The Invisible Labor of Mothering

The Invisible Labor of Mothering July 14, 2016

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the amount of labor mothers perform that is rendered invisible and often taken for granted. Blogger Elizabeth Esther recently wrote up this list of the things she did as a stay-at-home mother:

My main job was providing high-quality, full attentive, deeply intuitive child-care. But that was just my 9-5, so to speak (although it was really like 6am-5pm). What makes at-home work so exhausting, though, is all the OTHER WORK on top on top of the regular, child-care work. After my “regular job” as an at-home mom, there was a whole OTHER job of:

Dealing with all the school stuff, homework, registration, grades, emails with teachers, assignments, school projects (miniature scale California missions!) pick up and drop off, carpools, arranging carpools, communicating about the carpools when I couldn’t do it, calling in absences, taking care of them when they are sick at home, following their grades online, making sure everyone has all the proper supplies.

But that’s not all. Oh, that is not all.

I’m also the one who:

Researched after-school sports, made countless trips to and from dance classes, dance workshops, dance intensives, dance supply stores, baseball practice, baseball games, lacrosse practice, water polo practice, water polo games, Mommy-n-me-classes, library reading times.

I’m the one who remembers all the birthdays, holidays and special occasions and shops and plans accordingly. I’m the one who gathers information regarding Christmas presents and plans the social calendar. I’m the one who gets them signed up for drivers’ ed and SAT tutoring and math tutoring. I’m the one who volunteers in their classroom and who picks them up if they are sick during school hours.

These tasks don’t disappear when mothers enter the workforce. Someone still has to do them. In our family, that’s me. Because I work from home while my husband commutes to the office, my schedule is more flexible. I pick the kids up after school, so it only makes sense for me to take them to extracurriculars and communicate with their teachers, etc. And—if I’m willing to admit it—I’m the one who was trained and prepared for this kind of labor while my husband wasn’t. It all feels foreign to him. And so, I do the things listed above. And that’s a lot.

I realize that not all families do sports and dance classes and the like. They’re expensive, and all the taking to and fro can be complicated for those of lesser means, especially in cases where families may not have reliable transportation. In other families, those with more means, a nanny takes the children to these things, or the children attend expensive after-school programs that integrate such activities into the hours between school and when parents get home from work. We are in the middle, with the means and expectation of doing at least some extracurricular programs, but not the means (or the expectation, or know-how) to hire someone else to handle it for us. And so it falls to me.

These tasks suck up time, and there are days when I haven’t accomplished as much as I should have because I had to spend 45 minutes on the phone with doctors’ offices figuring out something about insurance, and half an hour researching local martial arts classes, and an hour filling out a registration packet for my son’s new preschool and finding the documents we need for proof of income, or residency, or whatever else the school needs. And that’s without even mentioning how draining many of these tasks can be. Today I need to call the school to make sure my daughter is put in the class track she wanted (at her school, different classrooms have different focuses), and look up the children’s vaccination records online (there’s supposedly a system, but I have no idea how it works and may have to call to find out), and I really should call Verizon about maintaining a promotional on the cell phone bill, and I am dreading doing all of those things.

I thought of all of this earlier this week while reading an article in the Guardian by a man upset that his wife and the mother of his two adolescent children does not work for pay, instead staying home with the children and doing—well, he doesn’t seem sure what she does exactly. I thought of it again while reading an absolutely amazing response by a female sociologist and writer, who points out all the very many things the man’s wife is likely doing to raise and maintain two upper middle class children in a status-conscious home—labor that is (apparently) invisible to her husband, who sees only how stressed out he is at work, and how much he wants to change his career without experiencing the drop in household income this would entail. And so he wants his wife to get a job, to increase the family’s income.

Here is an excerpt from the sociologist’s response (read the whole thing here):

Let’s read this sociologically. This man wants to maintain his current status level but cannot afford to do it, emotionally (he’s so tired) or financially. So, he wants to outsource some of that to his wife. It was part of why he chose a similarly educated partner (he alludes to how they met in law school etc.). His proposition is, “get a job”. This supposes that his wife does not have a job. But wait…THEY HAVE TWO KIDS!

Either these kids are self-contained wunderkinds or someone invests significant labor into rearing them. He says the kids are now in school, suggesting that the parental involvement in their direct care has drastically diminished. But let’s return again to status. He says repeatedly that he wants to maintain their current lifestyle, the one commensurate with his idealized self as a successful lawyer. What does that mean? Well, it means a lot of things but what it means for a family life is that one’s children are competitive in status competition processes. They can’t just go to a fine school but a *good* school. They can’t just take the course curriculum, but the college prep curriculum. And not just the college prep for any college but for a GOOD college for a professional career similar to the one he and his wife went to school for (i.e. graduate or professional school). I find it hard to imagine that someone so obsessed with maintaining their current lifestyle would be okay telling his legal peer group that his kids are going to community college instead of the state flagship or an Ivy League institution. Part of that “lifestyle” he’s so hot to maintain are children that reflect his economic and social investment in them. Therefore, it would have to be a good school for good careers that his peers would recognize as such. Those things don’t just happen. They have to be managed. As he admits to working an ungodly amount of hours and only nods minimally at “helping out” at home, it’s reasonable to assume that managing that process is his wife’s responsibility. And that doesn’t include the transporation, networking, relationship building, scheduling required to get and keep two middle class status-striving kids in music lessons, sports teams, language lessons, tutoring, community service, orthodontist appointments, healthy eating (to maintain physical appearance of middle class, high status), and so on.

All of that sounds like a job. A job that requires his wife hang out with those friends he dismisses as ladies who lunch. Because who knows the word on the new school, new teacher, new requirements for entry into the good life if not the social circle of other parents who manage these things full time? One man’s lunching lady is another man’s status manager. So, it seems that he doesn’t want his wife to get *A* job but wants her to get a second, full time job.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all of the above things are a required and mandatory part of childrearing. They aren’t. But they are a required part of childrearing for those seeking to maintain a certain status. Views of what counts as good parenting (and what is necessary to raise a child well) vary by socioeconomic status (and also, I’m sure, by race or region). For me, that means having my children in at least one extracurricular program (soccer, gymnastics, martial arts, or dance) at any given time, and, when they’re a bit older, making sure they each have piano lessons, and perhaps other music lessons down the road. For others, it will mean something different. But what it means exactly will affect the amount of unpaid and unseen labor mothers produce, for it is usually mothers who do this work.

I could ask my husband to do some of this work. But because I work from home while my husband works in an office and has a commute while I work from home, and because I feel better prepared for these tasks than he is (whether that’s temperament or simply childhood socialization I do not know), I will likely be the one doing these tasks for the foreseeable future, unless our situation changes. But—and this is an important but—my husband does not take this invisible labor for granted. He gets how much work these things are, dreads the thought of having to do them himself, and is endlessly appreciative of what I do (and does extra housework, or asks how else he can help, etc.). That support matters. A lot. It helps to know that my labor is not fully invisible, and that I do not feel taken for granted. Not every woman is so lucky.

As feminists, we talk about the importance of husbands putting in their fair share of housework, and the importance of fathers doing their share of the childcare. But the “second shift” isn’t just about housework or nighttime childcare. It’s also about all of these little tasks that must be done by someone. We need to prepare our sons to research extracurricular classes and take children to doctor’s appointments, to keep track of their children’s school assignments and plan their children’s birthday parties. How labor is divided in a given family will of course depend on a family’s individual situation; I am not saying that these tasks must always be performed evenly between a given set of parents. But we need to teach our children of whatever gender to recognize these tasks as labor—as labor that is real and valuable—and as labor that they should at least be able and prepared to perform.

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