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Published: Dec 29, 2016 7 min read
Lauri Rotko/Folio Images—Getty Images/Folio Images RM

“I am the person,” wrote Ellen Seidman, a wife and mother of three, “who notices we are running out of toilet paper.”

It was the beginning of a poem she wrote for her blog, Love That Max, about a role she plays in her household – that of worrier, organizer, rememberer, and attention-payer. The poem was about the work she does involving thinking, a kind of mental labor that, she says, “enables our family to basically exist.”

“I am the person who notices,” she writes.

  • I am the person who notices we are running low on coffee pods…
  • I am the person who notices we are running low on toothpaste/dental floss/mouthwash/anti-cavity rinse in bubble gum flavor.
  • I am the person who notices we are running low on granola bars, brownie bites, dried fruit, kale chips, cheese sticks, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and other lifesaving snacks.

She is the person who knows not only that coffee is essential, but also that using the wrong toothpaste is the kind of thing that can seriously ruin a child’s morning—not to mention their parents.

Eggs, milk, and ketchup, too, she notes. The juice her son loves, and the brand of peanut butter preferred by each family member. (“I so wish our family had consensus on p.b.,” she sighs.) Not to mention a whole myriad of soaps (body, laundry, dishwasher, etc.), gas for the car, when library books are due, when it’s time for a check-up, and when the towels start to smell.

It starts with the toilet paper running out and it goes on… and on… and on. It’s exhausting to read.

Sociologist Susan Walzer published a research article in 1996, called “Thinking About the Baby,” pointing to this household gender gap. Scholars had already documented that women, even those who worked full time, were doing the majority of what came to be called the “second shift”: the work that greets us when we come home from work.

Walzer was interested in the invisible part of this work, the kind that occupied people’s minds. She interviewed 23 husband-wife couples, finding them through the rather quaint method of reading birth announcements in a local newspaper. All had brought a baby home in the last year.

More of the Mental Work

Walzer found that women do more of the intellectual, mental, and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance. They do more of the learning and information processing (like researching pediatricians).

They do more worrying (like wondering if their child is hitting his developmental milestones). And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when the mattress needs to be flipped or what to cook for dinner).

Even when their male partners “helped out” by doing their fair share of chores and errands, it was the women who noticed what needed to be done. She described, in other words, exactly the kind of work that Seidman’s poem captures so well.

Seidman isn’t complaining. Her poem is funny and sweet and clearly driven by a love for her family, husband included. And, to be fair, while women who are married to or cohabiting with men do more domestic work than their partners, husbands spend proportionally more time on paid work. Today the amount of sheer hours that men and women spend in combined paid and unpaid work is pretty close to equal.

But that doesn’t count the thinking.

Husbands may do more housework and childcare than before, but women still delegate:

Honey, I’m going to be out of town for the weekend. Remember that the pediatrician’s number is on the fridge, we’re expecting a package on Saturday and you should intercept it if you can, Susan has a sleepover at Amy’s later that night and I wrote the address in your calendar, Scotty has a piano lesson on Sunday at 10 so don’t let him sleep in, the number for Mikey’s Pizza is programmed into your phone, and the flower bed out back could really use some weeding if you’re up to it.

No wonder wives have the reputations of being nags. Even a person who was perfectly happy to do household work might get tired of being wrangled by a half-frantic taskmaster.

Like much of the feminized work done more often by women than men, thinking, worrying, paying attention, and delegating is work that is largely invisible, gets almost no recognition, and involves no pay or benefits.

'Superpower' or No?

Seidman suggested she had a “seeing superpower” that her husband and children did not. But she doesn’t, of course. It’s just that her willingness to do it allows everyone else the freedom not to. If she were gone, you bet her husband would start noticing when the fridge went empty and the diapers disappeared. Thinking isn’t a superpower; it’s work. And it all too often seems only natural that women do the hard work of running a household.

We have come a long way toward giving women the freedom to build a life outside the home, but the last step may be an invisible one, happening mostly in our heads.

It’s about housework, yes, but it extends to having to consider what neckline, hemline, height of heel, and lipstick shade is appropriate for that job interview, afternoon wedding, or somber funeral, instead of relying on an all-purpose suit; it’s about thinking carefully about how to ask for a raise in a way that sounds both assertive and nice; it’s about worrying whether it’s safe at night and how to get home; for some of us, it involves feeling compelled to learn feminist theory so as to understand our own lives and, then, to spend mental energy explaining to others that the revolution is unfinished.

To truly be free, we need to free women’s minds. Of course, someone will always have to remember to buy toilet paper, but if that work were shared, women’s extra burdens would be lifted. Only then will women have as much lightness of mind as men.

And when they do, I expect to be inspired by what they put their minds to.

Lisa Wade is associate professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of American Hookup, about campus sexual culture.

Plus, a working dad responds: There's an Invisible Workload That Drags Men Down, Too