The Hidden Cost of Invisible Labour
The move towards equality in parenting, and how you can do your part.
The New Fatherhood is a newsletter from Kevin Maguire exploring the evolving nature of being a father today, with tools, tips and hacks to help you be better dad, and a community of modern dads who are looking for something more. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 750 dads (and curious mums) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.
I can remember it, as clear as day. I can pinpoint the exact moment in time.
Walking home through the door of our house, my daughter no more than 6 months old.
The moment where I realised that I wasn't doing my fair share of raising our daughter.
And it wasn't even close.
Today I want to talk about what might be the primary cause of problems with your partner. The ground zero of everything. Division of labour. Shared responsibilities. Parenting equality. Who's doing what.
Call it what you want. But when it’s not right, everything else is wrong.
As a father, you're already in the red months before your baby arrives. For those of us who had a "traditional" path to parenting (that's not all of you, I'm sure, as many other paths to parenthood exist), your partner will have carried a child inside of her for 9 months—months of broken sleep, morning sickness, and the unescapable exhaustion that comes from your body being used as a machine to convert food into a tiny human being.
Then comes the big moment: childbirth. Yes, you were probably there (as we discussed a few weeks ago, as one of the biggest changes that have fed into the new definition of fatherhood.) But honestly? Your contribution was somewhat limited: physical and emotional support, snack fetching and cord cutting. Not to discount these things, and your partner is no doubt very glad that you were there to do them. But she went through a bit more than her fair share of labour that day / night.
Then the next few months, how were the split of responsibilities? You probably did what you could, but if the baby was breastfed then you always had a get-out-of-guilt-jail-free card that you “couldn’t really get up in the middle of the night” and that you “had a job to get up for in the morning”, an excuse to duck out of responsibility.
When talking to some friends about this last week, a friend Danny said that we're "sometimes guilty of worshipping at the alter of untouchable mothership, and that provides us with the convenient side effect of abdicating responsibility."
And it’s true. But thankfully, the modern father doesn't abdicate it everywhere. I've never subscribed to the bullshit of bragging about avoiding nappy changes (something that should be an immediate red flag for any male friends in your life.) But I'll admit, I would often find jobs to do around the house that would give me some space, and quiet time on my own. With our second child, I found mealtimes difficult to deal with, so would conveniently use that time to fold clothes, hang out the washing, or generally do anything that was outside the blast radius of dinnertime. Whilst this fatherhood parody of Masterclass is funny—even if it's absolutely not what we should be aspiring to—I see myself reflected there and it doesn’t make me proud of how I've sometimes approached parenting.
So if pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for a newborn are clear in their division of effort (in short—not even remotely fair), what about when it comes to what happens next—who goes back to work, and who doesn't?
That day, back in 2014, I returned from another day in the office. I'd been part of a team inside Google that worked on very-cool, often top-secret projects, with an insanely talented team in a insanely stressful environment. I walked in the door, wiped out from work, anticipating a laundry list of things to do (including an inevitable list of literal laundry.)
"Finally you’re home," my wife said "and I can go to the toilet."
"What do you mean?"
"Well for the last few weeks I can’t even put her down or she goes crazy."
Right then, I knew it. Going back to work is the easy option. Staying at home is a infinitely harder.
There’s probably exceptions. If you’re a heart surgeon. An air traffic controller. Or an ambulance driver working in NYC in March 2020. But for the rest of us? Going back to work is a breeze. You get to wave goodbye in the morning, do whatever you do the entire day (which for me was answering emails and attending meetings) and then head home. You might think it’s stressful. And there might be moments in there that are stressful. But let me tell you—it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what life is like for the parent left at home with the baby.
I feel I've got a unique point of view here, having done both. I’ve gone back to a stressful job at a big tech company 4 weeks after my baby was born. And I’ve been a co-stay-at-home parent after my second, when my wife and I both took a good chunk of time off work to stay home altogether (with a few short work trips necessary on my part every now and then).
Taking a more active role as a parent is possible, and even encouraged. Today the lines are more blurred than ever. With better parental leaves across the world, fathers are intentionally taking more time off. And the global pandemic is putting both parents at home more often, with homeschooling often bringing fault-lines to the surface.
One of you emailed me a few weeks ago, telling me about something you'd been struggling with as the entire family was working from home:
I have a real feeling of guilt around hiding in the office all day, working while my wife struggles with the home-schooling. I try and do my bit before the work-day and after the work-day, but I can hear all the drama taking place around the house and wish I could do more. I'm not losing my head over this but it constantly clouds my day-to-day existence.
