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The Invisible Work That Weighs You Down

Yes, all the data says men and women increasingly share household work. However, there’s an under-the-radar kind of work that is less shared and taxes our already too-full load. Read on – we know you’ll let out a sigh of “yes!”

My husband and I share a lot of the household responsibilities, but I’m always the one who thinks about signing Mia up for soccer or what we are going to do about Ollie’s birthday. It’s exhausting.

WHY

Allison Daminger, a Doctoral Student in Sociology & Social Policy at Harvard, recently published a study documenting gender disparity in labor when it comes to household management. She identified something labeled cognitive labor – it’s work that falls disproportionately on women’s shoulders, is less visible, and is separate from (and in addition to) the physical tasks of everyday, e.g. laundry, cleaning, etc. There are four distinct aspects to cognitive labor that you’ll likely identify with: anticipating needs (e.g. We should sign Ariel up for music classes), identifying options for filling them (e.g. What classes are in our neighborhood that others say are good?), making decisions (e.g. What day, where, with whom, how are they getting to and from?) and monitoring progress (e.g. Does she like it? Is it close enough to home?). Women, it turns out, do much more anticipating and monitoring than men do. These are laborious, time-consuming, and often less rewarding tasks. Here are three steps to consider to better manage this labor which adds to mental distraction and overload:

What To Do (Bites)

  1. It’s culturally engrained, so it has to be unlearned, but it’s worth it.

    Do we really think we’re born to remember that we have to buy summer shoes for the kids in May before they’re out of stock? Or sign up for soccer before the registration deadline?  There may be both social and biological explanations for the disparity between men and women on the topic of anticipation. However, the more convincing explanations are more “nurture” than “nature”—women learn to do this less rewarded work, while men often don’t even see it because it’s taken care of. We, without realizing it, often perpetuate this disparity. Sometimes we think they just don’t get it, and we handle it without even revealing the “work” that they don’t see.

  2. Try to make your cognitive labor as concrete and shareable as possible.

    Others, including our partners, are capable of anticipating needs as much as we are. They’re also able to monitor progress as well as us. In order to transfer the responsibility in an effort to share more household labor, get it out of your head, and into words on paper, in a spreadsheet, or a shared google doc. Make the invisible visible. It makes it shareable.

  3. Cognitive labor is a mental distraction, which interferes with our effectiveness.

    We take pride in our ability to multitask but the evidence is clear – switching between tasks or work reduces our cognitive capacity. Our mind gets stuck elsewhere, is still working on the last task as we try to concentrate on the next one, meaning we do both less effectively. It’s important to know that this “extra work” makes us less effective in our “other work,” especially cognitive tasks. So offload some of it, reducing the number of life-related “things to organize” that pop into your brain during your workday and drag you down.

Tips

  1. It’s important to recognize the components of cognitive labor (e.g. anticipation, monitoring) are not something that you’re better at – you’re just more practiced. If you think it’s your special skill, it won’t get distributed.

  2. It’s really just project management. Your partner or support network is capable of backing up from the
    “outcome” and itemizing the steps that go into getting it done. It may take transferring experience to know what’s involved in getting a birthday party organized, but it’s not brain surgery!

  3. Uneven distribution of household responsibilities (including everything”kid”) can be a significant source of tension in couples. Share the concept of cognitive labor with your partner and support network. The more familiar the concept becomes, the easier it will be to talk about the invisible work that goes into your everyday life. And, it’s worth working on it together since invisible work weighs us down, and accumulates in the Cram it all in Years.

Contributors

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