In our society, it's usually moms who keep track of the day-to-day tasks that keep a family moving. "Who can relate to the running to-do list we keep in our heads every day?" asks Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, founding director of The Motherhood Center in New York City. "Pick up the dry cleaning on Tuesday; buy a birthday present for your child’s friend's party this weekend; schedule a dentist appointment for both kids; remember the parent/teacher conference next week; bring in brownies for the school bake sale this Friday; get the dog his updated immunizations in order to stay at the doggy day care when you all go on vacation in two weeks; remember your son has sprouted three inches overnight and his pants are now floods and he has a class picture next week so he needs new pants by next Tuesday. As I say this, I'm actually having a mild panic attack because this is my honest to-do list for this week — and that is only half of it! And a lot of the time moms are the ones who stay on top of all of these things and more. It’s a full-time job in itself!"
The to-do list Bellenbaum describes can also be called "invisible labor," or tasks that are often unpaid and unnoticed, but essential. Studies show (more on those later) that mothers bear more of the brunt of invisible labor, and it's taking its toll. The path to relieving some of the burden first involves understanding invisible labor for what it is.
What is invisible labor?
Invisible labor is just what it sounds like: work that goes unnoticed (and therefore uncompensated). "Invisible labor is a handy phrase that captures all the work someone does that goes unseen or unacknowledged by others, including those who are benefiting from that work getting done," says Haley Swenson, Ph.D., deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America. "Invisible labor could be something that takes place in the office — maybe the same woman is cleaning up the office kitchen at the end of every day, and nobody notices. But more often people are finding the phrase useful to describe work at home that nobody notices, but which is essential to the function of a household and ultimately, like the work of raising kids, might even be necessary for the future of our society."
"Invisible labor" is used interchangeably with terms like "unpaid work," "mental load," and "emotional labor," but they're all slightly different.
Yes, these are all terms for work can be overlooked, unacknowledged, and uncompensated. Unpaid work is the broadest of these terms. "Unpaid work is any kind of work you don't get compensated for," Dr. Swenson says. "In other words, you produced a good — you baked cookies! — or provided a service, like taking the kids to school, and didn't get paid for it. The bulk of unpaid work out there takes place in and around people's homes, but it could also take place in a workplace." Employees who plan a co-worker's birthday celebration or tidy up the communal areas even though it's not in their job descriptions are all doing unpaid work.
This is often lumped in with emotional labor, but emotional labor actually involves managing someone else's feelings. "I often find that people in customer service are the most talented emotional laborers I know," she says. "They can take a bad customer experience, say the right things with a reassuring smile, and make you feel better than you did before. But many people do this work at home on a daily basis: comforting crying kids, motivating a teenager before a test, figuring out the best way to start a hard conversation with their spouse without triggering an argument. When that's not acknowledged as work or it's not acknowledged that one person is doing the bulk of it, that's when emotional labor is invisible labor."
And keeping track of all of these unseen, unpaid, unacknowledged tasks add up to what's called the mental load. "The mental load is all the planning and coordinating that has to take place just in someone's head to lay the groundwork for a successful day, event, or activity," she adds. "That mental load is often invisible to us, not just because it happens mainly in someone's brain, but because we never acknowledge that it was labor in its own right, that it took energy and time that could've been spent elsewhere, and that it made the successful activity possible."
All of these tasks can be invisible. "Obviously there's a lot of overlap between them," Dr. Swenson says. "They're all often things that happen in the quiet of someone's home. And, significantly, women do more of all these forms of labor than men do and tend to receive lesser compensation for them if they are acknowledged and paid for them."
Typically, moms do the bulk of a family's invisible labor.
To generalize overall, women tend to do more invisible labor than men. "Invisible and visible labor are gendered concepts," says Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of A Better Balance. "Historically, men have not done labor or work that is unpaid, and women have not been paid for their work, even when it was essential. Women's work, particularly the work of women of color, has time and again been undervalued and pushed behind closed doors out of the public eye."
These differences are exacerbated once women become mothers. "Studies have shown that, before having children, many couples share the load of managing their household and working outside the home fairly evenly," Dr. Swenson says. "It's having kids that often makes these inequalities most exaggerated. It can start small — Mom quits her job when she gives birth or is the only one able to take parental leave — and then the inequalities in who does what build up one right after another. Pretty soon, only Mom feels like she knows enough about taking care of the baby to handle doctors' appointments, and she's the only one at home to notice the floor needs to be swept."
If there's one area when men do more than their share of invisible labor, it's managing the family finances and home maintenance, but the results are not as severe. "The ramifications of being in charge of finances were not nearly as bad as the ramifications of feeling responsible for the kids’ emotional wellbeing or running the household," says Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., founder and executive director of Authentic Connections Groups and co-author of a 2019 study on invisible labor. "Being responsible for finances is a pretty high-level job, as opposed to the grunt job of saying, ‘Who’s picking up the kid?’ or ‘Who’s buying the goodie bags for the party?’ Grunt work is stressful and unrewarding. Financial decisions do not carry the same kind of drudgery."
In addition, men are more likely to be acknowledged for the work they do. "People tend to notice a freshly mowed lawn once a week in ways they don't notice the carpet has been vacuumed every day," Dr. Swenson says. "That visibility matters a lot. Often, couples think they are evenly sharing the load because they have some kind of division of labor like that worked out, without realizing that means Mom has twenty tasks that take 18 hours a week and Dad has five tasks that take four hours a week."
