‘A Mother’s Work Is Never Done’: Emotional Labour Is Also Work

Even in very erudite Indian households, women do most of the housework; decision-making is mostly done by the men.

5 min read
‘A Mother’s Work Is Never Done’: Emotional Labour Is Also Work

The Quint DAILY

For impactful stories you just can’t miss

By subscribing you agree to our Privacy Policy

Different types of labour that are associated with different cultures are the outcomes of different economic systems (e.g., Durkheim, 1893/1997; Smith, 1776/1904). However, there exists another type of labour which is almost unheard of, but needs to be discussed – cognitive labour.

In cognitive labour, the productivity of mind and soul become more vital than that of the body, confiscating all the mental energies of the worker. Cognitive labour can only be operationalised by communication and involves a lot of emotional work. Arlie Hochschild mentioned that ‘emotional work’, which consists of handling one's own and others' emotions, is a form of labour. Like physical household labour, women disproportionately bear the burden of emotional work / labour.


Why Women Perform More Emotional & Cognitive Labour

‘Household-management’ is a term coined by sociologists that include different tasks and chores related to the organisation, finances, and day-to-day operations of a home. These tasks are not only physical but also are the examples of cognitive labour which involves understanding needs, addressing those needs, and decision-making related to them. These kinds of mental labour are demanding, yet invisible to both the cognitive labourers and their partners, and often cause conflict among couples.

Although men physically contribute to household chores and childcare today more than in the past, cognitive labour is highly gendered, and ‘household-management’ is still mostly done by women, irrespective of their employment status.

In a recent study, Allison Daminger, a researcher at Harvard, interviewed 70 middle and upper middle class parents (most of the respondents were heterosexual white or Asian couples) on household cognitive labours. The questions included monitoring of toilet paper supply, planning of dinner, selection of daycare centre, etc. Four patterns emerged from the answers: anticipating a need, identifying options for filling it, deciding among the options, and monitoring the results. Unsurprisingly, in 26 out of the 32 couples, the female partners were found doing more cognitive labour and experiencing more mental load than their husbands. The results also show that although women primarily monitor and assess future needs, the identification work is mostly shared, and decision-making is a combined effort.


Women’s Disproportionate Labour & Low Partner Satisfaction

Lucia Ciciolla, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, pointed out that men might be doing more laundry, but women were responsible for the uninterrupted supply of detergent in the household, they make sure that all the dirty clothes get inside the washing machine and there are always clean towels available. In Lucia's words: “Women are beginning to recognise 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.”

The researchers surveyed 393 American mothers who were married or in a committed partnership. They measured the division of household labour by taking into account three sets of tasks that include home scheduling, development of children's well-being, and making major financial decisions. Then they correlated these tasks with the women's satisfaction with their partners and assessed the impact of this invisible labour on women's feelings, and on their everyday lives. Nearly 90 percent of women said that they were in charge of organising schedules of the family, and of them, almost 65 percent of these women were employed.

In the category of childcare, nearly 80 percent of women were the ones to be solely or primarily attentive to the children’s emotional needs.

Over 50 percent of the women stated that they shared financial decisions along with their partners. Although financial decisions can be empowering and positively associated with a woman's well-being, an unexpected outcome of low partner satisfaction was noted in this section which has links with unequal distribution of the psychological care-taking of the household and childcare.


‘Home-Management’ & ‘Care Work’: Visible Gender Disparity

The studies in the US speak about cognitive labour and suggest that despite shifting gender roles, and despite being employed full-time, American women still do most of the work associated with home management. In India, the results can be correctly guessed. Gender roles in India still work in a binary, irrespective of economic status. Indian women top the global chart of doing the most of the unpaid work and domestic work.

The 2020 India Inequality Report by Oxfam stated that urban and rural women spend 291 minutes and 312 respectively on unpaid care work, while men spend only 29 minutes and 32 minutes on the same.

No wonder that during the 2020 lockdown a campaign had to be organised to make men ‘participate’ in household duties – and to that effect, a petition had to be made to the prime minister himself. Home-management and care work is one of the striking examples of visible gender disparity in India; women here perform ‘duties’ without freedom of choice, but for the couch-potato men, the ‘duties’ are a matter of convenience. Home-management in India not only involves all kinds of physical work but also includes childcare that constitutes physical care along with anticipating and monitoring the needs of the children, the ‘man-child’ (husband) and the in-laws.


How Unequal Division Of Labour Affects Mental Health Of Women

Here, the women are often judged by the housework quality, and this behaves like a catalyst to initiate violence on women. Almost two-thirds of married women in India suffer domestic violence. Although more and more women in India are joining the workforce, traditionally, all major financial decisions in Indian household are generally taken by men. A 2019 survey report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), states that only 56.67 percent of women entrepreneurs make independent financial decisions, while 38.71 percent involves their spouse or father in the decision-making process.

Even in very educated and enlightened Indian households, women do most of the housework, and decision-making is mostly done by the men.

Research has shown that unequal burden often affect mental health and well-being. When we women try to multitask –– planning the next meal; looking into son's cricket lessons; replenishing father in-law's BP tablets; or planning to host the husband's colleagues at home for dinner –– we end up being less productive. Unquestionably doing more cognitive labour in houses interfere with women's paid work. Thus, women tend to choose jobs with lesser working hours or more flexibility, and in most cases, these offers come with lower pay.


Women’s Mental Health Can’t Be Isolated From Economic & Social Issues

In India, due to this burden of invisible labour, women frequently end up doing part-time jobs, or they leave the workforce altogether. The household labour imbalance also hugely affects women's leisure activities, and women always feel exhausted and develop a perpetual sense of anxiety in them. ‘What if the family members don't approve of my dal?’ ‘I have to wake up at 6 AM tomorrow to make breakfast and lunch and then attend a meeting at 9:30!’ ‘How to improve my child’s maths grades?’ ‘Why no amount of ‘service’ is enough for my in-laws!’

Research in India has demonstrated that CMD (common mental disorders) like depression and anxiety are linked more to women.

Other than hormonal factors, gender disadvantage clearly plays a role in women's increased vulnerability to depression.

We, as a society, collectively need to recognise the idea of cognitive and physical labour, and to figure out ways to divide it justly in our homes, workplaces, and communities. Clearly, women's mental health cannot be isolated from social and economic issues, and our policies must look beyond the narrow perspective of reproductive and maternal health.

Acknowledging unpaid and invisible labour, and addressing the disparities associated with it will not only improve the quality of marriages but also enhances the well-being of children. This will pave the way for more functional homes and families.

(Dr Tuli Bakshi is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Earth Science, Indian Institute of Technology (Bombay). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read and Breaking News at the Quint, browse for more from voices and opinion

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member

25 10% off


100 10% off


200 10% off

or more


3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!
More News