Dads We Don’t Get It: Mom’s Invisible Labor and Mental Load are Real

I get that women face systems of oppression everyday, that there are cultural narratives that have been absorbed into my male body that I have to search out and challenge (and destroy), and that the whole “mom culture” is full of expectations, demands, beliefs, and pressures that are ruinous to the female body, mind, and spirit. Dads and moms, I get it, but as much as I get it, I don’t. This is what we have to realize dads: That even though we get it, we don’t.

Women experience a burden that is indescribable and unintelligible unless you are a woman. Terms like “invisible labor” or “mental load” are efforts to put language to the burden but it still can’t help us, dads, get it. *Invisible labor refers to the mental and emotional duties of a household that are not “seen” (seen duties are cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn etc.). Duties like thinking about and taking steps to help kids develop emotional intelligence and moral character. Research shows moms are the parent disproportionately responsible for these duties. Mental load refers to this same “stacking up” of things moms have to pay attention to that are unseen and out of awareness of dads. Compounding the intensity of invisible labor and mental load is moms also work (either in offices or at home and in the world). So, not only do women have to go to work and deal with systems of oppression all day in the workplace and world but then there is the expectation that they will cook dinner, tidy the house, look perfect, hold their crying baby, and plan the weekend’s social events.

Dads we don’t get it. No matter how in tune and involved we feel or try to be, we don’t get it. We are not women so we can’t. Does this mean we don’t try to be curious and wake up to what is going on in the world for women? Of course not! But one of the ways we can do this is by acknowledging we don’t get it. And because we don’t get it we have to trust what women are saying and make changes to our work culture, home culture, and society in general. We don’t get it, because we can’t, so we need to trust the people who do get it: moms and women. And it’s time we make some changes.

It was breastfeeding that convinced me I didn’t get it. Erin, my wife, breastfed all of our kids for more than a year. At various times in each of our kid’s breastfeeding careers Erin would hit a point where she was exhausted and felt stretched thin mentally and emotionally. She would talk about wanting her body to feel like her own again or feeling like she hadn’t slept in years because of night nursing. She kept trying to express the tension she felt of wanting to nurse our kids and feeling like she absolutely couldn’t do it anymore. She also was doing countless other things, but a small sampling is: watching our kids while I worked, figuring out our meals with two kids with food allergies, learning about food allergies and sensitivities, arranging birthday parties and presents, researching physicians and scheduling the appointments, researching neighborhoods and schooling options, and dealing with a husband who was either at work or working on his PhD.

I didn’t get it. In all of my attuned man wisdom, I empathized (maybe?) but then gave suggestions about what she could do to make breastfeeding go better. I tried to help in practical ways: I built her a nursing stool, I brought in the yoga ball so she would remember to not nurse in bed so she and the baby would get a full nurse in and wouldn’t wake up so often, I reminded her of the conversations we had had about why we wanted to breastfeed, I told her if she wanted to quit to quit; bottom line: I said and did a lot. I know it, I was awful. I was telling Erin what to do with her body, giving her advice about how she should manage her experience as a mother, and simply increasing her invisible labor and mental load. I was stacking things up on her because I didn’t get it.

I was a system of oppression in my own home, I was an anti-feminist, and I sincerely was trying not to be this way.You can imagine that things went terribly when I offered my attuned man wisdom to Erin. She very directly and firmly offered me some “motherly” woman wisdom and over the course of years a few rays of light began to push through the darkness of my perspective. In what she said to me I realized I had no idea the burden she bore as a mom and woman. What I began to “get” was that I didn’t get it, and this (finally seeing I really could not comprehend) was “getting it!” I had to listen to Erin’s voice. I had to trust she was the only one that could help me understand her experience and that there were aspects of it I would never fully comprehend. I was seeing something I had never seen before, “I didn’t get it” and that was “OK.” In fact acknowledging I didn’t get it was/is necessary for me to be the kind of dad, husband, and man I want to be.

Dads, we have to trust what moms, women, our partners are telling us. We don’t get it and this doesn’t make us dumb, bad, or disinterested. It makes us different. It means moms and women have a different experience than we do. Experience is shaped by biology, oppressive systems, cultural narratives, family experience, and countless other variables. We dads, we men, the builders and directors of these oppressive systems have to stop distrusting moms and women. We have to say, “I don’t get it” and we can only come to this place if we have tried with all our energy to “get it.” From here we have to tell moms and women, “I trust you.” And then listen to what they say about home life, work life, being a mom, and the invisible labor and mental load they encounter. And then the vital step: we have to change how we do things at home, at work, and in our society. Dads if you finally got it by not “getting it,” how would your home life be different? What would your work life and your partner’s work life need to make things sustainable and equitable? What stories and experiences would you start believing, start trusting that your partner has been trying to tell you about?

*Reference:

Ciciolla, L., & Suniya, S. L. (2019). Invisible household labor and ramifications for adjustment: Mothers as captains of households. Sex Roles, 81,467-486. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-1001-x