Before my husband and I had a baby, mental workload wasn’t something I thought about much. We both worked and went to school full-time. We both pitched in on cooking and cleaning. We grocery-shopped together (even though I was the one who made the list and kept up our budget). I never felt overwhelmed by the mental work I was putting into our relationship, because honestly, it felt pretty even-keeled. He took care of his share, I took care of mine. But after having a baby and deciding to stay home full-time, a huge shift took place. I quickly realized the amount of mental and emotional labor put on stay-at-home moms — and how horribly unfair it was.
In fact, the buildup came before the baby was even born. It was my job to know what items belonged on the registry. It was my job to read all the baby books. It was my job to nest and know exactly how I wanted the nursery. It was my job to write the thank you cards for baby shower gifts and send them in a timely manner. It was my job to sort each gift and fill in the blanks on whatever else we still needed. I knew the physical care of the baby would be split when he arrived, but I could already see that much of the keeping track and counting and planning and reminding — the caring, essentially — would fall on me.
I was right. In the hospital, my husband wasn’t even addressed by many of the staff when we were being taught how to care for our newborn. It was my job to keep track of every breastfeeding session and every bowel movement — even though I was a hazy mess, coming off drugs, bleeding profusely, and barely able to move. They could have easily asked my husband to jot these things down for me, whenever they happened. Instead, it was my responsibility.
I was carrying every last detail necessary to keep the household running and everyone happy. It was exhausting.
It was my job to pack the diaper bag whenever we left the house, to keep a list in the back of my mind of everything we needed for every outing. The house suddenly became my domain, because I was there all day every day. I did more of the cooking and the cleaning. I became the only one who noticed when we were running low on toilet paper, or when the baby was outgrowing his clothes. I was carrying every last detail necessary to keep the household running and everyone happy. It was exhausting.
The list of things that fell under my jurisdiction only grew as our family did. I became the keeper of everyone’s schedule and the manager of everyone’s moods. When the physically demanding stages of infancy eventually passed, the emotional labor became even more intense. There are now bad days at school and angry outbursts between siblings that I must smooth over. There are more things to remember — more lunch boxes and school bags and supplies to pack each day. More food likes and dislikes to keep track of. More idiosyncrasies I have to be aware of all the time.
All of these things take effort and time. It is work, no matter how unappreciated and unnoticed.
It is my job to set the tone for all three kids, so we get our days off to a good start. It is my job to keep my cool when I’ve got a toddler screaming in my face because he wants candy instead of lunch (and let’s be honest, my patience is not infinite). It is emotionally exhausting to deal with three big personalities, day in and day out, with no one here to even witness or acknowledge all the work that I’m doing.
Because this essential work is mostly invisible. My husband will always say something nice when the house is particularly clean when he comes home, but most of the work I do all day isn’t easy to spot. There is nothing to notice when the laundry is put away consistently each day or when I’ve smoothed over multiple tantrums or spent an afternoon working with our preschooler on writing her name or made the vet appointment for the cat. There’s certainly nothing to notice when I’ve been meal planning in my head, or worrying about the next level testing at gymnastics. Yet all of these things take effort and time. It is work, no matter how unappreciated and unnoticed.
He does emotional labor like a pro, because we strive for an egalitarian household. Yet the only person our culture expects to do any of that work is me.
The thing that really gets me about emotional labor as a stay-at-home mom is that it’s completely and totally expected that I take on all of this and more. In fact, I get a lot of comments about how easy I have it, because I have a husband who puts in his fair share of physical labor. He watches the kids when I have something to do. He takes the kids to the grocery store. He plays with his kids. He gets praised for things no one would dream of praising a stay-at-home mom for.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for my partner. What most people don’t see is even more impressive. He keeps that same lists of our kids preferences and idiosyncrasies in his head. He works hard to manage everyone’s emotions with the same diligence I do. He makes his own appointments and tells me in advance. He does emotional labor like a pro, because we’ve talked about it, and we strive for an egalitarian household. Yet the only person our culture expects to do any of that work is me.
Honestly, we need to do better. We need to stop expecting so much mental and emotional work from stay-at-home moms from the moment they become pregnant. Every last detail should not be placed on their shoulders. If we want to raise our sons and daughters with a sense of equality, it needs to start at home — with the unseen work that absolutely should be seen, and shared.