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

Philosophically, our definition of family-related mental labor challenges traditional views of family work. In the broadest sense, everyone does mental labor because everyone performs thinking work for those things over which they have responsibility. Many jobs require ownership over projects, tasks, or human welfare, and these jobs involve substantial mental labor (e.g., organization executives, directors of programs, classroom teachers, office managers). The complex mental work embedded in paid jobs is usually compensated and recognized with commensurate job titles (e.g., manager, supervisor, consultant). By contrast, domestic work is generally unlabeled and has often been characterized as mundane, 196 Psychology of Women Quarterly 43(2) menial, manual, and routinized (Bird & Ross, 1993; Treas & Tai, 2012). The current findings suggest that, though some housework has a routinized character, a vital portion of family care is devoted to the sort of dynamic, complex, knowledge-demanding, problem-solving and systemsmanagement that any other director, manager, or leader must be devoted to (p.196)


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



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