My favourite ring has a small split in it. It’s so small that nobody would notice except me. But it bothers me. Whenever it comes into my line of vision, I have a fly-by thought about dropping the ring into the Gold and Diamond Park to get it fixed. I have had that thought multiple times per day, every day, since I first noticed the split. That was approximately two years ago. It would take 10 minutes to drop it in and cost about Dh50. But, honestly, it is so low down my list of priorities that it doesn’t make it onto any day’s "to do" list. Even if it did make it on to the list, it would be the first thing bumped off – as, inevitably, superfluous missions like this always are – because I am time-poor. I am skint on seconds. I don’t have two minutes to rub together. Between work, kids and running a home solo (as a single parent and without a nanny), there really isn’t time or energy for much else. Luckily, over my 13 years of parenthood, my brain has developed an amazing capacity for multi-thinking – scanning across multiple different topics in great detail, while I am driving, cooking, eating, cleaning, watching TV, walking and so on. This is pretty standard. When our conscious mind is engaged in repetitive or simple activities or jobs, our subconscious mind takes it as an opportunity to start thinking about other things. So the minutes that you get while brushing your teeth, or making a cup of tea, turn into intense brainstorming sessions in your own mind about stuff that you need to get done.
On a good day, this feels like I am playing Tetris with my life – blocks fall into place and rows disappear before the screen gets too full.
On other days, it can feel like I am stuck in a revolving door that is spinning so fast that I can’t catch the exit. And it’s on days like these that life seems to play with me, like a cat that has caught a tiny bird and is toying with it for fun. Forgotten PE kits, gas cylinders being empty, phones dropping off a low table and inexplicably shattering (creating extra life admin that I could well do without), arriving home from the supermarket without the main thing I went for in the first place. (I have been known to make four trips to the corner shop in one evening...).
This, my friends, is what’s described as the emotional labour of modern parenting. It’s the constant thinking that goes on behind the scenes. Thoughts that you are barely aware that you are even having (must buy toothpaste), because they seem to just tick along in the background (school trip money) while you are thinking (confirm playdate) so that, even if someone asked you to list (when is Book Week?) what you have spent time thinking about that day (where are those Harry Potter glasses?), you wouldn’t be able to if you tried (I can go to Creative Minds on the way to the playdate).
It’s the invisible side of parenting, which causes stress, anxiety, insomnia and other mental, emotional and physical health issues. This is normally carried out almost entirely by the mother.
Busy Mothers’ Syndrome
Countless studies in recent years from a variety of sources show that women are much more likely than men to suffer from severe stress, anxiety and depression. A recent British study published in the journal Sociology reports that women working full-time while raising two children are 40% more stressed than women without children who are working full-time, and that flexi-time and working from home didn’t help to alleviate the stress of the working mum at all.
The cause of all this stress? You guessed it, the simple issue of having too much on our plates. While ‘equality’ has seen women venturing out of the home into the workplace and staking our right to be there meritocratically, we haven’t as of yet been alleviated of the role of managing the home. It’s the modern mother’s predicament. Even if we can afford the luxury of out-sourcing some of our ‘women’s work’ to another woman (or women), we still have to manage that outsourcing (think nanny, cleaner, nursery), which means the mental and emotional load (in terms of the thinking time and emotional energy involved) still falls neatly on to our plates.
The "having it all" generation is well and truly having it all – having all of the stress and pressure of building a career, while still having all of the responsibility of running a home, maintaining a marriage and raising children. We are having it all to the point of exploding, or worse, simply disappearing.
We aren’t juggling, we are struggling. And our marriages, relationships, careers, identities, waistlines, health and children are being affected because of it.
Important note: it’s not (necessarily) your husband’s fault. Most men are blissfully unaware of all the thinking you are doing behind the scenes.
How often does your husband do the meal plan for the week? Or the Kibsons order? Has he ever arranged your child’s birthday party? Who found and interviewed your housemaid? Who manages your housemaid? How many fathers are on the class Whatsapp group? Why is it all mums anyway? How many doctors’ appointments have you taken your children to, versus how many has your husband taken them to?