As you probably know, this isn't just how one person is feeling—it's been backed up by multiple research papers. A recent study from the University of Sussex found:
Three in four mums (72%) say that they have been the ‘default’ parent during lockdown.
The figure is almost as high for mothers who work, with two thirds of them (67%) saying they had been the default parent.
Seven in ten women (70%) reported being completely or mostly responsible for supporting children with home-learning.
48% of female respondents with a male partner reported that his access to time, space, and equipment to work had been prioritised over her own vs 17% who felt their own work had been prioritised.
These gender norms have been compounded by male politicians in the UK, US, and beyond, who continue to believe that staying at home and looking after the children is the responsibly of the wife. The Conservatives in the UK had a predictably sexist and shocking double-header last week. Firstly we had Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, tell an audience that "we owe mums everywhere an enormous debt of thanks for doing the enormously difficult job of juggling childcare and work at this tricky time". That was followed up with an advert that seemed straight out of the 1950s, with a man sat relaxing on the sofa, whilst a woman is cleaning, ironing, homeschooling and generally doing all the work.
One of the biggest changes in fatherhood today is a moved towards equality in parenting. It's being expected more from partners, our communities, and society-at-large. "Equality" is an incredibly loaded word—it comes with more baggage than a weekend away with Elton John. But for the sake a focus here, let’s narrow it to talking about equality in the work to be done raising your children.
As you' can probably tell from what I’ve written so far, I believe that women are doing more than their fair share of the work. And I'm not just talking about jobs to be done around the house. I sometimes think of everything to be done as a parent as "visible" and "invisible" labour. Visible labour is obvious—doing laundry, making dinner, cleaning up, taking the kids to school. Thankfully, I'd say in our house we're moving towards being "equal" in that manner.
But invisible labour? That's a heavy load. It's unpaid, unacknowledged, unnoticed. But the family will fall apart without it. Booking dentist appointments, organising birthday parties, managing the emotional ups and downs of the kids, buying new clothes when they've outgrown them, organising weekend playdates. The list goes on. This invisible labour carries a huge mental weight, your partner is probably carrying a huge to-do list of these things around in her head every day, and it's one that men often don't see, never mind attempt to take onboard.
A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles found almost 90% of the 393 married or partnered American mothers researchers surveyed say they are solely responsible for their family's schedule. Nearly 80% say they are the one who deals with the kids' teachers and school, and two-thirds feel they're the one responsible for attending to their children's emotional needs as well.
That unpaid work? By some estimates, it’s worth around $10.8 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) a year, and benefits the global economy three times more than the entire technology industry.
Here’s a thought exercise. It’s the before-times, it’s Saturday, and you’re about to leave the house for a family day at the park. Do any of the following questions cross your mind as you’re about to leave the door?
Did we pack water?
A snack in case the kids get hungry?
Extra layers in case it gets cold?
Do we have nappies for the baby?
An extra set of clothes in case one of the nappies leaks?
If you're like me, you’re probably thinking "no". I'm not expecting everyone who reads this to agree with me. You might be the stay-at-home parent, and doing to bulk of this work yourself. You might be the parent who has gone back to work, but you feel you're doing more than your fair share. But we can all do more, even if it’s just doing a better job of understanding.
So, for the sake of argument, let's say you to want to move towards true parenting equality at home? What can you do?
Everyone will have their own ideas. Will emailed me last week to say that he's already aware of the unfair division at home, so he's taken things into his own hands:
I decided was going to change 100% of diapers, for as long as I could. It seemed like a small thing, but it went a long way with my wife. I figured if she was doing 100% of the feeding, the least I could do was take 100% of something else. So for the first 4 months or something she only changed a half dozen diapers.
For me, the first thing to do is to accept that you're not doing enough. Even if you are going back to work. It's on us to make sure the labour that women are doing is seen and acknowledged. Not just at your house. Point it out everywhere. Normalising the acceptance of an unfair division of invisible labour is a huge first step.
The Better Life Lab is a US-based think-tank doing insightful, accessible work in "the movement for work-family justice to transform culture". Their site contains almost 30 different "experiments" that you can do as a family to promote better parenting equality. Like The Choreganizer, a list of all the work done in the family, which provides better visibility into the sheer volume of invisible labour. A simple way of showing gratitude for the work that is being done. Or handing over "Full Execution" of work to be done—conceiving, planning and executing the entire job, not just a little chunk of it.
