Several months ago, a family member recounted a small but powerful scenario that happened in her Sacrament Meeting. While conducting the meeting, the bishop acknowledged that one of his counselors was not present on the stand; his counselor’s wife was ill and he was sitting in the pews with his children. Interestingly, not once was the man’s spouse acknowledged for sitting alone with her children week after week while her husband sat on the stand. Why? Because women are expected to perform the bulk of the invisible labor required for maintaining relationships.
What is Invisible Labor?
This expected and often overlooked invisible work consists of emotional labor and mental labor. Emotional labor is the management of your expression of feelings to fit the situation, even if you are feeling differently on the inside. For example, responding empathetically and patiently to an overly emotional child when you’re exhausted, or pretending to be interested and emotionally engaged when an aging parent is repeating a story you’ve heard a hundred times. Emotional labor also includes helping others manage their emotions: providing relational support, listening, ensuring cooperation between other people, empathizing, and soothing other’s emotions. Activities like thinking ahead, tracking details, planning for future events, and carrying the burden responsibility for a particular activity or sphere of life are considered mental labor.
Seeing the Invisible
Returning to the first story discussed, week after week, the bishopric member’s wife was the one who remembered to pack the activity books for their two-year-old to keep him busy and quiet. She was the one forcing a smile while “whisper yelling” to her 10-year old to put her iPod away during the sacrament. She was the one who made sure their children had clean clothes to wear, kept track of the time, and tried to patiently shuffle whining kids into the car to get to Church on time. She was the one who remembered that her 8-year-old had been assigned a talk in Primary (and made sure he was prepared). Men’s contributions in family life and in Church callings tends to be more visible and are often openly acknowledged and applauded. Women’s work is often invisible and goes unnoticed…because it is expected from women.
The belief that all women are “naturally” nurturing and find fulfillment in performing emotional and mental labor can perpetuate its devaluation. If we think that the invisible labor that maintains relationships just flows effortlessly from women or that “women are just better at these things than men are” we run the risk of overlooking and undervaluing invisible work of women in families, home, Church, work, and communities because we assume they want to be doing this work. Women do the lion’s share of invisible labor because society expects it. Even for the many women who do find deep fulfillment in modifying their own emotions to fit a social situation, anticipating others’ needs, and providing emotional support and comfort, invisible labor is still work. Hard work. It’s exhausting. And it’s often thankless.
Men perform unpaid, invisible work in families, Churches, and communities, too. However, women perform the bulk of unpaid work throughout the world that enables societies to function. One might think that an exception to this would be families in which both parents work outside of the home. However, working mothers continue to do significantly more invisible family work (childcare and household chores) than their spouse. And this work doesn’t stop at home and church. Even in the workplace, women’s emotional work usually happens in small and private ways, whereas male help at work tends to be more visible and public. Additionally, women perform the vast majority of service-related paid work that require intense emotional labor such as education, hospitality services, childcare worker, elder care worker, human resources, etc. So, women are doing the bulk of the invisible labor at home and in the workplace.
Seeing, Valuing and Doing Emotional Labor
If you want to honor the women in your life, start seeing the invisible labor, express gratitude for the countless ways they perform mental and emotional labor that benefits you, and commit to help by doing more of it yourself. If you don’t know where to start with expressing appreciation and will taking on more of this work, here’s a list of 45 ways women contribute emotional and mental labor generated by a group of LDS women:
- Encouraging the husband to preside in the home (without being nagging, controlling or challenging priesthood authority).
- Tracking food and meal preparation, remembering who likes what, and how long the meals will take to prepare.
- Being pregnant, birthing, and breastfeeding children and managing hormonal changes.
- Cooking treats for the husband’s home teaching families during the holidays.
- Remembering and acknowledging family and friends’ birthdays.
- Planning children’s birthday parties including sending out invitations, planning the games, and buying gifts.
- Trying to make the home beautiful and making sure everyone feels welcome there.
- Attempting to de-escalate power struggles between family members.
- Making sure that religious milestones (baptisms, missionary farewells, etc.) are meaningful (while simultaneously not challenging the counsel discouraging any celebration that takes away from the sacredness of the ordinance or occasion).
- Tracking the children’s Scout progress, Duty to God, Personal Progress; keeping track of the booklets, and checking with Church leaders.
- Planning and making travel arrangements to visit out-of-state family members.
- Corralling children during Sacrament meeting, keeping them quiet and in the pew. Prepare snacks, toys, and activities.
- Coaching the husband on how to become a more patient and effective parent.
- Feeling responsible for the happiness and the choices of children and other family members.
- Tracking the cleaning, chores, and upkeep of the house.
- Maintaining a suitably alluring appearance and demeanor to prove that a single woman is trying to marry.
- Supporting the husband in priesthood callings while also caring for the family, going to work and doing her calling.
- Keeping the house organized and knowing where things are located at all times.
- Feeling responsible for maintaining extended family relationships and friendships, planning outings, keeping in touch, and sending Christmas cards.
- Being the emotional support for family and friends: providing support, empathy and nurturing.
- Tracking and implementing family planning, birth control, and dealing with the side effects of birth control.
- Ensuring children do homework, practicing, and chores.
- Tracking children’s activities working out scheduling and carpool.
- Monitoring children’s online activity and filtering their digital access to ensure that they only view appropriate material.
- Making sure the family has clean, well-fitting, modest clothing to wear for all occasions.
- Planning, worrying, and scheduling child care and babysitters (and, for working women, generally being the one to stay home with a sick child).
- Checking with the husband to schedule him to care for the children so you can do an activity.
- Carefully wording and delivering any requests, criticism, or feedback to (male) church leaders so that they don’t feel like a woman is undermining or questioning their authority.
- Planning for, managing, and performing care aging parents and family members.
- Performing unpleasant, inconvenient Church responsibilities as single women because it would be much more inconvenient for wives and mothers
- Being in charge of scheduling doctor appointments, dentists, therapists, etc.
- Trying to feel optimistic about being single and childless because of the assurance of having an eternal family in the next life.
- Trying to be attractive, but look like you’re not trying too hard, while being “sexy modest.”
- Listening and empathizing with a neighbor in need when you think she’s over-exaggerating her problems.
- Planning and decorating for holidays and trying to make it special for each family member.
- Remembering children’s teacher’s names, classrooms, and health provider information.
- Sorting through junk, organizing drawers and clothing, choosing what to give away.
- Performing many of the things that no one notices unless they don’t get done (replacing paper towels and toilet paper, doing laundry, making sure there is food to eat).
- Smiling and being polite while someone is saying something that is rude or offensive at Church.
- Managing emotions around being single in the Church and dealing with assumptions that a woman is not really a legitimate adult, doesn’t want to get married, or has put my career first, etc.
- Trying to stay calm and peaceful while dealing with an out-of-control child in public.
- Managing the extra care, cost, worry, doctors and therapy appointments for a child with special needs as a single parent.
- In a work environment, being firm but not overbearing, sympathetic but not simpering, sincere but not smarmy, and corrective but not bossy.
- Managing the cognitive dissonance every time a talk or lesson explicitly or implicitly suggests I am less than for being single.
- Worrying about the biological clock ticking.
One of the best ways we can strive to move toward true equality, toward partnership in relationships, is to recognize, to celebrate, and take on the invisible labor that women across different ages and cultures so often carry the responsibility of performing.
A note to commenters: Please don’t tell me that I’m being easily offended or that men do invisible labor, too. I’m not offended. I’m calling attention to an important issue. And I acknowledge men perform emotional labor.
Originally published at Meridian Magazine