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Invisible Work

Casey Mazzotti

March 28, 2021

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The term "invisible work" first made its mark in the late 1980s and has been used to describe the work a person does that goes often unseen, unrecognized by others, and unpaid.

When it comes to household chores like cooking, cleaning or running errands - surprisingly enough, men and women prefer their partners to take on different tasks. One study reported that women prefer when men perform more dishwashing and men prefer when women take on more errand-running. Interestingly enough, both men and women preferred these tasks to be split more evenly, and showed greater dissatisfaction when either they took on the bulk of the task or when their partner performed the majority of the task. It seems that it's better for both parties when household tasks are broken down more evenly between partners.

That said, household work that is divisible is also usually quantifiable - i.e. there's an amount of energy or time that can be dedicated for a specific task. Invisible work, or "cognitive labor," is more difficult to define and, therefore, study, as the person performing the work may not even recognize they are taking the lion's share of it.

Allison Daminger, a Harvard sociologist, conducted a study in which she interviewed couples about their division of household and cognitive labor. She determined 4 types of cognitive labor: anticipation, identification, decision-making, and monitoring. Daminger discussed specific examples, which you'll find linked above. Two interesting examples she included were tasks such as purchasing winter clothes before the temperature dropped or maintaining the food supply and monitoring the stock as the more difficult-to-identify cognitive labor tasks.

In Daminger's research, she noted that in different-sex couples, many of these tasks were completed by women. One pattern she noticed was that women, in particular, bore the brunt of the anticipation and monitoring tasks, but decision-making tasks were a much more collaborative process.

It can be difficult to communicate this to the other partner, as this work is often unseen and difficult to quantify - this can lead to distress and tension within the household.

If you're feeling like the sole proprietor of the family business-dealings, there are ways you can disperse the responsibility.

1) Communicate

Communicate these feelings and stresses with your partner - after all, they are your partner and your teammate! It may be helpful to have a list or start keeping track of tasks that you complete that you consider to be cognitive labor - this may be a way to help quantify how your time is being spent and the degree to which you are trying to multitask everyday.

2) Take time for yourself

Of course, easier said than done! It may help to let your family know that you are taking a specific block of time to work on whatever it is you need to fully focus on. Maybe that has to do with working, exercising, or taking time to unwind and indulge in a hobby or favorite show. Every person needs individual time, and multi-tasking is not helpful in optimizing productivity, so take your break, focus on yourself, even for a short time, and let the people around you know how they can help you do that.

Daminger suggests we should get schools and other institutions in on the change, as well - they can be helpful in alleviating heavy scheduling needs on parents and streamline other processes to help.

That, of course, will take some time, but parents can work together with schools to determine who should be contacted about what, and, of course, parents can coordinate with one another to determine responsibilities for the cognitive labor.

Bibliography:

1) Carlson DL, Miller AJ, Sassler S. Stalled for Whom? Change in the Division of Particular Housework Tasks and Their Consequences for Middle- to Low-Income Couples. Socius. January 2018. doi:10.1177/2378023118765867

2) Carlson, Dan. "CCF BRIEF: Not All Housework Is Created Equal: Particular Housework Tasks And Couples’ Relationship Quality | Council On Contemporary Families". Contemporaryfamilies.Org, 2018, https://contemporaryfamilies.org/houseworkandrelationshipquality/.

3) Claffey, S.T., Mickelson, K.D. Division of Household Labor and Distress: The Role of Perceived Fairness for Employed Mothers. Sex Roles 60, 819"831 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9578-0

4) Daminger, Allison. Behavioral Scientist, 2019, https://behavioralscientist.org/how-couples-share-cognitive-labor-and-why-it-matters/.

5) Huston, Matt. "Tired Of Doing The Invisible Work In Your Family?". Psychology Today, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-practice/201908/tired-doing-the-invisible-work-in-your-family.

6) Piññon, Natasha. "What Is Invisible Labor? It's Real And It Hurts. Here's What To Know.". Mashable, 2020, https://mashable.com/article/what-is-invisible-labor.

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