There’s a reason you’ve been so exhausted amid the pandemic — especially if you’re a mom — and, luckily, it’s not a problem that has no name.
It’s likely invisible labor, the notion of unpaid and unseen work that’s often used to describe the particular burden faced by cisgender women in heterosexual relationships with respect to tasks like cooking meals or taking care of kids. It’s gotten even worse thanks to the coronavirus, which has brought more instability than usual, economic and otherwise, along with the need to care for families at home all the time.
Take schooling: Previously, you’d have some built-in, kid-free breaks after you dropped them off at school in the morning and before you picked them up in the afternoon. While invisible labor didn’t end, the schedule at least allowed for some time away from them. That’s gone now. Couple that with all of the other stresses that come from living through a pandemic, and you get a pressure cooker for mothers, who are frequently taking on the bulk of these new responsibilities.
“The pandemic thus far has been a disaster for women,” Haley Swenson, deputy director of the Better Life Lab and a trained sociologist who focuses on gender inequality and the care economy, says. “Before the pandemic, women were doing twice as much labor in the home as men. We were already in a pretty bad place, but the pain points that were there before COVID are definitely being exacerbated.”
Though each household is different, Swenson and Leng Leng Chancey, the executive director of 9to5, an organization that works to put issues relevant to working women on the national agenda, both estimate that some degree of internalized ideas about gender roles comes into play when women take on the bulk of invisible labor related to caregiving and maintaining the house. Chancey has a blunt solution for the invisible labor women take on at home: “Dismantle patriarchy.”
Indeed, that’s the big picture issue here. But there are things families can do about it, starting in their own homes. Mashable talked to Swenson and Chancey about how to use the pandemic to work on more equitably dividing invisible labor.
It’s crucial to note that these changes can’t come solely from the parent who’s engaged in the bulk of the invisible labor. Rethinking the work divide in your own home is a communal task that everyone under the same roof must take part in if it’s to get any better.
Here’s how to start now.
1. Take stock of your household
As might be expected for a term that starts with the word “invisible,” it’s often tricky to parse out when you’re engaging in it, Swenson notes.
Often, that’s the product of busy schedules. If you’re frantically trying to check off all the boxes on your daily list of tasks, “operating under a model of fairness” is rarely a top priority, she says.
“It becomes part of your bones, and when you’re busy, you don’t realize it,” Swenson says.
This perpetual busyness applies to the pandemic: No matter how much soothing cottagecore content you consume, for most people — particularly essential workers and parents — the pandemic has been anything but a portrait of leisure. Instead, Swenson and Chancey point out, the juggling of work and childcare, as well as the overall precariousness of the economy, has actually made many people busier than they were before the coronavirus spread.
But Swenson maintains that there are ways to bend the requirements imposed by quarantining to your benefit: If you’re working from home and your kids are distance learning, your family can take a moment to really observe all that has to happen in your household to keep it running in a way you probably never could before.
There are ways to bend the requirements imposed by quarantining to your benefit.
Swenson suggests spending a week, along with your partner or other family members, taking inventory in the house: Does someone need to help the kids with classes on Zoom? How often? Who’s getting the groceries; who’s making dinner each night? It’s all work.
Once all of the necessary tasks are identified, write down the name of the person who typically completes that task. That’s the first step to reworking the distribution of tasks in your own home, according to Swenson.
Given the way household chores are typically distributed in cisgender, heterosexual partnerships, it’s easy to assume that a list like this would serve as passive-aggressive finger-wagging, reminding male partners how desperately they’re lacking. That’s not necessarily the case. Swenson says that when she’s worked with families who have made this sort of list, all parties stand to be surprised.
Since all of this work is “invisible” to some extent, seeing it mapped out could lead to any number of discoveries. You might find patterns you didn’t expect. Use them to help you determine how you should redistribute chores.
2. Draw boundaries
Once you’ve all established what tasks are necessary in your household amid the pandemic, your family can start divvying them up more fairly. (You can do this with a pen and paper, but there are also apps that can give male partners a concrete model for taking on household work.)
Some of this redistribution might be logical, based on what patterns emerged. Let’s say you notice your teenage son has taken a new interest in helping with dinner each night, since he didn’t have time to experiment in the kitchen before the pandemic. If cooking gives him a sense of purpose and pleasure, there’s probably no reason to change anything.
But, of course, these are unprecedented times, and a lot of the tasks your family identifies will probably either be entirely new duties, like Zoom schooling, or pandemic-era variations on existing tasks, like grocery shopping with a new set of precautions.
For every task, particularly new, pandemic-related ones, Swenson recommends making sure there’s a clear point person — and a point person for every mini-task that emerges. Grocery shopping might now include making sure masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer are at the ready. Is that something that falls under “groceries,” as a task, or does it need a separate designation? Consider that as your family determines who’s responsible for what.
This isn’t about excessive rigidity; it’s about a sense of ownership, Swenson maintains. Making sure someone is responsible for a given task helps in more ways than one.
Making sure someone is responsible for a given task helps in more ways than one.