When asked by a friend about an upcoming social event, does your husband defer to you by saying he has to ask "the boss"? While this might make you feel momentarily empowered, why does the family calendar and scheduling fall to you?
It’s not about pointing accusatory fingers at men, staging a witch hunt and finding them useless. It’s about asking why; why did you develop this super-power when he didn’t?
The role of gender
The answer lies in the past. While we are undoubtedly in an age where gender equality is being woven, slowly but surely, into everyday life, we can’t undo the years of programming that happened beforehand. Most of us grew up in homes where our mothers (and their mothers and grandmothers before them) were largely responsible for the running of the home and the parenting. By assuming the lion’s share of the domestic plans and responsibilities, you – and your husband – are simply adhering to gender roles that were role-played to you throughout your entire childhoods – in your own home, in other people’s homes, in books, films, TV programmes and countless other sources – and role-playing them out to your own children.
There is nothing shameful about this; most of us have been guilty of this, without even knowing it. But it begs the question: can we change? Also, how can we raise our children differently so that our daughters are not stoically bearing the emotional and mental stress of managing a household alongside pursuing their careers and passions, and so that our sons are, not only more aware of the issue, but better equipped to think like a woman? I decided to start investigating close to home.
A fulltime job
My ex-husband was my first port of call. As a single dad without a full-time housemaid, who has our children for 50% of the time, he says he is overwhelmed by the emotional labour of parenting. "The weeks I have the kids, I would say it takes up 70% of my thoughts. What are we going to eat for dinner? Are they playing enough sport? Are we going to eat together? What will we do together this evening? Is that productive? Does it need to be? Will they remember it when they are older? I have had to employ a part-time, live-out maid to help me. Being PA to two kids is a full-time job."
This experience has given him a good insight into equality, or lack of it. He says, "It definitely isn’t fair for mums, especially working mums, to have to think about all of this on their own. It’s too much.
"If someone said they would do all the thinking for me, I would jump at the chance. There is no glory in making lunchboxes, or thinking about what to make for dinner. I don’t think I am closer to my kids for it. If someone could alleviate my parenting admin so that I could spend more time kicking a football in the garden, that would be great."
Next stop, my sister. As a working mother of two young children, aged six and three, I have watched with my own eyes as she has tried to squeeze an entire day of domestic chores into the 20 minutes she gets between the kids leaving the house in the morning and leaving for work herself. She says, "I can’t put it into words how much of my time is spent thinking about this stuff, but I do regularly think about how much more productive I would be if I had a driver to drive me to work – which is only 10 minutes away. I could get so much done in that time."
Stress and strain
As the name suggests, emotional labour is not just about the mental strain of having to think about all of the different elements that make up your family’s day-to-day life; it’s also about the emotional toll of being the family rock that is ‘Mum’. The effort and strain it takes to dig deep and put on a smile even though you are so exhausted you would happily sleep in your baby’s cot, or so stressed that you could just sit in the corner and cry into a packet of milk chocolate Hobnobs.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ in 1983, in her book, The Managed Heart. In its purest form, emotional labour refers to the work of managing your own emotions in order to carry out a job. For example, cabin crew having to smile sweetly even when passengers are being belligerent.
In relation to parenting, Hochschild says that emotional labour is not the job of having to pay the housemaid, or to organise PE kits, but the stress or anxiety that results from it. She says, "Managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labour…. Males not participating fully in that, that’s a problem, too… One of the trends bearing down on the family is that women are forced to change faster than men are forced to."
The signs of emotional exhaustion
Since Hochschild’s book launched the concept into existance, there have been many studies looking into the impact of emotional labour on home life. One study, published in the journal Personnel Psychology in 2014, suggested that ongoing emotional labour at work can lead to emotional burnout, with anxiety being one of the symptoms and emotional exhaustion being the end result – all of which, they report, can spill over into the home and family life, causing insomnia and arguments in the home.
