Yes, all the data says men and women increasingly share household work. However, there’s an under-the-radar kind of work that unless made visible and explicit, can create tension in couples let alone weigh an individual down unknowingly. 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.
Allison Daminger, a then Doctoral Student in Sociology & Social Policy at Harvard, conducted a study which sought out to better understand the distribution of labour in the household – beyond the much documented headline, “women do more.” She wondered: what exactly were they doing more of? Her deeper look revealed aspects which contribute to a disparity in labor when it comes to household management and they fall along gendered lines.
Her work made visible four discrete categories of mental work, or cognitive labor, involved in many household tasks: anticipation, identify, decide and monitor, and discovered that all four categories are not shared equally. They play out as follows: anticipating needs (e.g. We need to figure out after school programs for Arielle), identifying options (e.g. What classes are in our neighbourhood that others say are good? Which are affordable? Are they close enough? Will she know anyone in the class? Where are her friends going?), making decisions (e.g. Which one, what day, where, with whom?) and monitoring or following-up on the decisions that were made (e.g. Does she like it? Is it easy to organize travel to and from? When do we have to pay the final payment? When is the next sign up?).
Daminger discovered that anticipating, i.e. anticipating that a task has to be done, getting decisions, big and small, on the agenda, and monitoring, i.e. the continued assessment and management, were overwhelmingly handled by women. The other two phases, identifying options and making decisions were more equally distributed, or done in collaboration.
Digging a little deeper, it became clear that the two phases that women were disproportionally owning were less visible to both partners, but consumed a lot of mental energy. While men were happy to help once their partner made them aware of the task, the load turns to overload and distraction. Further, “helping” still leaves one partner with “the mental list” – creating it, distributing it and monitoring it. In part due to its invisibility, in part due to its resulting impact on unequal distribution of labour and lack of reward, it’s a source of resentment in couples.
With that, here are three steps to consider to better manage this mental labor:
What To Do (Bites)
Make this work explicit
That’s the first step. Once you know it and see it you can subtract it: you can strike it, reduce the energy against it, reduce the time, or substitute it out.
To substitute it out, having a label, i.e. cognitive labour, and understanding the 4 categories of labour, helps us talk about it. In order to transfer the responsibility in an effort to share more household labor, it has to get out of our heads. By discussing it, you may also come to see and appreciate some of the invisible labor your partner handles.
To substitute it out, you have to get granular and specific
Get specific about what each task entails. Remember some of it is invisible to the other person, let alone to you. So make the invisible visible. It makes it shareable and the transferring of responsibility will be more successful. What triggers the awareness, i.e. the anticipation, that something needs to be done? Where does the task begin and end? Does owning the laundry include monitoring the supply of detergent? Does owning the after school activities or summer programs include knowing when it needs to be on the radar?
And get granular on expectations – and what’s reasonable. Doing it exactly as you would do it, when you would do it and to what level needs to be discussed. But like delegation at work, if it can only be done your way, to your level, on your timing, you may be putting unreasonable demands on the other person and be setting them up for failure.
Recognize that it’s culturally engrained, so it may take some unlearning
Do we really think women are 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 the less rewarded work, while men often don’t even see it because it’s taken care of. Women, without realizing it, can perpetuate this disparity by thinking partners just don’t get it, never revealing the “work” that isn’t seen.
Transfer the whole responsibility, not just pieces. Taking full ownership really helps to achieve the goals distributing labour more equally and distributing the cognitive load more equally. Importantly, it removes the weight of anticipation – and the related moment of panic when you have the realization that it’s got to be done…yesterday.
In addition to more completely lightening your load, one beautiful outcome of transferring the whole responsibility is the “other” partner has an appreciation of the full weight of the task. Until you fully own the birthday party, you don’t realize the small details like figuring out who’s in the class, how to reach them, following-up on who is coming, knowing who have a food allergy…
“Splitting it up” will likely not result in really achieving the goal – reducing your mental load.
It’s learnable. It’s learnable. It’s learnable. Your partner or support network is more than capable of backing up from the “outcome” and itemizing the steps that go into getting a task done. It may take transferring experience to know what’s involved in getting a birthday party organized, but it’s not brain surgery! You may be more practiced. If you think it’s your special skill, it won’t get distributed.
Tolerate the learning curve. It may take more patience on your part to not jump in to solve or fix. Like a child learning to walk, there will be tumbles, bumps and bruises but they will learn.