I’ve been agonizing over how to respond to an email for the last 48 hours.
It doesn’t involve a medical issue, a work deadline, some horrifying piece of news, a kids-back-to-school task that requires unearthing the dreaded label-maker or logging into some byzantine online portal – all of which are represented in full force in my inbox. Just a completely anodyne suggestion, from a colleague of a college friend who’s eager to talk about a project she’s working on, and whom I’m eager to meet.
“Wanna try for a happy hour meetup next week?”
I mean, yes. I’d love to. Me, a martini, some non-expandable pants, all outside at dusk? Valhalla.
But then my brain short-circuits, because my happy hour of the last six years – which, yes, is happy, but also chaotic – involves scraping baba ganoush out of my baby’s hair, shoveling salmon into my three-year-old’s mouth as she sits under the table methodically stickering the floor, and listening to the appropriately military soundtrack of Strauss’s Radetzky March, courtesy of my first-grader practicing piano.
So, instead of saying sure, I’ve spent the last few days doing mental calisthenics, including but not limited to considering if my husband’s week of upcoming work travel allows me a compensatory week of non bedtime-bathtime responsibilities; if this is the moment to rip off the Band-Aid and start saying yes to non-critical social events; if non-critical social events might lead to critical and important work developments; if that time might be better spent sorting the hand-me-down baby clothes into piles that take into account the size and seasonality preferences of various younger cousins; or if my mom’s schedule might allow her to come by and be an extra set of hands. And you wonder why I’m up in the middle of the night, so tightly wound it’s all I can do to stop from slingshotting out of bed to get breakfast ready by moonlight, just to tick one thing off my list.
“Time is a resource of health,” Jennifer Ervin told me over a Zoom. “There is this double burden for so many women – of having a paid workforce position, and then, once that work ends, huge amounts of unpaid labor in the mornings and evenings.”
Ervin is the lead researcher of a study to come out of the University of Melbourne, published in the Lancet earlier this month, entitled “Gender differences in the association between unpaid labour and mental health in employed adults: a systematic review,” believed to be the first of its kind to examine the gendered intersection of the three realms – work, home and mental health – that happen to make up the bulk of my daily concerns.
After reviewing 14 studies – some of which examined housework time, others childcare, and others unpaid labor – Ervin’s report concludes that “inequities in the division of unpaid labour expose women to greater risk of poorer mental health than men”, a result of “so-called role conflict and role overload, which triggers stress-related pathways and thereby can affect psychological wellbeing”.
The more rushed you are, the more time-pressured, the more tasks you’re juggling simultaneously, the more likely you are to get stressed. One study referenced by Ervin found that “rushing is linked to being a woman, lone parenthood, disability, lack of control and work-family conflicts”. Rushing is linked to being a woman. Sigh.
“Unpaid labor” as a concept has been studied in the sociological literature for quite some time, usually through the lens of fairness and gender parity, or workplace participation. The 2018 American Time Use Survey found that women ages 25-34 spend eight hours a day on unpaid work, versus men’s 3.9 hours. (For ages 35-44, that goes up to 5.2 for men and a whopping 8.8 for women.) But only recently, Ervin told me, have researchers started to examine it as a social determinant of health.
Covid contributed to soaring anxiety and stress the world over, and the American Psychological Association pronounced a “national health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come” in America. Just how are the mental shards in my brain being affected by the constant, slightly deranged chatter of my to-do list, and how to most efficiently complete it?
I know that when I fill out the permission slips, and make sure we have the milk, and schedule the doctor’s appointments, and do the laundry, that’s all “unpaid labor”. But the term’s fuzzy designation makes it – to borrow from that famous supreme court case – a bit like porn: you know it when you see it. While my hedging about an email response is not necessarily the same as doing a load of laundry, it’s not entirely different either. It’s both a consequence of that unpaid labor, and a form of it, Ervin told me, which is one of the challenges of studying the topic.
“The mental load, whether or not it comes under the umbrella of unpaid labor – and a lot of people would agree it does – is very hard to capture,” she said. “How can you measure what’s going on in someone’s brain? When they’re on a Zoom and getting a call from their kid’s school and thinking about what they need to do later that night?”
One of the more nuanced points in the study was that “women carry the greater mental load of household labour; therefore one unpaid hour is considered denser and more impactful for women than for men, and therefore might not be directly comparable”. It’s partially the reason, the researchers posit, that unpaid labor is less likely to result in poorer mental health for men, which might, in turn, be due to the type of tasks men often take on. While I appreciate the researchers’ suggestion that “outdoor or maintenance” tasks might fall into this bucket of less time-sensitive, possibly more enjoyable unpaid labor, my husband, a tech guy, is as likely to pick up a rake or screwdriver as he is to spontaneously start orating Chaucer from memory. But I take their point. And this mental load – constant, invisible, perniciously seeping into most of my waking and sleeping hours – is something that Ervin, herself, wrestles with in her own home, where she and her husband are raising two daughters.
“I have a particularly egalitarian husband with respect to his views, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the day-to-day,” she said, uttering what could be the headline of nearly every conversation I have with girlfriends. “And it’s really hard to shift the dial at an individual household level.” How, I wondered, could I force my husband to join me in the trenches of Obsessively Thinking About Labeling the Preschooler’s Change of Clothes for School until that task was completed?
She’s a firm believer that the better the parental leave policies of a given country, the more impactful and positive the ripple effects, since if a father is taking care of a child from an early age, it sets the stage for more caregiving later on. Norway, a country that allots a whopping 49 weeks of parental leave to families, with 15 weeks given specifically to each parent in a “use it or lose it” model, is one to emulate, though Ervin isn’t particularly optimistic that the rest of the world is going to catch up anytime soon. Which is partially why she felt it key to research and publish the study.
“Fifty per cent of the population is going, ‘OK, this is not news to anybody,’” she snorted. “It’s people’s lived experience, absolutely, but to show it on a population level is important.” It’s only then that the other 50% of the population might get on board to actively rethink workplace flexibility, parental leave and other family-friendly policies.
After a few more days of hemming and hawing, I said yes to that Happy Hour meetup. It’s going to be at 4pm, and might involve a coffee instead of a martini, and I’ll be back in time to catch half of my own family’s happy hour. But I’m looking forward to it.
And on we stumble.