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Invisible Labour - You Should Have Asked

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Invisible labour, or the mental load, what do we mean by that? We’re not talking about the chores, the bins, the washing up, the DIY, we’re talking about who holds all the to do lists in their head all the time. Who remembers the costume for the school play, who gets suncream before it is hot, who knows when all the in laws birthdays are and makes sure there’s a card for their partner to sign and quietly lets them take the credit for never forgetting, who notices when they’re low on wet wipes before the next poo explosion.

There’s often a project manager in any household, and statistics tell us that it’s most likely to be a woman - demonstrated by Allison Daminger, a doctoral candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University - stating that in study of 35 couples, results found that men referred to their wives using terms such as “project manager”, or said they were “keeping track of more”. The mental load is all the unseen work that goes in to making sure the house and everyone in it has their needs met, that everything runs smoothly. It’s invisible labour because not only is it mostly mental, but it’s also often ignored by our partners or families.

This month we were talking about the mental load and how it spills out not just in to our relationships and feelings of resentment, inequality and frustration, but how it plays out on a societal scale. Female employment fell at a faster pace than male employment in most of the major world economies in the first half of 2020, when the pandemic’s impact on the labour market was the harshest and costs for childcare have risen 40% just in the last 5 years.

Reasons for this are complex and different from country to country, but most cite childcare as the significant factor in leaving employment. This means that during the pandemic, it was women who took on the bulk of the care tasks and childcare responsibilities, so much so that they were unable to continue their paid work. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, by May 2020, mothers were 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit since March, and were more likely to have been furloughed.

In our discussion we talked about our frustrations with these inequalities, with the expectations that family, friends and society holds for us, and the impossibility of explaining our experience of this work to others.

We also talked about how we might tackle some of these practical issues in our homes, how we could have plain, open and honest conversations with partners, or in laws, or colleagues, without the inevitable, exhausting conflict that might ensue. Our members had a mixed response to trying to talk to partners or family members about these complex and emotional issues and were wanting advice and suggestions for tackling the problem.

Fair Play is a book by Eve Rodsky, that provides practical solutions, dividing up household work in to 100 discrete tasks accompanied by tips and suggestions for how to fairly divide up the domestic and family work. We also talked about wider campaigns that we can get involved in that might help us feel we are taking positive steps towards raising awareness of the inequalities women* experience, and contribute to greater change.

Pregnant Then Screwed is an organisation working tirelessly to address maternal discrimination in the workplace and beyond. The Fawcett Society is campaigning for equality for women in the workplace, home and society. And with questionable changes to childcare provision on the horizon, there’s never been a more important time to get involved.

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