2021年4月21日 星期三

Who’s Going to Refill the Hand Soap?

Mom. Here's why, and how to equalize domestic labor.

Who's Going to Refill the Hand Soap?

Nadia Hafid

I have been writing about the gender gap in housework and child care among heterosexual couples for almost a decade, and while more and more men are stepping up to do their fair share, there's one thing that remains frustratingly uneven: the mental load, which is a mostly invisible combination of anxiety and planning that is part of parenting.

The way I usually describe it in my own life is: I can't make my husband start thinking about summer camp in January, or when we're running out of refills for the soap dispensers (apparently, a common gripe!). In other words, I can't export my brain to him. In most aspects of domestic work, we are fairly equal — I probably do more housework and he does more child care, but we feel good about our balance. And yet, the mental load is more on me.

Because of the perniciousness of this issue, I was excited to read the work of Allison Daminger, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University. She published a paper in the American Sociological Review that breaks down the mental load — "cognitive labor," in sociological terms — into four parts: anticipate, identify, decide, monitor.

If we're using the summer camp example, "anticipate" is realizing we need to start thinking about options for the summer before they fill up; "identify" is looking into the types of camps that will suit our family's needs; "decide" is choosing the camp; and "monitor" is making sure the kids are signed up and their medical forms are sent in.

For this paper, Daminger conducted in-depth discussions with 35 couples, and found that the two parts of the process that are most heavily imbalanced are "anticipate" and "monitor" — women do the vast majority of those steps. "Identify" and "decide" tend to be done by men and women jointly. I talked to Daminger about her study and how parents can try to equalize their cognitive labor; a condensed and edited version of our conversation is below.

How have you been handling the division of labor at home during the pandemic? The Modern Love Podcast is returning for a new season, and they want to hear about the creative, or fraught, ways readers are solving these problems. Send in a submission, and you might make it onto a future episode.


Jessica Grose: I loved the way that you categorized the mental load into four discrete categories, and I was intrigued that the biggest gender disparity is in "anticipation" and "monitoring." Can you tell me a little more about that?

A.D.: One of the things that my advisers were a little bit worried about when I started this project was they thought: You're just going to find that women do more of this. How is that interesting? We know that instinctively.

And that's why I really wanted to break down not just "women do more," but what exactly is it that they're doing more of? And are there aspects of it that are more and less gendered?

I found that in the majority of cases, decision-making that rose to a certain level was very collaborative. So, not necessarily the decision of what we'll have for dinner, but decisions about how we'll parent, where we'll send our child to school, things like that. Both partners were consulted before moving forward.


But the act of putting the item on the agenda seemed to be overwhelmingly something that women were doing, as well as on the back end, following up once the decisions had been made. And that was true, even in domains of life like household maintenance, where it was pretty clear to both parties that the man was ultimately responsible for clearing the gutters.

Women's antenna seemed to be constantly up and looking for these things. Whereas men were often very happy to help once their partner had alerted them to the issue and they might've gotten to it eventually on their own, but women were consistently getting there first and either doing it themselves or saying: "Hey, this is the thing you need to handle. Are you thinking about it?"

And then the $1 million question is what to do about that.

J.G.: Whenever I write about this subject, that is always what people want to know!

A.D.: One initial step is making this work explicit. Part of my goal with my research is to help people have the language to talk about these inequities. You might sense you're doing more for the household, but it's hard to put your finger on it because your husband is so helpful with dishes and cooking. Having the language is a first step, but of course that's not going to be enough.


Beyond that, being explicit about what each of those tasks entails and including both the physical and cognitive labor in it. So, if one partner is in charge of laundry, does that also mean that they're responsible for monitoring the supply of detergent? Sometimes you have to get really granular and agree on what's a shared standard of acceptable practice. I think Eve Rodsky's book "Fair Play" does a really nice job of talking about when you're assigning tasks, you have to not just delegate individual chores, but whole areas of responsibility.

Additionally, one of the things that I've found talking with couples is that they understand cognitive labor as almost an expression of who they are as individuals. There's this interaction between context and temperament. In my sample, there are all sorts of men who clearly are capable of planning ahead and being organized and doing all this executive function work for their profession. And yet those same traits are not activated at home. The way we understand ourselves is a big part of why it's so hard to change, but I don't think that actual abilities are the limitation.

J.G.: Is it because we have culturally defined good mothering as worrying and doing this sort of mental labor, whereas we don't define good fathering in quite the same way?

A.D.: I think that's exactly true. One of the things that I hear often from my respondents is, "She's anxious, she's uptight." And I think part of that is if something goes wrong, like if the kid is not prepared with the materials they need for school that day, the mom is going to be the one who is held to account.

I don't think that's necessarily something that is at the top of people's minds as they're making decisions, but part of the worry comes from fear of something bad happening. And part of that is: I will be judged as a bad mother. I think notions of good fatherhood are changing. We expect men to help with changing diapers and to do a lot of the physical care work. And yet, we don't see them as ultimately responsible for the child's development and happiness in the same way.


We did actually manage to divide the mental load a bit more with summer camp this year. While I still did the anticipating, we decided together, and then my husband did the monitoring: When our pediatrician's office did not send the kids' medical forms in a timely manner, he's the one who ran them down. He may never notice when we run out of soap, but I feel like we are making progress.

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let's celebrate the tiny victories.

My 2-year-old insists that we lie on her floor every night until she falls asleep. This can take anywhere from 15-45 minutes. We then have to army crawl out of her room so we don't wake her. We've tried so many tactics to get her to go to sleep like a "big girl": sticker charts, bribes, threats, etc. Since she is also potty training, one tiring night, I told her I couldn't lie down because I had to poop really bad, so she had to sleep on her own. This has become the only acceptable method to get her to sleep by herself. Whatever works! — Kara Loyal, Long Island, N.Y.

If you want a chance to get your Tiny Victory published, find us on Instagram @NYTparenting and use the hashtag #tinyvictories; email us; or enter your Tiny Victory at the bottom of this page. Include your full name and location. Tiny Victories may be edited for clarity and style. Your name, location and comments may be published, but your contact information will not. By submitting to us, you agree that you have read, understand and accept the Reader Submission Terms in relation to all of the content and other information you send to us.

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