House Work

We hear a lot about how women do the lion's share of the housework. Recently, we have begun to hear about "cognitive labor," which more about identifying what needs to be done, and arranging to have it done, even if you yourself don't ultimately do it. For example, arranging a babysitter, or planning meals that you don't necessarily cook. And researchers are telling us that cognitive labor, too, is mostly done by the women of the house.

There are two possible problems with the idea of "cognitive labor."

The first is that, according to the definition and description of it, a woman who decides she wants new paint in her bedroom, and who subsequently nags her husband to repaint the walls, gets credit for "cognitive labor," even though all she really did was decide that she wanted something and then make her husband do it for her.

The second problem is that people with a lot of anxiety will tend to fret unnecessarily about things, making long "to-do" lists and stressing themselves out about them; this symptom of anxiety could be misconstrued as legitimate "cognitive labor," especially in one who is both anxious and not particularly self-aware. Imagine a person who obsessively cleans the counter-tops at home; does such a person genuinely have a lot of housework to do? Of course not. When people assign themselves unnecessary work or unnecessary cognitive labor, they're not doing more than their fair share, they're wasting time and energy, and typically at the expense of things that genuinely do need to be done.

Provided a "cognitive laborer" is not engaging in those two activities, I think it is perhaps a useful concept.

But, there is another kind of "invisible work" that gets done in a household. We can't call it genuine housework, and we can't call it "cognitive labor." We also can't call it "emotional labor," because that's a term that has already been reserved for a different concept.

What do you call the responsibility a person has toward providing emotional support to the other members of the family? What do you call the work a parent does if she handles most of the disciplinary problems, most of the soothing and comforting, most of the story-telling and happy-birthday-singing? What do you call the work one partner does when the other is feeling depressed or anxious and needs some cheering-up? What do you call it when one partner needs to take a break, and all the responsibilities and interpersonal interaction fall to the other partner: playing with the kids, talking to the kids, talking to the partner who is taking a break, checking-in with an anxious family member, ensuring that homework is done, etc.? What is that kind of work called?

In some families, the majority of the emotional support required of all the family members falls to one person. Despite what other chores might need to be done, the emotional work comes first. After all, you can't get to the pile of dishes in the sink if someone is crying on your shoulder. You can't re-caulk the bathtub if a toddler is going stir-crazy and desperately needs to be entertained. You can't go get an oil change if your romantic partner feels lonely and needs to be held.

Undoubtedly, the mother of the house is often the one who must do the majority of these tasks. But I think it is equally common -- perhaps even more common -- for the father of the house to be the one who does this. It is the father who often serves as the "final disciplinarian" toward children. It is the father who must consistently woo the mother and shower her with gifts to keep her feeling loved. It is the father who must retain cool composure and determination in the face of any kind of hardship. He provides protection against both little spiders and loud noises from outside. He is the jester of the family, the one to turn to when one needs to hear a good joke, or a silly song, or a much-derided "dad joke." It is the father who must teach the son "how to be a man," as well as teaching the daughter "how a woman ought to be treated."

Men do a great deal of emotional housework, and they seldom get credit for it. So, to you men who spend many hours per week providing emotional support to your families, I say: Well done. I notice your efforts.

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