In a more recent study, published in January 2019 in the journal Sex Roles, researchers found that 90% of women feel solely responsible for organising the family schedules, while 80% said they were the parent who knew the children’s teachers, 70% said they were responsible for assigning household chores and 60% said they manage their children’s emotional wellbeing. These are huge percentages given that all of the women surveyed were either married, or in long-term relationships, and two thirds of them had full-time jobs. These women reported feeling overwhelmed with their role as parents, having little time for themselves and feeling exhausted.
Psychology professor and study author Suniya Luthar says, "Sole responsibility for household management showed links with mums’ distress levels… There’s no question that constant juggling and multi-tasking at home negatively affects mental health."
A solution of self-care
At Mind Solutions, approximately 80% of our clients are coming for either weight loss or to quit smoking. For many of them – male or female, parents or not – the emotional habit of unnecessary eating, or smoking, is mainly about comfort. Food and cigarettes are simply the adult version of the dummy. "I feel stressed (or tired, bored, unhappy, overwhelmed, guilty). I’ll put something soothing in my mouth.
For most of our clients, it’s not that they don’t know that they are stressed, or tired, or overwhelmed. It’s that they simply don’t have time to self-soothe in any other way. When your children have been non-stop bickering all afternoon, can you just slope off to the spa for a last-minute massage? Or, when the gas canister runs out half way through cooking dinner, can you just throw the tea towel in and go do a yoga class? Probably not. But you can grab yourself a fun size Snickers bar, or go outside for a cigarette while you call the gas man.
We all create coping mechanisms for our lives; habitual actions that make us feel better in any given situation. Food, cigarettes, drinking, exercise classes, shopping, baking, technology – if you find yourself wishing you could do less of something, but are unable to, the chances are that it’s become an emotional habit; part of your self-soothing tool box.
It’s for this very reason that, when helping someone to quit an emotional habit, one of the strategies that we encourage is to create a new habit of self-care. Lists of quick and easy ways you can be kind and caring to yourself that you can easily slip into any day, no matter how busy. By making a habit of doing two kind things for yourself every day, you can make yourself more resilient against the stress of parenting/working/life.
When it comes to self-care, the simpler the better. Ideas include lighting a scented candle; doing a face mask; buying yourself some flowers; listening to a podcast; getting into bed early with a book rather than watching Netflix until your eyes go dry; packing yourself a healthy lunch to take to work; saying "no" to a social event that you don’t want to go to, or cancelling if your schedule becomes too busy and not feeling guilty about doing so.
Dr Erin Joyce, a US-based therapist, says "The basics of adequate sleep, healthy diet and exercise are a good place to start. Support from trusted relationships is vital, including professional support from health and wellness providers if stress is becoming increasingly overwhelming."
Kathleen Hall, founder of The Stress Insitute and Mindful Living Network, created the acronym ‘SELF’ as a reminder of how to deal with the feeling of being overwhelmed by stress. SELF stands for Serenity (breathing, meditation, yoga, walking outside); Exercise (anything from stretching, or taking the stairs, to full on gym workouts); Love (spending time with loved ones); and Food (avoiding processed foods or foods high in sugar or salt).
So, next time you have a bad day/week/month where it all just seems too much, know that it doesn’t mean that you aren’t coping with your life. It probably just means that you are tired and over-stimulated. And what you probably need is for someone to run you a bath, put you into your jammies and pop you in front of the TV with some toast and a cup of tea to watch something mindless for half an hour until you can think clearly again. In the absence of a fairy godmother, try to do this for yourself. Treat yourself to a 30-minute, or even just a five-minute, holiday from being Little Miss Responsible to recharge your batteries and remember all of the things you have achieved so far today, rather than focusing on the one thing you haven’t.
Give yourself a break – I don’t mean a physical break, I mean a mental and emotional one. A moment of not thinking about all the stuff you still have to do and not berating yourself for it. Say something kind to yourself. In your mind, give yourself a massive pat on the back and some recognition for all of your effort so far today. I’m pretty sure you deserve it.