doctor’s appointments for last week’s twisted ankle and provided emotional support for frayed pre-game nerves. And she’ll spend her time at the match cheering — but also mentally making grocery lists, planning this year’s family holiday, remembering Nani is almost out of her medicine. oh, and revising tomorrow’s presentation for a prospective client. Are you exhausted yet? She is.
This mental load goes unnoticed by fathers, under-valued by society, but virtually every mother I’ve talked to feels overwhelmed by it. Across countries, socio-economic and education levels, the burden of care management falls disproportionately on women.
The most common explanation for this highly gendered default arrangement is that women are required to be physically present in the first months of a child’s life. They are the ones recovering from childbirth, and then nursing a baby. However, you need only talk to a few women who never breastfed, or couples who have adopted kids, to see that the gender divide in childcare has very little to do with whether someone gave birth a few months ago.
Another explanation that is frequently offered is one about efficiency. Household and childcare management can’t be efficient, the argument goes, if two people split ultimate responsibility; there needs to be one person in charge. But if that were true, you would expect the manager role not to be so disproportionately skewed towards women. Furthermore, if this were really a question of efficiency, the household/childcare manager would be chosen based on organisational skills and managerial experience, not gender.
There is one way to curb the gendered distribution of childcare management: Gender-neutral family leave. From the first month of a couple’s life as new parents, when the father goes back to work (usually within a few days), and the mother stays home for months, the cleavage between their roles begins. With gendered family leave policies, governments and companies are reflecting — and reinforcing — a societal expectation that men belong back at work and women at home with their kids.
The ripple effect starts with that expectation, and spreads fast. In no time, women are left struggling to re-enter the workforce, while their male counterparts don’t (because, of course, someone is handling the management of the home for them). Some women take several years to adjust to the increased responsibilities of this mental load, and take a break from their professional lives. Those women who go back to work quickly find that the role of childcare manager is hard to shake after a few months of maternity leave, and so, they find themselves juggling two full-time jobs. Let’s be clear. Women are not dropping out of the workforce, or struggling to keep up with their male counterparts, because they’ve taken time off: It’s because they literally haven’t had a single second “off.” Carrying the mental load is a full-time occupation and largely accounts for the increasing number of professional Indian women who decide that the endless drain on their energy and capacity is unsustainable.
Gender neutral leave is the fastest and easiest way to state, as a society, that we expect men and women to equally share the responsibility of raising children. This statement has to be made at the earliest stages of a child’s life, because by the time dad goes back to work within a week of a baby’s birth, the care manager “hiring decision” has already been made. And even the most dedicated mother will admit care management is the only job she didn’t apply for, but can never quit.