Challenging the stereotypes of the invisible workload

By Kathleen Siddell

“We need dishwashing liquid.”

“But it’s not on the list,” my first grader says. He stops and carefully reviews the list he wrote.

“I forgot to tell you to add it to the list.”

He runs down the aisle and grabs the bottle off the shelf. He and I seem to be sharing the same air of confidence this morning. I’m proud of myself for remembering; he is proud of his newfound reading skills.

We meet my husband at the toothbrushes. He eyes the cart. “I already got dishwashing liquid.” I can see by his empty hands he means he got it earlier in the week (maybe last week?). Definitely earlier than this particular morning, when I quietly emptied what I thought was the last bottle.

My husband’s like a household shelf-stocking ninja. I’m equally grateful for and jealous of his efficiency. In addition to his full-time corporate job, he manages to save our family, time and again, from inconvenient shortages of toilet paper, milk, and the like.

But conventional wisdom says it should be the other way around. From sitcoms to memes to commercials to cartoons, the mom runs the show while the dad can hardly remember the names of the kids. Mom is afforded superhero status, calmly multitasking her way through the day while “Dopey Dad,” the less competent parent, appears as an afterthought.

Most recently, I read a widely-circulated article titled “​The Invisible Workload that Drags Women Down​,” by Lisa Wade. The article begins by explaining a sweet poem by Ellen Seidman who writes how she is the one who notices—when her family is running out of toilet paper, which kid likes Cheerios, when it’s time for more coffee—the list goes on. Wade cites research by sociologist Susan Walzer, who found “that women do more of the intellectual, mental, and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance.” It is all this invisible thinking that drags women down.

The stereotype must persist because people find truth in it. But what about those of us for whom it is not true? I’m not the superhero. I’m cut more from the same cloth as dopey dad. It’s my husband who keeps our family ship afloat; he’s the capable captain and I’m the winds he needs to tame.

I’m the one who runs out of toilet paper. I will scramble to make something a dish for the party I’d forgotten was tomorrow. I don’t manage our finances, vacations or the garbage. I need to be nagged (repeatedly) to do the thing I said I would do two weeks ago. The tasks I do manage—mainly the kids’ schedules—I do a mediocre job with. I’m the parent as Wade says, who is allowed the freedom to not have to think about the more mundane tasks of domestic life.

Perhaps my uneasiness about not conforming to these stereotypes stems from jealousy—that I don’t have my act together, that I’m not as thoughtful as I’d like to be, that my house would run just fine (better?) without me. Perhaps it’s also that I realize how I sound—lazy, spoiled, incompetent​—like the dads who are so often dumped on. Indeed, I’d love to be the rock, the calm wind, the superhero. Instead, I spend too much time trying to stifle the urge to shout, “Why do you have to be so great,” to my husband, while I quietly tally the things I do accomplish.

But thinking in these terms feels a lot like score-keeping. Last I checked, being a family is not a competitive sport. Both my husband and I have to juggle the demands of jobs, childcare and one another.

I was somewhat relieved when I saw ​a response to Wade’s article​, by Josh Levs. Levs gives voice to the millions of men whose own stress about work-life balance is also an invisible burden.

Both Wade and Levs attempt to write a fuller story about the changing landscapes of families and responsibilities. Levs asserts that men are doing more household chores than ever and notes that nearly 40% of men are now doing the shopping. (I’m not the only mom not Christmas shopping!) But these broader truths still seem to lurk in the shadows of stereotypical gender roles: the misguided narrative of Superhero Mom and Dopey Dad endures. (Which also gives no voice to single parents for whom the invisible work is never shared.)

In the Guardian, French ​comic artist Emma​  points to a more sociological argument for the invisible “mental load” that women shoulder. She draws a historical cycle of household work falling into the category of “women’s work” and implicitly asserts that to be a good feminist, women must reject this burden. If we push some of this invisible thinking onto men, we might feel lighter. “The problem is,” according to Emma, “when we stop [all the thinking and delegating and remembering], the whole family suffers.”

But does it?

“If I don’t scrub the toilet, it’ll never get done,” is a mentality that is likely to breed resentment. The whole family suffers when we start measuring our burdens or insist on humbly “doing it all” at the cost of our mental and physical health. The incompetent, lazy dad may seem like a harmless “funny because it’s true” joke. But for those of us for whom these stereotypes are untrue, it’s not funny. I am not lazy nor am I purposely shirking familial duties, I’m trying. I don’t need a joke to remind me where I fall short. Just as some women don’t need the joke to remind them that they do shoulder all of the invisible work.

It seems like there’s such a simple solution: if women really want to take time off from the invisible work, they have to stop doing it. If men want to stop being seen in this negative light, they have to take more on. But I suspect changing the narrative is more complex because families, individual personalities and gender roles are complex.

By nature, I am less type A than my husband and more emotional. Stereotypically, I carry more of the emotional burdens of childcare. I will spend my entire commute worrying if my kids aren’t getting invited to parties and am more likely to know which child is eating strawberries this week. But this doesn’t feel like “work” or emblematic of some antiquated system of gender norms. My husband worries too—about financing college, the price of home heating oil, the effects of screen time. To say my worries are more burdensome than his (or substantially different) is petty, untrue and does little to balance the invisible work of our family.

I’d love to neatly wrap up by saying I’ve learned to be more efficient. I’d love to be able to share a story when I came through and steered our ship through a storm because I took on some of the invisible responsibilities my husband shoulders. I wish I could say that in thinking more critically about the roles my husband and I play, we’ve found a more steady balance. The truth is, it’s a balance that is constantly shifting. We’re still trying to shine a light on the invisible work and share it in a way that make sense for our family.

Kathleen Siddell is a high school teacher and writer living in Connecticut. She struggles to keep up with her superhero husband and works hard to ensure no one in her family is without toilet paper. 

Vincent van Gogh, 1882, Miners’ Wives Carrying Sacks of Coal

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