My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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psychological overhead of responsibility

A friend asked if i wanted children. This prompted a long conversation about what i call psychological overhead and i’m curious to know if there’s a proper psychology term for it.

Psychological overhead is the amount of cognitive work that must be done to make certain that a responsibility is taken care of. In other words, if two members of a household split all chores but one is in charge of making sure that they’re split and completed, there is no equality because the psychological overhead is at play. It takes a rare housing situation for everyone to equally maintain the psychological overhead.

This connects to children because in most families that i know, one person maintains psychological overhead even when the responsibilities are purportedly shared. This is almost always the mother in a het parenting structure. This is the person who will by default take care of things or ask the partner to take care of things. In older children, this inevitably is the parent who is by-default called when something happens.

This conversation turned to queer culture and how psychological overhead plays out in marginalized populations. It is usually the queer person’s responsibility to translate society’s het structures into a model that makes sense. Queers also typically verbalize their experiences in a het structure in order to be accepted (fuck you HRC). There’s a psychological overhead of responsibility here, whereby the queer gets to do all the translation for the normative community.

Anyhow, i have to imagine that psychologists have a term for this and something that can be read. Anyone?

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8 comments to psychological overhead of responsibility

  • Josie

    I remember, a long time ago now, reading a feminist critique where it was referred to very eloquently as “the emotional shit-work.

  • stef

    queer or not queer, there has to be love between the couple and a long term commitment and value system prior to getting into a parenting role.

    when times become rough, you will have to depend on your partner for support and comfort. Life has many ups and downs. Expect arguments and expect to compromise; expect to be disappointed with life and your partner after some years: but the joy of having children negates the pain of life, and brings a family together, queer or not queer.

    Learn to forgive, and have good will in your heart, your inner thoughts will dictate your actions; give each other a break when times are rough and society makes you feel uneasy: but love is powerful and will heal the hurt.

    You will wind up sacrificing a lot for children: they increasingly will come first. Expect to be both mothers, and fathers. Time can be strange; you will sacrifice lots of things, and that is to be expected and normal. Expect that the childs first drawing, or first words read, or pie made, will be what really matters.

    stef

  • hmmm… good question! something to focus my structured procrastination on. I’ll get back to you on that one 🙂

  • 1. witty reference to feminism.

    2. vague truism. meaningless platitude. outright cliche. trite conclusion.

    3. uninformative, enthusiastic non-answer! emoticon.

    jesus christ, people.

  • Interesting. I don’t *think* my daughter’s father or I take on more of this psychological overhead than the other. We have split custody, every other week more or less, and it certainly feels very equal. But then her dad’s always been very active as a father, even before we split up. I can’t really remember what it was like before the break (five happy years ago) but I know I like SHARING parenting and if I were to ever have another child I would want to be very sure that the father really did his share.

  • kt

    Hmm, good luck finding research on this. I’ll be checking back to see if you do. Ursula K Leguin has something to say on this topic in “Language of the Night,” wrt “mother tongue” … googling I find some of this essay in a commencement speeech here.

    She talks about housekeeping as the ”art of making order where people live.”

    To the extent that psychologists understand and can theorize about art, I would expect it to show up in their journals. To the extent that most psychologists study pathologies, sicknesses, because healthy people usually don’t show up for studies, you may infer that I would not expect it to show up at all.

    If you take on her thesis, then, even if men *truly wanted* to take on the equal psychological burden (which includes things like not only taking child to drs appt, but remembering to schedule it in the first place, without prodding), and I really think that men of our generation *truly want* to do this, then they need to learn “mother tongue” – which may actually be next to impossible to learn in adulthood. and, men and women have different brain chemistry. It may be physically impossible for them to be able to perceive this as art. But, it could also be that if raised from childhood to percieve this, then the DNA would express a different phenotype, and let men have different brain structures in adulthood. And society at large would have to reinforce this as a goodness instead of sissyness, or the brain would reject this structure as against survival.

    I would love to be proven wrong, and see studies on the topic.

  • It’s called emotion work. I think the term was developed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. See _The Second Shift_. It’s the stuff you have to do to make sure stuff gets done, and in heterosexual relationships it’s usually done by the woman.

  • Wow! Thank you! Now i have other research areas to research while procrastinating my own. Yippeeeee