For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Mothers and Mental Labor: A Phenomenological Focus Group Study of Family-Related Thinking Work"

by Robertson, Lindsey G; Anderson, Tamara L; Hall, M Elizabeth Lewis; Kim, Christina Lee (2019)


Mental labor is an under-researched and long-invisible component of family work. Scholars have described mental labor as important, taxing, and disproportionately performed by mothers compared to fathers. However, operational definitions used in these studies were only preliminary and lack unified terminology. Answering calls for expanded views of household labor and better definitions of its content, we undertook a phenomenological investigation of family-related mental labor performed by mothers. Our interpretive phenomenological analysis of seven focus group interviews produced a definition of mothers? mental labor and its component parts that was empirically grounded in the lived experience of mothers of young children (N = 25). Distinct from housework chores, childcare, and emotion work, mental labor emerged as thinking activity performed for the sake of accomplishing family goals. We identified six forms of mental labor: (a) planning and strategizing, (b) monitoring and anticipating needs, (c) metaparenting, (d) knowing (learning and remembering), (e) managerial thinking (including delegating and instructing), and (f) self-regulation. All participating mothers represented themselves as their family?s primary mental laborer, regardless of employment status or their partner?s level of involvement. Our description of mental labor may help parents, researchers, clinicians, policy makers, and educators recognize, value, and better account for the mental labor dynamics operating in the construction of family life, reproduction of gender roles, and perpetuation of gender gaps in family labor division and mental load. Online slides for instructors who want to use this article for teaching are available on PWQ's website at

Key Passage

Sociologists Hochschild and Machung (1989) used invisible work to refer to labor that was not just socially unacknowledged but also literally invisible. Calling attention to the uncompensated commodification and health risks of invisible work that is required of women in hospitality jobs, Hochschild (1983) coined the term emotion work (i.e., affect performance enacted to fulfill job requirements). Hochschild distinguished emotion work from the physical and mental aspects of a job but did not elaborate on the mental aspects. Studying families’ meal preparation, DeVault (1987, 1991) used the terms invisible labor and mental work interchangeably to describe psychological work that precedes grocery shopping or cooking (e.g., meal planning, monitoring kitchenstores, ascertaining what family members will eat, orchestrating meal-time rituals). She characterized this work as occurring in one’s thoughts, extending throughout the day, and consuming the largest portion of the responsible party’s (almost always the mother’s) food-related efforts. Analyzing interviews with new parents, Walzer (1996) used mental labor as an umbrella term to distinguish thinking, feeling, and interpersonal work from the physical tasks of infant care. She identified three forms of baby-related mental labor that wereperformed by mothers (worry, information processing, and division of labor) and argued that gendered division of unacknowledged mental labor contributed to marital stress and increased gender differentiation after having children.Although these studies illuminated the existence and gendered nature of non-physical family work, they are limited by their narrow focus (i.e., feeding, infant-care), loose use of terminology, and failure to distinguish thinking from affectregulation aspects of invisible work. (p.185)


Women, Family Work, Feminism, Emotion Work, Mental Labor, Household Labor



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