Study: How women in Alabama shoulder “the invisible family load”
Editor’s note: Alabama Public Radio originally published this article on Wednesday, October 4, 2023. There were questions about accuracy in the reporting, and APR is now publishing this editorial revision regarding the story. The article below has been updated to reflect accurate information. Alabama Public Radio regrets the error in the previous reporting.
There are noticeable tasks people do day-to-day when it comes to running a household. This includes cleaning, doing laundry and cooking. However, researchers at The University of Alabama have identified an area of work called the invisible family load, and their data shows that women are often left shouldering the bulk of it.
“The invisible family load is that intangible and never-ending to-do list of things that keeps a family and a household running,” explained Dr. Maura Mills, an Associate Professor of Management in UA’s Department of Management. “It's all of that stuff that nobody sees but has to live in somebody's head if it's going to get done, and it has to get done. It's project management. Someone's the household project manager or the captain of the ship, and it's usually women.”
UA researchers said the invisible family load can be things like scheduling play dates and staying on top of school updates. Basically, any managerial, cognitive and emotional task involved in keeping a family running each day, for an event or during an activity.
“There are so many examples out there,” said Mills. “It's remembering that your son's soccer signup deadline is next week, and that money is due for teacher gifts on Thursday and that Wednesday's your daughter's school picture day. There's only enough milk in the fridge for tomorrow morning. It's endless, and it's really multifaceted.”
According to the research, women are taking most of this on while also doing the majority of the housework and childcare. Mills said this can lead to negative outcomes.
“Bearing the invisible labor of the family and the household can be very psychologically draining and can negatively impact a whole host of outcomes, including sleep, exhaustion, and even lower life and family satisfaction,” she explained.
Mills said some of this stress from women being burdened with, and sometimes expected, to do it all can be attributed to society’s current workforce and workplace demands.
“The modern work week just wasn't designed for dual-career families,” she explained. “Historically, most families had one parent who worked full time to support the family financially, while the other parent, usually the woman, stayed home and managed everything else about their lives and families,” Mills continued. “But as dual-career families are increasingly prevalent, even necessary, in many cases, the workload of the home and the family and the children hasn't led up at all. In many ways, it's actually increased. It just wasn't designed for one person to be the primary manager of all of this. So, it can feel very overwhelming, and rightfully so.”
Mills said she recommends women who feel overwhelmed by the invisible labor to speak with their partners to help mitigate tasks, but she also said it’s important for their partners to pay attention and offer assistance without being asked to help out every single time.
“Partners can be helpful by being more proactive about their family and household needs and taking initiative and thinking about tasks that need to be done. Asking what you can do to help is great to a point,” she explained, “but it also implies that it's someone else's job to notice and keep track of what needs to be done, rather than a truly equal partnership.”
Mills also said the sooner someone feeling the invisible labor pile up speaks to their partner about it, the better. She said that’s because patterns become harder to change the longer they’re allowed to stay in place.
“These gendered-labor patterns are often exacerbated when children are added into the mix,” she explained. “So, regular check-ins with your partner, especially during that time, can help manage load distribution proactively and allow partners to recalibrate in real time if things seem to be running off course.”
There are resources available to help facilitate these conversations if people feel overwhelmed or not sure where to start when it comes to talking with their partner about these issues.
“There's a great card deck called Fair Play by Eve Rodsky that can help partners navigate distribution of the invisible load in a more equitable way,” said Mills. “It's actually a really nice non-threatening way to open a conversation with your partner about redistributing some of that load.”
According to the Fair Play Life website, the book offers a system to couples to divide domestic responsibilities. The literature started with a list of all the invisible tasks it takes to run a home, but it later developed into “a gamified system with four easy-to-follow rules, 100 household tasks, and a figurative card game you play with your partner.”
However, Mills said while it can be draining to do it all, certain aspects of the invisible family load isn’t always bad.
“We did also find some positive outcomes, like a sense of enrichment and family satisfaction,” she said. “People have found those really interesting because it's not necessarily what we would typically expect, but it is important that they don't overshadow the preponderance of negative outcomes. Particularly, for the emotional aspect of bearing metal invisible load,” she continued.
The findings on the invisible family load from Mills (along with Dr. Russell A. Matthews and Dr. Marilyn V. Whitman from UA's Culverhouse College of Business, Dr. Julie Holliday Wayne, and recent UA doctoral graduate Dr. Yi-Ren Wang) were published back in May in the Journal of Business and Psychology. Read more here