What Can We Do About Women’s Invisible Labor?

Letting go of the mental mom workload.

Last year I went to my first work conference since I began freelancing full-time when my daughter was born three years ago. But amid refining my resume and ordering new business cards, I had a whole stack of additional duties: organize childcare for my daughter; make freezer meals for while I was away; and be sure her Halloween costume was all set for trick or treat.

In the days leading up the conference, I spent much more time preparing my home for my absence than I did preparing myself professionally for the conference.

Frustrated, I posted a vent in a group for other working moms. I was stunned when I received instantaneous responses from other women — all independent, headstrong professionals — who were getting sucked into the same cycle.

“It’s the invisible workload,” one wrote, and something clicked for me. That’s exactly what it was — the emotional and mental burden of making sure that everything at home was running smoothly.

Recently a popular cartoon has brought the issue of invisible labor to the forefront again. In the cartoon, a wife prepares dinner while feeding the baby and welcoming a guest. When the pot boils over (literally), her partner exclaims “You should’ve asked! I would’ve helped!”

“When a man expects his partner to ask him to do things, he’s viewing her as the manager of household chores,” cartoonist Emma writes. “The mental workload is almost completely borne by women. It’s permanent and exhausting work. And it’s invisible.” And even though women are increasingly present in the workforce, they’re still in charge of the household. When (or if) they become mothers, this responsibility doubles.

For Nikki Yeager, a New York City mom of one and founder of Every Bean, a gender-neutral kids clothing line, the cartoon opened a discussion that she had been trying and failing to have with her husband.

“I felt like someone had finally given words to express what I’d been trying to explain for the last year,” she says. After the birth of her son, she was overwhelmed by her mental and emotional workload and managing the house. Her husband just didn’t get it, she says. “No matter how I tried, I just didn’t have the right words for what I was experiencing, which left him frustrated since he couldn’t see what I was talking about, and it left me resentful because I felt I was carrying far more than my fair share,” she says.

When she had him read the cartoon, something clicked.

“The next day he mentioned that he did the dishes without me asking because he understood why it was problematic when he waits for me to dictate work to him,” she says. Although it hasn’t changed all the imbalances in the household, Yeager at least feels like her husband understands the issue.

“Since then, his behavior hasn’t changed much, but our ability to negotiate household tasks and discuss workload has become much more friendly, balanced, and fair since we now both have the vocabulary needed for those discussions,” she says.

Erin Heger, a health insurance navigator from Kansas City, Kan., and mom of one, knows that finding the right vocabulary can be challenging.

“I think about gender roles and social conditioning,” she admits. “[My husband] doesn’t think about issues the same way I do and doesn’t have same vocabulary that I’m immersed in.”

Even though Heger and her husband have had ongoing discussions about the mental workload, she still doesn’t feel that he fully understands – or is willing to see – the issue.

“There’s a level of his shutting down and that uncomfortable moment when you’re faced with your privilege and you feel defensive,” she says. “Finding the language to explain it in a way he understands and stays open to the conversation is very challenging.”

A challenge that, unsurprisingly, falls on women.

“Sometimes I’m just so exhausted by it and tired of trying to explain it,” Heger says.

One thing that has helped Heger is to realize that the issue is much bigger than her marriage. Just as previous generations had to advocate, organize, and agitate for a long time for certain gender roles to shift, the current generation will likely be battling the mental burden for a long time, she says.

“I used to get very frustrated when we didn’t solve it right then, but these are very deeply ingrained social norms, so I’ve tried to accept it’s going to be lifelong process,” she says. “It’s more of a slowly evolving social change.”

The fact that more people are talking about the mental workload and realizing that it exists is progress.

“I do think there’s value in talking about it in circles of women, to make us all more aware of it and realize that we can identify with each other on that,” Heger says.

Having that conversation with your partner is another necessary step, Yeager suggests.

“If you decide you’re not OK doing the majority of the mental work, it’s your responsibility to find a partner who supports an equal division of labor and is willing to have discussions about gender norms and work load,” she notes.

In my own household, I have stepped back ever so slightly from planning everything. My husband is a wonderful partner and parent, so it’s not my responsibility to make things easier for him. Of course, that’s challenging for me because it means accepting that chores and childcare might be done differently than I would prefer.

The next time I attend a conference or go out of town, I’m going to step back a bit and give myself a break from the mental workload of preparing everything for him, both around the house and with my daughter. And I have a feeling they’ll be just fine.