November.22.2021

How strong schools became the backbone of the juggle struggle

By Raechel Johns and Rebecca English

When state premiers came out and said that schools were going to close in March of 2020, there was audible panic among parents. 

There was one exception to the ‘closed school’ rule, the children of essential workers

Somewhere buried in those directives was the simple truth about schools –  schools are essential for families so that they can keep working, pandemic or no pandemic.

We wanted to know if what we had always assumed was correct, that schools are one of the means that allows women today to juggle more than our mothers.

In short, we wanted to know if schools were an important part of allowing women to work and have children.

While we were undertaking this work during the pandemic, we wanted to understand how working women juggle it all and all the time, not just during COVID. 

We spoke with over 200 women to ask how they juggle it all. What we found, for anyone who works in a school, will be unsurprising.

What we found was that schools provide a huge amount of support to working families to give them the chance to pursue their work.

The women we interviewed were from a range of backgrounds. Some had families, some didn’t. Some were partnered, some weren’t, and some were in polyamorous relationships. We interviewed straight women and women within the LGBTIQA+ community.  

The women we spoke with reported having a huge mental load to carry. We defined the mental load as the emotional and psychological burden of the little things, the small, everyday, quotidian tasks that keep a house, a family and the world running. 

The mental load is everything from, in a family with kids for instance, making sure the children work on their homework, and knowing when it’s due, remembering to pick up milk from the grocery store, checking that the second load of washing goes into the dryer, making sure they have booked in to see the doctor and other various little ‘details and things’ that have to be done around and outside the house.

The biggest issue with the mental load was the job of remembering everything. And, this task fell almost exclusively on the women in heterosexual families.

And the group with the biggest mental load was heterosexual women with children. When it came to the pandemic, those women with children were under the most stress and pressure. As one of our participants stated:

I definitely carry about 90% of the mental load, my husband the other 10%, usually about himself. All other tasks, responsibilities to do with our children, dog and household fall to me. In terms of household tasks, it would be 80% me, 15% my husband, 5% my children. I would love them all to do more but they complain and don’t do it”.

She was hardly alone, we met a lot of women who were in the same boat, who were struggling before the pandemic, but even more during the school closures and lockdowns. 

Women we spoke with relied heavily on schools to help them manage their competing demands, indicating that their workload had increased considerably once school attendance was no longer available to their children.

But, while schools definitely gave women the chance to work, it also increased their mental load. Interestingly, it seemed to be the women who were responsible for being the interface between family and school.

In spite of women working more hours than ever before, of our 205 interviewees, we found that 154 said they were the major responsible person in their household. These 154 were tying the children’s shoelaces, turning up to the school when the child was in sick-bay and taking that phone call when the school needed something to do with their child.

We already knew, from the data, that women today are doing more than their mothers ever did. In spite of their increased paid work, they’re spending more time with their children than their mothers did in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as the following table shows.

We also know men are doing more than they used to, but, in most heterosexual relationships where the family has children, the adult called on to do the school stuff is usually the mother. Some of our respondents stated that even where the father was listed as the primary contact, the mother was the one the school got in touch with.

Interestingly, the women in our study who were in homosexual, or poly relationships with children, reported there was always one person who was largely responsible for the multitasking: remembering the school excursions, the sports kit and the parent-teacher interviews as well as loading the dishwasher, putting on the next whites load and, on top of all that, the stuff for their own paid work. If they were a mixed sex poly realtionshiop that person was, can you guess?, a woman. 

But in spite of costing extra work, it was schools, we found, that provide an important opportunity for women to maintain links to the workforce. Schools allowed mums to manage their time and, yes, get a vital break from the kids. However, these women were paying that debt back in time, in the mental load, in remembering what the schools needed of them.

Our book provides a commentary on the lives of women today, presents research, and suggests strategies for balancing the mental load in practical ways.

We found that, before we can have equality within the workplace, there needs to be more equality at home, too.

The Superwoman Myth: Can Contemporary Women Have It All Now? by Jennifer Loh, Raechel Johns and Rebecca English (Routledge) Raechel Johns (left) is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Canberra, and currently the Head of the Canberra Business School. She has broad research interests focus on service management including technology use and also community wellbeing. She also has research interests in management, particularly focusing on workforce trends, the future of work, and productivity.  Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.

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