Over the past few years, the topic of invisible labor has become a hot button issue. You hear about it all the time in the news, books, and on social media. You’ve probably bitched about with with your friends, relieved there’s finally a word for all the thankless shit you’ve been doing all these years.
In a nutshell, invisible labor is all the work folks do in a household that isn’t always obvious and out in the open. It’s making doctor’s appointments, remembering to sign permission slips, packing lunches, and making sure your kids have clothes that fit and the fridge is well stocked with healthy-ish foods they will actually eat. It’s managing a family’s day-to-day schedule, and planning for the future. It’s being your family’s therapist, anticipating the needs of each person in your family before they even do … and being the one to stay up all night and worry about it all.
Thanks to the patriarchal roles of and men and women that have been ingrained into our psyches since forever, the majority of the time, these tasks often fall on the woman’s shoulders – and with little to no acknowledgement or thanks. They are the kinds of things that would only be noticed if they weren’t done.
We all know that our family would basically fall apart if we didn’t stay in our roles as manager of the household, yet so few of us feel like we have any choice. Each time we’ve tried to subtly bring the issue up with our significant other, we are either met with blank stares or we sound like a nag.
So we often wind up walking around totally resentful about all the invisible labor we do, feeling as though we are caught in an endless trap of wishing things were different but feeling powerless to change anything.
This is a pattern that marriage therapists are seeing more and more, according to an article in The Huffington Post. “I’m regularly addressing this problem with partners,” said Kurt Smith, a marriage and couples therapist in Roseville, California.
But here’s the thing – and it probably won’t surprise you when you hear it. Smith says that despite the fact that couples are aware that this is a huge issue for everyone involved, they are not actually talking about it. Well, aside from angry little remarks and huff and puffs, but those don’t really count.
Couples are not having actual discussions about the matter, or coming up with ways to solve the problem.
“When I ask them if they’ve had a discussion about the roles each is taking on and how they’ll split up the household responsibilities, I almost always get a ‘no,’” said Smith.
This is so interesting to me personally, because I was definitely in that camp a few months ago. In fact, I was walking around with so much anger about all the invisible work I was doing – in addition to my full-time job, household chores, and kid responsibilities – that it was taking a major toll on my marriage.
Finally, after complaining and fuming about it for months, it became clear that something needed to change or things between my husband and me were going to get bad fast. So for the first time in our almost 18 years of marriage, we had a big, difficult talk about how to split up the invisible labor a little more equally.
It seems strange to even share this, because it sounds silly: If I was so freaking upset about all the invisible labor I was doing, why hadn’t I just had this discussion years ago?
Well, I think there were a few reasons.
One is that for a long time, all of it felt really intangible to me, and maybe I just assumed that remembering and keeping track of things was something I was better at and needed to do. I am super grateful that more people have been talking about invisible labor. It’s one of the more positive things to emerge from the media and social media over the past few years.
So I think it took a few years for my husband and me to understand WTF all my anger and resentment was about. But then, even after that, bringing it up – going through each and every damn thing I do – well, that felt like invisible labor in and of itself, and I resented the fact that I needed to bring it up and work on solving the problem.
Smith says this sort of thing is common, and is part of why so many couples just end up not addressing the elephant in the room. It’s not like we need another item to add to our never-ending to-do list, especially because trying to get someone to understand all we do is exhausting and emotionally draining in and of itself.
Smith’s advice is to just do it, even if it sounds hard, because the results will pay off in the end.
“My go-to advice to the couple is to start this discussion,” said Smith. “I say ‘discussion’ because it should be an ongoing, ever-evolving conversation, not a one-and-done talk that happened 15 years ago.”
Ummmm…yeah. I will say that the part about it being an ongoing discussion is key here. After my husband and I first discussed it – and it truly was an emotionally draining discussion – I assumed that we’d be done. But nope. Trying to get your spouse to understand all the unseen shit you do, and then figuring out how they can unburden you of some of it, is a freaking process.
New stuff comes up. Seasons change, and new responsibilities you forgot about emerge. And there is just a whole lot of pent up anger that comes out – from both sides. As HuffPost mentions, you just can’t always assume that by describing your emotional labor, your spouse will immediately “get it.” It may take time – and they may never fully get it either. There is some compromise that needs to happen, for sure.
For me, it’s actually been difficult to watch my husband take on some of the responsibilities and not critique him constantly along the way. For example, he’s been consistently making the kids’ lunches (without reminders!) but he doesn’t always wipe out the crumbs as thoroughly as I do. He doesn’t remember to take note of what they are eating, what has remained untouched, and then alter the shopping list to reflect that. But I’m trying to remind myself that it’s baby steps, and that I probably need let some of my perfectionism go to make this work.
Of course, I should acknowledge that however difficult the process has been for me, it’s key that I have a spouse who is willing to face all of this and work through it. Obviously, if you don’t have a spouse willing to do that, it will be virtually impossible to get anywhere.
But as the therapists interviewed for HuffPost describe it, you may not know if your spouse is open to discussing the impact of invisible labor unless you try. They recommend starting the discussion not when you are angry or pissed off about it all, but when everyone is moderately calm and open. They also tell you to expect to feel defensive and angry along the way, and that resistance will likely come from both partners.
The idea, though, is to stick it out, understanding that it will likely take a few very difficult discussions to get anywhere. Most of all, be open to what the other person has to say, and really listen.
As Washington, D.C.-based therapist Alica Clark tells HuffPost: “Simply being willing to hear, and understand, your partner is a powerful, and effective, first step in reestablishing connection and solving this problem.”