Taking on too much invisible labor has negative effects on moms.
The results of Dr. Luthar's most recent study showed that taking on a disproportionate amount of invisible labor, "was associated with strains on mothers’ personal well-being as well as lower satisfaction with the relationship." She tells Good Housekeeping that consequences can include exhaustion, depression, being irritable, feeling under-appreciated, and becoming isolated. "It takes a great deal of time and energy to be keeping all of these balls up in the air," she says.
According to her research, the aspect that is most draining for moms is the emotional labor of managing children's emotional states. "That was the most strongly related to mom’s stress, and also the dimension where moms felt that they disproportionately were alone," she says."That’s the really weighty one. Being in touch with their children’s emotions, their psychological needs, their hurts and their pains, and being vigilant about taking care of all that and doing interventions when necessary — that is a huge. It takes a toll."
It's also really easy for mothers overlook the effects of invisible labor on their mental health. "Women themselves often don’t realize how much they are doing," says Jelena Kecmanovic, Ph.D., founder and director of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute. "They just find themselves always on the run, exhausted, and never having time for themselves."
Evening out the load and gathering a good support system helps.
To take off some of the invisible burden, you have to make it visible. "You could start with writing down all of the invisible labor you do over a week, making sure to pay attention to multitasking," Dr. Kecmanovic says. "This could help you realize how much you're actually doing, which might allow you to become kinder to yourself, to advocate for and take more breaks, and to make sure that you have stretches of uninterrupted time to focus on work, self-care, or leisure activities."
"Don't make it so easy for people to turn a blind eye to the work you're doing, especially work that's benefiting them," Dr. Swenson adds. "Start announcing your work: 'Mom is going to stop playing this game now, so she can wash laundry for you all.' It may seem a little passive aggressive at first, but it's also simply the truth! We know from anecdotal evidence that making sure all the labor women are doing is seen and acknowledged is a huge first step to getting more men involved. Sometimes, men truly do not realize how much of the mental load their female partners are carrying or how much emotional labor they're doing."
Dr. Swenson's Better Life Lab has a science-informed tool for helping families make the invisible labor visible and then share it more fairly. Better Life Lab Experiments brings on "beta testers" to try methods of rebalancing the load at home. Experiment No. 1 focuses on how to make sure all members of the family get leisure time to do an activity they enjoy; the most recent one, Experiment No. 19, tackles the thorny task of assigning out household chores. One strategy they've learned? "It's important that you don't involve men simply by giving them randomly assigned tasks," Dr. Swenson says. "Men, take on whole tasks and areas of responsibility, including the emotional and mental parts of it."
For mothers, this also means letting go of some control — mothers often fall into a trap of gatekeeping, where they take on more of the burden because they think they will do it better than anyone else. While partners do have to agree on some kind of shared standard when it comes to invisible labor, "the hardest part for women is actually letting go of it," Bellenbaum says.
She offers this example: A mom believes the best way to change the baby's diaper is with an entire system of wipes and lotions. When the dad does it, he just uses a quick wipe. "I might find myself not allowing my partner to change the baby’s diaper anymore because he is not doing it the 'right' way," she says. "Then I find myself changing the baby’s diaper all the time, and I feel a growing resentment towards my partner for not ever changing the baby’s diaper. Meanwhile the message my partner is getting is: She seems to have it all under control on her own, and she doesn’t like the way I do it anyway." Diaper duty becomes mom's invisible responsibility for the duration. "So, what is the moral of this story? Practice tolerating the discomfort of allowing your partner do more even if they don’t do it the same exact way you do! Opening the gate allows for partners to step in and step up."
"One of my favorite words is 'surrender,'" she adds. "I love this word in the context of giving in — not giving up. To surrender is to give yourself permission to not be perfect, and to tolerate the act of dropping balls."
Dr. Luthar's research also shows that having a support system is even more effective in combating the negative affects of disproportionate invisible labor. "It's important to push your partner up to as high as he will go, but the most critical thing by far is to have ongoing adequate support," she says. "You need to say to say, ‘I always need to have a sisterhood of other mothers who get it, who support me, and who help me through this exhausting job. Motherhood is wonderful but in this day and age, it’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you feel like you’re walking a tightrope most of the time." Dr. Luthar has run motherhood support groups — even virtual ones that met online — and found nothing but positive results. "Not one woman has dropped out of these groups," she says. "It just tells you what a great need there is for connectedness and support with all this stuff that we’re carrying around."
And if you're taking in the real big picture, laws and policy changes could go even further in evening out the amount of invisible labor shouldered by parents. "Women should not assume that these are their own problems to bear alone or that it's their responsibility to change societal norms," A Better Balance's Gedmark says. "Culture change comes from legal and policy changes. When men take paid parental leave, and when laws encourage men to provide caregiving to loved ones who need it in a broader sense, they are much more likely to be engaged in caregiving and in a child's development for life. Similarly, laws that protect working women, like stronger pregnancy discrimination protections, ensure that they're able to achieve gender parity at work and at home. That's why we need better public policy protections for workers, especially low-wage workers."
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