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5 things to know about invisible labor

Parents dividing household work and childcare responsibilities

How couples divide work at home, like chores and childcare, can affect their health. We spoke with Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play, to learn more.

It takes work to care for a home and raise kids. And how we divide that work is an age-old problem, with women historically handling the bulk of chores and childcare.

Unpaid work that is often unacknowledged, like laundry, cleaning and carpool, is considered "invisible labor." On the surface, those things may seem like "personal issues." But they can result in burnout, anxiety, depression and other illnesses, just like burnout from a job outside of the home. That's what makes invisible labor a matter of public health.

Eve Rodsky is the New York Times bestselling author of the book Fair Play, which inspired a documentary by Hello Sunshine. She spoke with our Until It's Fixed podcast to share her story around invisible labor. Here are five important lessons we learned.

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Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

1. Taking on too much “invisible labor” especially hurts women’s health

Rodsky: “Invisible labor” refers to the unseen and unpaid work that is needed to run a home and a family. Women tend to take on two-thirds or more of that work. And that is regardless of whether they work outside the home too.

For Fair Play, I created a list of 100 “invisible labor” tasks, which we turned into cards. It includes everything from groceries to estate planning.

Then we did some research on it. We followed a sample of women for 10 years. We had 200 women who held 67 or more of those cards, on top of a full-time job. After 10 years, every single one of them is being treated for a stress-related illness.

So, there’s something going on with women when they’re holding all of this unpaid work plus a full-time job. It’s just too much. And it’s leading to problems like hair loss, thyroid issues, insomnia and sleep disorders. And women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as men.

Even worse were the people who told me they weren’t being treated by a doctor. They were self-medicating with things like alcohol or drugs. They were trying to numb themselves to their caregiving responsibilities.

2. Being an active caregiver is “profoundly important” to men’s health

Rodsky: Men can actually benefit from being more involved in household work. There is research from Harvard that is the longest-running study on men’s health. They followed over 700 men, starting as teenagers, for more than 75 years. It found that the most important thing is the quality of your relationships. If we look at the quality of a man’s relationships at 55, we can predict whether he’s alive at 85.

When men do childcare and housework, they’re more active, involved parents. That is true in other places too. They can be more involved in the caregiving of their work teams, for example. A man can take on a task as simple as ordering the birthday cake for their team member, instead of relying on a woman to do it.

Doing this caregiving builds stronger relationships. And that is profoundly important to men’s health.

3. LGBTQ+ couples can have these issues too

Rodsky: Couples who identify as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) do tend to have a better division of labor. But they still have uncovered assumptions. In my research, what happened in LGBTQ+ couples was that the person who made more money was doing less housework.

So there were other assumptions around financial capital in their partnerships. (“Financial capital” refers to income and other assets.) Talking about household labor is just as important for same-sex couples.

4. “Fair play” doesn’t mean dividing labor 50/50

Rodsky: Not all couples can or should strive for splitting household labor down the middle. Fair Play has always been about ownership, not 50/50.

In the 1990s, there was a big movement for 50/50 partnerships. But how do you even know what that means? You take out the garbage once, I’ll take it out next? It would be a scorekeeping headache.

Instead, Fair Play is a movement toward ownership. It’s about treating your home as your most important job. Whether it’s being the tooth fairy or bringing flowers to your kids’ recital. You’re going to take it on with pride.

That’s why I think it’s really not about 50/50. It can’t be. Some families might have a stay-at-home parent. And in that case, it might be more like a 90/10 split.

But even in those structures, the person who “makes the money” has to realize that they can’t do their job without the contributions of the person who’s at home. And childcare and housework are really not a 1-person job.

5. We need to value housework and childcare

Rodsky: Valuing housework and childcare helps us as a society. If we valued care, guess what we would have? We would be a country that has paid parental leave. We would help parents pay for childcare. And we would pay people in the childcare industry a living wage. Right now, dog walkers can make more money than the people who take care of our children.

We need to value holding a child’s hand in the pediatrician’s office as much as we value an hour in the boardroom. That is what the Fair Play movement is about: valuing unpaid labor.

Hear more of our conversation  with Eve on the Until It's Fixed podcast

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