First, moms who are currently doing most of the invisible labor at home will be unburdened from some tasks; this delineation helps ensure the tasks are still being completed by someone. “As women, it’s very hard to get out of that mentality [of taking up every household task] because we’re socialized into it,” Chancey explains. Just as important, it gives a sense of duty to whoever is completing each task, which can help them stick with it if it’s not something they normally do.
Simply assigning names to chores might work for things like washing the dishes or preparing your kids’ schedules, but, as Swenson points out, you also have to make sure other people you’re interacting with, such as employers and teachers, understand how your family is assigning tasks at home right now.
Take Zoom schooling. Often, she hears fathers say they’d love to help out more with school-related tasks, but the school never calls them. Swenson recommends families take a cue from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg, a working mother who was receiving the bulk of her son’s school-related communication, told the school with characteristic firmness: “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.”
Think through how it will all work. Let’s say you and your partner decide to split Zoom-related schooling duties 50/50. The two of you need to make sure everyone is receiving communication from the school so that’s actually feasible. “Think of every institution your kid interacts with, and then call them and tell them, ‘From now on, please contact Dad [as well],'” she says. (Better Life Lab has tips on how to do this.)
3. Teach your kids what matters
There’s a good chance your kids are around the house more than ever before, and they have a role to play in equitably dividing up invisible labor, too.
Swenson notes that kids are much more capable of completing chores, even at a young age, than parents often realize. (Better Life Lab has compiled a list of “age-appropriate” chores from a variety of developmental and parenting organizations, which can be found here.)
For example, kids two and up (yes, really) can wipe up spills or carry their own dishes to the sink; kids six and up can dust or sort recycling; and kids 12 and up can be trusted to cook complete meals for themselves or wash cars.
As your family works out what tasks your kids will complete during quarantine, Swenson stresses that the lasting benefit, in terms of alleviating invisible labor, comes from conveying to your kids “the value of care.”
The lasting benefit, in terms of alleviating invisible labor, comes from conveying to your kids “the value of care.”
“Think of your kids as future adults who will be in households on their own one day,” Swenson says. You and your partner should let them know “All of this labor [they’re doing] is valuable. We couldn’t function without it, and that means we all have to contribute to it.”
When invisible labor is presented as a public good, they’ll feel like they’re not just completing a task, but contributing to a wider family culture. If you can get your own kids to value invisible labor, their future households might do the same.
4. Think big picture
For all the negotiations you might make in your own household to improve matters, Swenson and Chancey want people to understand that the problem of invisible labor goes deeper than individuals or families. For instance, an academic study of invisible labor revealed that, when controlling for factors that could determine a mother’s mental health, bearing sole responsibility for a kid’s emotional wellbeing could lead to reports of lower life and partner satisfaction.
“There’s no way it could be happening on this level if it was just you,” Swenson says to moms taking on invisible labor. “It’s not your fault; it’s a system-wide failing.”
To truly undo the disproportionate invisible labor burden for women, they point to similar policy recommendations. Swenson notes that America’s childcare system is intensely lacking compared to other wealthy nations — some countries provide government-sponsored daycare, for instance, which can relieve women of some of their childcare duties when needed — and the pandemic further demonstrates why this needs changing. A working mom in the U.S. sees very few affordable childcare options, yet an affordable system of childcare would allow working mothers to attend to their work duties without being burdened with childcare during their workday.
“It’s not your fault; it’s a system-wide failing.”
In the CARES Act, Congress allotted $3.5 billion in emergency funding to the childcare industry, which was already struggling financially before the pandemic and is now on the brink of collapse, according to many. Both Democrats and Republicans have introduced other measures in Congress to try to save it. While $3.5 billion might sound like a lot, the National Women’s Law Center found that at least $9.6 billion per month of the pandemic would be needed to keep the childcare industry running. (By way of comparison, Swenson points out that Delta Airlines, on its own, received a $5.4 billion bailout.)
Chancey and Swenson also point to the lack of paid leave in the U.S. as another reason women end up taking on more duties at home. In the U.S., so many social benefits are dependent on what Swenson calls an “employer lottery,” where the amount of paid leave and job flexibility you receive varies from employer to employer.
If, between the employers for a straight couple, only paid maternity leave is available, it would have to be the mom who takes time off, which could establish her as the primary caregiver for the kids down the road as well, even if only because of habits built during that time period, she says.
Additionally, unforeseen health circumstances can radically shift the kinds of household caregiving tasks, like caring for elders or children if they get sick, that are needed to keep a given family running. It’s likely that women would take up those caregiving tasks, potentially resulting in lost pay or longer-term career setbacks, without paid leave.
“Families need leave for lots of different care-related reasons. If someone gets sick, plans are out the window,” Swenson says. “The pandemic has put a magnifying glass on that issue.”
Then, of course, there’s the biggest issue of all when it comes to invisible labor: The patriarchy itself. The patriarchy is a social system that affords power to men, hence, as Chancey says, the patriarchy devalues women, and women’s work. Ultimately eradicating an unfair division of invisible labor will take “dismantling that system of oppression.”
“We’re carrying with us centuries of gender inequality,” Swenson explains to women. We’re not going to solve that next month, or even next year, but she maintains that your own household, especially right now, is a worthwhile place to start making changes for the better.