Every family is different. I appreciate that this essay primarily focuses on the assumption of a two-parent, cisgender, heterosexual relationship, and there are many other factors that can contribute to the balance of labour in your family.
But the opportunity is there to build your own ideal of how things should work at home. The first step? Talk about it. Have a discussion with your partner about the division of labour. Ask them about their invisible workload. What weight can you help to carry? Ask your partner what you could be doing more of. Or better yet, think of what it might be, and just go and do it.
Think about how you can be a proactive, not a reactive father. How can you anticipate what needs to be done? How can you plan the get-togethers and playdates for the next few weekends? How can you get one step ahead of the emotional needs of your children?
At our house, we haven’t solved this yet. But we will get there eventually. My wife carries more of the invisible labour, what Anthony last week called “the millions of threads that mothers cope with and compute”. I can’t even get close. But I will continue to try to make things as equal as they can be. Knowing that we might never get there, but I’ll keep trying. Because we’re free from the illusion that the person going "back to work" is doing half the work.
My wife and I often joke about how “in debt” I am after she gave birth two our two children. Recently Bodhi has taken to using the bath as a toilet for number 2 (twice this month) and I’ve cleaned up afterwards. Both times.
So I think we’re about even, on one kid at least.
3 things to read this week: McSweeney's Special
I expect you're familiar with McSweeney's, a publishing house formed in 1998 by Dave Eggers, and home to some of the best writing you'll find anywhere. They've been on fire for the last few weeks with parenting content, and after all that up above I feel like you deserve a break. So here's three articles that'll put a smile on your face.
AITAs (Am I The Asshole) for Parents of Young Children: "I (43/m) gave my daughter (2/f) the yogurt she requested repeatedly, and she had a meltdown as if I committed some horrible, cruel offense. I feel like giving her the yogurt was the good and right thing to do since she loves yogurt, nearly always eats it, and literally asked for it seven times in a row before I gave it to her, but AITA?"
You Can Skip the First Few Seasons of Your Child’s Life, Because It Doesn’t Really Get Good until Season 6: "The first season is pretty much all screaming. I don’t know if they were trying to be avant-garde or what. But it’s super annoying; you just sit there in despair, waiting for the episode to end. And the parent characters are like zombies; they hardly even have any dialogue. And there’s no sex. Zero. If I hadn’t been told it gets better, I would have bailed right then and there."
Llama Llama Remote Learning Drama: "Alarm clock rings and Mama groans // Lil Llama’s still learning from home // Mornings fill Mama with crushing dread // Llama whines, “My Chromebook’s dead! // “Find the charger, plug it in! // Virtual school will soon begin!”
Two bonus McSweeney's bits, that are a little older. First is Security Questions for Single, Childless People: "Out of all of your friends’ children, what is first name of the one you find most annoying?". And finally, not even tangentially parenting related, this list of E-mail Addresses It Would Be Really Annoying to Give out over the Phone from 2004 is probably on of the highest quality belly-laughs-per-word articles in the history of the internet.
Vids for the kids
Ever wondered what it would look like if you dived onto a trampoline with 1000 mousetraps on it, and then filmed it in slow motion? No? What do you mean "no"?
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last week I asked "What's a bad parenting habit you want to break?"
"For me, it's about learning how to not make a big deal of small things that my kids do. It's about accepting that the messy living room is okay, or looking at my two screams laughing and screaming in the bath through the lens of "they're having a good time" rather than "stop screaming this is too loud." This slight shift in perspective has made a world of difference" Dominic
"In my case it feels like I'm channelling my own Dad's old school parenting... one big authoritarian shout will put them straight or get them to fall in line. Of course this doesn't work... and the bad behaviour is only reflected back. I instantly regret it after, apologise and talk it through it after. It's a behaviour I'm working hard to interrupt and will hopefully find a better way... but yeah so easy to fall back into bad habits." Tony
"Reading these comments has really helped me realise I’m not alone in this. As for my phone, I just make sure EVERY notification is off (even including WhatsApp.) This means any moments I’m in with the kids will not be interrupted unless it’s me consciously looking at my phone. Easier said than done but I feel it’s a good place to start." Tabrez
Not expecting everyone to agree with everything I’ve said this week, but interested to hear what you think. And I would encourage you to use this as a conversation starter with your partner. This ended up being a lot longer than I expected, so the proofreading time got cut down—sorry for any typos. Thanks to Will who not only emailed me his diaper story, but shared this newsletter with his friends last week. Thank you to everyone else who shared it too. Your referrals are the main way we bring more people into this conversation we’re having around The New Fatherhood.