One of the challenges of being a woman in the modern world is that no matter how far we’ve come in equality, in a heterosexual relationship women still, generally, bear the burden of the ‘mental load’ of running a household, and/or managing a family. It can happen bit by bit. A small career break, a few years part-time, while our partner’s career is progressing and suddenly it’s the most logical choice for the woman’s career to be secondary to the man’s.
Understanding this in more detail was our objective in interviewing hundreds of women and writing our book ‘The Superwoman Myth’ (just published!). In the book, we explore stories from women in relationships with men, women in relationships with women, single women, people with children and people without children. We have discussed trans and gender diverse individuals, cultural differences, and Indigenous Australians. One of our authors is in a same-sex relationship, while the other two are in traditional marriages, and all three have children. We have tried to be as representative as possible in our interviews, and the stories shared within the book.
In a heterosexual union, it’s not always the way that the man’s career dominates – we’ve talked to plenty of females who are the main or sole breadwinner, too – but it seems to be a very common story when talking about juggling two careers. Even in relationships where the couple do not have children, there is the burden of the mental load that someone has to carry. It might be a little more equitable, although our research shows us that even in heterosexual relationships without children, women tend to bear the brunt of the mental load. The following are some quotes from some of the women we interviewed:
“I carry 95% of the mental load to keep the household running. At times it feels like my partner is deliberately forgetting so he doesn’t have to a take any load. When I have asked him to be responsible for something he has forgotten it or has not placed as much importance on it as I would have and is incomplete or sloppy, so, I have stopped asking.”
“At first my husband “chipped in” and initiated some household tasks and I was left to do everything else (even when it came to his son). Now my 66-year old mother lives with us and she takes on most of the cleaning and laundry. My husband does very little. I want to do more and be more in control of my household but I don’t have the energy or time. I take on 100% of the mental load.”
“I definitely carry about 90% of the mental load, my husband the other 10%, usually about himself. All other tasks, responsibilities to do with our children, dog and household fall to me. In terms of household tasks, it would be 80% me, 15% my husband, 5% my children. I would love them all to do more but they complain and don’t do it”.
This juggle to do it all is how women have become known for multitasking! Also, when women carve out time for ‘deep work’ – a time for focused work on a particular project (We can be masters at cramming it in and getting whatever is needed to be done in the time required! The three authors of this book regularly draw on principles of deep work to get their tasks done – indeed, writing this book has occurred during many of our ‘deep work’ moments. We have been asked by many people how we actually managed to juggle it all to write this book, and our answers differ slightly from one another.
For Jennifer, she allocated time on weekends, while her husband looked after their child. For Raechel, she wrote mostly in the evenings, or during two hour chunks of time she blocked out in her calendar over the lunch time. In some ways the pandemic helped us – surprisingly so! For Rebecca it meant her husband was not travelling for work, so she managed it whenever she had spare time, even if it was just an hour at a time. For Raechel, the pandemic meant her children were home, but so was her partner. Still, she carved out time for ‘deep work’ whenever their toddler napped. Deep work means planning the task in advance, avoiding distractions, and working solidly for a time period. The three of us are also very fortunate to all have supportive partners who are willing to step up.
The data tells us that women today are doing more than our mothers did. We all know that more women are in the workforce than ever before. More women are working full time than ever before. Less than a quarter of women worked in the early 1970s, compared to two thirds today. Women are also better educated and are ‘catching up’ to men in terms of post-school education.
The good news is that this results in many women in better careers. Despite all of this, the kids still need to get to school (when a woman has children, that is!), dinner still needs to be on the table, lunches need to be made, groceries need to be purchased, and as we have already shown you, women still tend to carry the brunt of that, even though men are, increasingly, stepping up. This means our lives are busier than ever before.
You may have also heard that women today are spending more time with their children than women in the 1970s – this potentially surprising finding was reported by women in a survey in 2011. They indicated that they spent more hours with their children than their mothers had. While this may be the case, we need to consider why it may be the case. Children in the 1970s were more likely to roam the streets, playing with friends in the neighbourhood, and organising impromptu sporting matches. When they had extracurricular activities, they took the bus, or went on foot, and parents were not necessarily expected to attend.
These days, parents generally organise ‘play dates’ for their children, through back and forth phone calls, text messages and calendar checking, something that was never really the case thirty or forty years ago. Parents today drive their children to sport and other extracurricular activities. They are present when the child is signed up, and often attend matches and classes. Yet, when we really examine the data, we can see that mothers today have much more ‘sedentary’ time compared with mothers in 1965. Mothers today are more likely to spend time in front of a computer, the television, driving, or ‘supervising’ children at their sports matches or play dates. In contrast, in 1965, mothers were more ‘active’ – cooking, cleaning, playing with children and exercising. While women still cook, clean, play and exercise, the increased use of technology (e.g., dishwashers, cooking appliances… and screen time!) has reduced a lot of the ‘activity’ component of these tasks.
Nevertheless, data indicates women today spend more time with their children than mothers in the 1970s did, and regardless of how the data is interpreted, women are busy. Women are generally trying to do many things at once, and it is essential that for partnered people, tasks need to be shared to support the increasing roles of women in the workforce.
“As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home”). This needs to be happening now – women should not be carrying the lion’s share of home duties if a couple has dual careers.
- This is an edited excerpt from “The Superwoman Myth: Can Contemporary Women Have It All Now?”. It’s out now!