My husband and I have developed an annual ritual for Mother’s Day. On the night before, or even the morning of, he asks me what I would like for a present, and where I would like to celebrate. Every year, I tell him that as I normally arrange our schedule, I would prefer to have the day off from planning. He then scrolls through OpenTable in a panic, and runs out, daughter in tow, joining an impromptu parade of men on my Brooklyn street buying deli flowers.
Planning celebrations (even when it’s my own) is a form of labor called “invisible work,” a term coined by feminist scholars in the ’80s. It’s the countless hidden tasks—mostly done by mothers—that rarely show up in time-use studies, but which nevertheless gobble up an absurd amount of time.
Invisible work comes in myriad forms. Pamela Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, has identified a strand she calls “kin work”: buying presents for extended family and friends, organizing FaceTime calls with Nana, and sending cards, an activity that’s especially gendered (as a friend of mine says, “my husband’s mother gets angry at me when he forgets her birthday”). Another strand, she says, is “consumption labor”— buying diapers and the kids’ sport uniforms.
Then there is the travel—and I’m not talking a dirty weekend in the Turks and Caicos. A 2015 study in the journal Transportation found that even when both spouses are breadwinners, women outwork men by 11 minutes in the “average daily household support travel time” category, e.g., pediatrician appointments, soccer practice. They don’t call it “Mom’s Taxi” for nothing.
Let us not forget the “emotional labor,” a term coined by University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild to describe the task of constantly taking the emotional temperature of household members: is your tween son still having that Snapchat tiff with his friend Jake? Is your husband getting enough sleep? The cat seems listless—does he need his arthritis medication refilled?
Perhaps the least visible—but most all-consuming—job is household manager. Running a household with children is an immensely complex task, and women bear the brunt of it (sometimes, of course, other women are hired to bear the brunt of it, which gives mom a new role, that of supervisor). As household manager, I am expected to be the repository of all knowable household facts, such as our child’s shoe size; not to mention keeper of the storerooms (“Why is there no milk left?” my husband will ask, peering into the fridge, echoing Nora Ephron’s famous “where’s the butter” passage from Heartburn.)
Being household manager is not unlike being a stagehand, and it is the job I dislike the most. For a recent trip to the beach, I spent the morning making lunches and snacks and packing extra clothes and beach gear, then dressed our daughter, and coated her with sunscreen. Meanwhile my husband stood by the front door, jingling the keys and periodically calling, “Let’s go.”
I told him that we could leave faster if he packed the bug spray. As I flew around the house, I fielded a series of questions: Where’s the bug spray? (In the cabinet where it always is.) I don’t see it. Wait, now I do. There are a lot of different kinds of bug spray—which one should I pack? There’s one that says DEET free. Is that good? Why do we even need bug spray? Isn’t it too early? Finally, I stopped what I was doing and fetched the bug spray myself.
This endless management is a time and energy suck, New York psychotherapist Jean Fitzpatrick told me. “What I hear most often from women,” she says, “is, ‘I do not want to be the boss here, I do not want him coming to me and asking me. I want him to take ownership.’”
Of course, men’s attitudes are changing. A 2016 Pew survey finds that nearly as many dads see parenting as central to their identity as moms (57 percent of fathers, 58 percent of mothers.) Ours is an era in which fathers get “dadchelor parties” before their baby arrives, and consult websites such as Fatherly.com (which features essays such as “I’m Going to Be That Dad Who Cries Way Too Much”).
Recently, I was on the F train during rush hour—actually 10:30 a.m., but all hours seem like rush hour now. A burly man with an infant strapped to his chest boarded the train. The squirming infant was gathering force for a meltdown; his father’s eyes darted around the train in mild panic, but every seat was taken. I’ve been there. The baby was likely hungry, and it’s hard to rummage around your baby gear bag when you’re standing.
But just as I rose from my seat, another man jumped out of his. “Hey, man,” he said. “Sit here.”
The father grinned, thanked him (“thanks, man”) and collapsed on the seat in relief (something I have also done many times.)
Well, that’s a first, I thought. Fathers are now conscious enough of each other’s parenting to surrender seats to a man.
Over the years, fathers have taken on more housework and child care duties. Since 1965, they’ve more than doubled time spent doing household chores, and nearly tripled time spent with children.
But when men do help around the house, says Smock, (the very term help, she says, indicating how far we have to go), they often opt for chores with a “leisure component.” Those are quasi-discretionary activities with a more flexible timetable than more urgent tasks such as getting the kids out the door for school or making dinner. “That could be mowing the grass, doing errands, or taking the dog for a walk, where you still get out of the house and get a nice walk in,” she says.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel, director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, says men tend to pitch in more with childcare than with housework. But they do so selectively. “What happens in a lot of middle-class families is that Dad becomes the Fun Parent,” Kimmel told me. “So Dad takes the kids to the park on Saturday mornings to play soccer, and Mom cleans the breakfast dishes, makes the beds, does the laundry, makes lunch. Then the kids come home and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we had such a great time with Dad in the park—he’s awesome!’”
Invisible work stays that way until it is illuminated. So for Mother’s Day this year, I have a different request: a co-manager of the household, one who is more aware of all the hidden work that I do. Empty the dishwasher without me having to ask. Jump on the email chain from the class parents about who’s bringing the empty paper-towel tubes for the class project. It would free up a good part of my day so that I can spend more time with our daughter.
Not only will I be happier, but my husband could very well be happier, too. In a 2016 study by the Boston College Center for Work & Family, researchers studied three groups of millennial dads: traditional fathers, whose wives did more caregiving; egalitarian fathers, who strove to divide childcare 50/50; and so-called “conflicted fathers,” who felt they should be splitting childcare 50/50, but couldn’t quite get around to doing it. Surprisingly, egalitarian fathers reported the highest levels of satisfaction on their work and home lives. Conflicted dads, meanwhile, scored the lowest.
So that is my Mother’s Day wish: I would like for my husband to go from Conflicted Dad to Egalitarian Dad.
Not that the tulips aren’t lovely.