The mental load in separated families
Keywords:shared care, cognitive labour, separation, childcare, contact
Objective: This paper asks how evolving contact and gendered working lives, gendered identities, and conflict and parental relationships influence cognitive labour in separated families.
Background: The fact that the often-invisible work of planning, researching, and executing decisions concerning children and household maintenance is borne by women/mothers, receives growing research attention, yet, the bulk of this research focuses on the gendered division of the mental load in intact families. Given the high prevalence of separated families with high levels of father contact, more work is needed to understand how cognitive labour is divided by parents residing in separate households.
Method: This paper draws on 31 semi-structured interviews of separated parents, including 7 former couples. Interviews were sampled from a nationally representative longitudinal survey, Understanding Society, professionally transcribed and thematically analysed with Nvivo.
Results: Analysing the interviews reveals both continuity and change in the division of the mental load following separation. For some families, gendered identities and working lives continue to justify an unequal division of the mental load, even when children spend large amounts of time solely with fathers. In others, conflict can reduce communication between parents, either increasing fathers cognitive labour through parallel parenting or decreasing it when fathers are excluded from decision-making altogether. Finally, separation can present a turning point where working lives and identities are re-evaluated, and the mental load can be negotiated anew.
Conclusion: We provide new evidence that the mental load remains gendered even among those practicing a relatively "modern" family form of shared care post-separation, while highlighting possibilities for variation and change.