There are days when I can't rest for all of the dreaming about my kids. When my mind will simply not shut out all of my people's schedules and needs and hopes and stories. Because as their mother, I tend to be the vessel of all of their things. Their schedules, their feelings, their futures, their pasts. Sometimes my son will ask me to list all of his Halloween costumes chronologically and my throat closes over with the fear of missing one. Because I cannot miss one. Apparently I'm not alone. A new study has found that motherhood takes a toll on your mental health and sure, we all knew this already but I don't hate getting the validation.
A new study carried out by researchers from Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University looked at the actual toll all of the invisible responsibilities of parenting — or "emotional labor" — take on mothers specifically. The study, which was published in the journal Sex Roles, compiled data from 393 women, all of whom were in committed relationships or married and had children under 18 years of age.
Here is what the researchers found: By and large women are still taking on the lion's work of the emotional labor of raising children, despite the fact that 65 percent of respondents were also working outside the home. And this invisible, ceaseless responsibility is incredibly hard on their mental health.
If you're wondering what exactly invisible labor might entail, essentially it is all of the things a person has to do to get a family through a day that goes by frequently unnoticed. Grocery lists, doctor's appointments, playdates, lesson pick up and drop off, homework, or even just helping your kids deal with all of the relationships in their lives. Invisible labor is the sum of all of the micro decisions and choices mothers make on a moment-to-moment basis that have become sort of expected over the years by their children and perhaps even their partners.
As study author Dr. Lucia Ciciolla told Good Morning America, a large portion of the mothers felt they were alone in their emotional labor. "We were surprised to find that a large percentage of the women, 50 to 78 percent, felt that they alone were carrying the responsibility for children’s well-being, whether that was managing their emotional needs or coordinating with their teachers," she said.
The study found that nine out of 10 respondents felt as though they were solely responsible for their family's schedules, while eight out of 10 admitted they were the parent who knew their child's teachers' names and two-thirds felt as though they were the one to ensure their child's emotional needs were met. All of this responsibility for their child's happiness has left mothers feeling quite emptied out themselves.
"Research in developmental science indicates that mothers are first responders to children's distress," the study's author Professor Luthar told The Independent. "That is a very weighty job; it can be terrifying that you are making decisions, flying solo, that might actually worsen rather than improve things for your children's happiness."
And while mothers might not be doing as many household chores as they might have done 50 years ago, the intensity of their emotional labor is wreaking havoc on their mental health.
As Dr. Ciciolla told the Daily Mail of the study's findings: "Women are beginning to recognize they still hold the mental burden of the household even if others share in the physical work, and that this mental burden can take a toll."
Clearly some change needs to happen. Mothers can no longer be expected to carry the weight of their child's emotional well-being on their own shoulders. It's leaving many of them feeling hopeless, empty, and struggling to find joy in their lives. Perhaps their partners could step in earlier and more often... it will end up keeping everyone much more emotionally healthy in the long run. Not to mention a better night's sleep every now and then.