Why Moms (and Non-Moms) Have Had Enough

Invisible labor at home and work make this time particularly trying for women

A photo of a family of four (mom, dad, two kids) sitting at home. Mom is on her computer and attending to a child.

The bombshell from a recent New York Times survey probably didn’t come as much of a surprise to working moms juggling Zoom calls and math worksheets: In straight American couples with kids under 12, nearly half of men claimed that they were shouldering most of their children’s homeschooling duties. Only 3% of women agreed.

As the coronavirus lockdown drags along, parents around the world are not alright, buckling under the demands of educating their children and doing their jobs, all in a climate of uncertainty and fear.

Meanwhile, some childless remote workers — stuck at home without a hard stop to the workday — are logging long hours, panic-working, and sometimes picking up the slack for overtaxed parents. There’s no data yet, but given what we know about the “invisible labor” that women perform at work, as well as at home, this group is also likely to skew female.

The times are trying. But, as many predicted early in the crisis, they’re largely more trying for women — single and married, with or without children — than men.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, the drudgery of domestic labor — overwhelmingly, disproportionately, and often invisibly — tends to fall to women. This is not a fluke; it’s the logical, inevitable byproduct of an economic system that was designed to run on the free or cheap labor of women. We are meant to take a woman’s work for granted. It’s the whole point of the setup.

Housework, the management of household schedules and budgets, grocery shopping, and tending to elderly relatives and children are largely invisible to economists. But if American women were paid the minimum wage for all these unpaid hours of work, they would have made roughly $1.5 trillion last year, Gus Wezerek and Kristen R. Ghodsee wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed: “Societies rarely take stock of the value of unpaid care work unless there is a disruption in the supply,” they wrote, citing the time in 1975 when 90% of Icelandic women refused to cook, clean, or look after children for a day, forcing men to fill in.

It’s a dynamic that can be traced at least to the industrial revolution when a surging labor market led to women taking jobs outside the home en masse. Employers were often wary of hiring women, expecting them be less reliable workers than their male counterparts. The prospect of hiring women became more appealing, however, when bosses realized they could pay a woman a fraction of a man’s salary to do the same job.

Despite the gains — both real and imagined — that women have amassed since the industrial revolution, the patterns cemented in that era persist. The gender pay gap remains, as does the devaluation of the care work. And, despite women’s now-widespread workforce participation, the burden of that care work hasn’t shifted much.

“Office housework” is another manifestation of this dynamic, one that affects all working women. “They’re more likely to get the coffee, buy birthday cakes, clean up after meetings, and take notes,” wrote Soraya Chemaly in Quartz. “When women don’t help with this ‘office housework,’ they run the risk of violating people’s role congruence expectations. On the flip side, men are more likely to be called out and rewarded for doing such tasks, as they are perceived as being outside their daily work expectations.”

And this imbalance is preventing women from getting ahead at work, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. They recounted the case of a woman manager at a consulting firm who pitched in to deal with last-minute client requests, mentored junior colleagues, volunteered to help prepare a colleague’s presentation, and planned an office holiday party — and yet was still passed over for promotion.

“This is the sad reality in workplaces around the world,” Grant and Sandberg wrote. “Women help more but benefit less from it. In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal.” (Sandberg’s antidote to this structural disadvantage, outlined in her 2013 bestseller Lean In, is for individual women to adopt the bullish workplace mannerisms associated with men. It’s a facile interpretation of the machinations that drive inequality, but paints a fair picture of how gender bias can translate into the work we do and the traits for which we’re rewarded.)

Socialization is a part of how we absorb these expectations. “Baby dolls, EZ Bake ovens, and toy vacuum cleaners allow girls to play-practice the labors they will perform when they grow up,” Ghodsee notes in her 2018 book, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. The little boys who’ll grow up to become their partners and colleagues are offered store aisles full of toys for building, fighting, and competing.

There’s nothing fair about this division of labor, in play or in life. The reality is that maintenance and care work, at home or at work, can really suck. It’s often boring, tedious, and emotionally and physically demanding. When outsourced for pay, it’s the kind of work that gets deemed “low-skill” — performed for little money by women with few better options, many of them marginalized by race, class, or immigration status, as well as sex.

Even within dual-career families, the bulk of this work falls upon women. And the truth is, sometimes it’s just easier to do the thing that needs to be done than to nag someone else to do it slower and worse. Gendered socialization means many women have had a lifetime of practice.

Trying times indeed. But the good news is that in the midst of this massive, unprecedented “disruption in the supply” of care and housework, there’s an opportunity to reassess and reconfigure. Moments of collective crisis offer opportunities for collective action.

We can push for fair parental leave for all genders, and remove taboos from the struggles of working parents — especially now that we’ve seen them playing out on Zoom meeting screens. We can support universal childcare policies, and advocate for care workers’ rights and fair wages. Families can reassess how domestic labor is divided within the home.

At work, we can all make sure that our colleagues are setting healthy limits on their work hours. Companies can ensure that “helping” is valued — whether women or men, parents or non-parents, do it.

And we should demand that men engage fully with this reckoning, too, both in their workplace behaviors and their fundamental attitudes to the women in their lives.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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