I can remember spending countless hours with my mom when I was a kid.
As a nurse working the night shift, it wasn’t easy for her to stay awake during the days. But she was always there for my school trips and soccer games. Somehow she also found the time to pay the bills and keep the house clean. We were always fed and happy. What I didn’t realize then was how valuable her time was with me, that I was essentially her second job.
Work. Soccer. Groceries. Dinner. Laundry. For many women, the workday can seem never-ending. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to tackle the growing list of tasks to complete at work and at home.
In a recent Time Magazine article, Dr. Lisa Wade suggests that many women are faced with an "invisible workload” that keeps the household running. According to Dr. Wade, the responsibilities of organizing, remembering, and paying attention all fall into this wheelhouse.
And it’s exhausting.
As Wade points out, sociologist Susan Walzer called this extra workload the “second shift” or work that women take on as soon as they get home.
In an interview with Independent Journal Review, Wade noted that this is a well-known and respected theory in gender sociology.
“If you look at contemporary time-use surveys, men and women are performing the same number of work hours but women are doing more unpaid work.”
Wade adds that today, this unpaid gender gap is better than it used to be.
“Men used to do more work overall, but the value of unpaid is still a serious problem. If you count work together, the unpaid work that women are doing is simply not considered as valid or respected in monetary and non-monetary ways.”
The theory of the “second shift” isn't new. The study Wade is referring to was originally written in the mid-1990s. But Wade was inspired to write about the theory in Time Magazine after reading a poem by author and mom Ellen Seidman.
Seidman had written herself a tribute on Mother's Day about the daily list of things she thinks about to keep the household running:
“I am the only person in our household who ever notices that we need more t.p. The kids never give it a second thought—it magically reappears in the holder on a regular basis, placed there by The Toilet Paper Fairy. The spouse assumes that my good old trusty eyeballs will notice the dwindling rolls and raise the alert.”
But Seidman doesn’t let her “second shift” bring her down. She adds:
“This is why I rock…I am the person who notices.”
Seidman is the enabler, the organizer, the one who remembers which toothpaste will drive the kids crazy. Without her, the family would cease to exist.
She reminds me of my full-time nurse, full-time soccer mom. Her story is relatable even to me, a married woman without children.
Other friends on social media agree. Women from around the world, in different walks of life, commented on Wade's story and Seidman's poem. They all found something that resonated with them.
A new mom noted that most of her “invisible workload" has gone to researching health-related items for her new baby:
Megan: “Vitamin K shot at birth, eye drops, how do we deal with this tongue tie? Who should do the procedure? Then making sure and we staying on top of post operation stretches every 4 hours for 5 weeks. Lactation consultants, breastfeeding books, YouTube videos, do we vaccinate? How do we best prevent SIDS? Health insurance, getting the birth certificate and social security number, finding the right swaddle so we can sleep better at night ... the countless hours of mom research ... I could go on!”
Another mom with older children noted that the work doesn’t stop as the years go by:
Carmen: “As they get older obviously the kids become more self sufficient but my work doesn't lighten up. There's still grocery shopping, dinner, making lunches for school, laundry, taking care of pets (which my daughter does help a lot), keeping up with sports schedule and after school activities, arranging time with her friends. I mean the older they get the busier their social calendar and mom has to stay in top of it. I have to tell my husband where and when he needs to be. I don't really have too much of a social life because I am overwhelmed with other responsibilities and taking time for myself means I fall farther behind. The list goes on and on. Men don't understand ... seriously, they don't get it when we are stressed out.”
Sometimes the workday is easier for this mother of two toddlers:
Amanda: “Whew the invisible workload! Doesn't always start when I get home, sometimes at work I'm thinking about things we need for dinner that night, what we're eating for dinner, and already praying the clock speeds up to bed time (not just for the kids but for me as well) ... Sometimes work is more relaxing for me.”
A recurring theme is that there just isn't enough time in the day:
Shauna: “I think the hardest thing about being a mom is the amount of time available in a day, there are just never enough minutes. There is always a meal to make or a load of laundry to do, but I think the most unintended thing is really the impact on my workload while I'm at work. Before becoming a mom I would often stay late to get the work done, but now that I have to get my little one before daycare closes I find that the workload at work is actually harder to manage. The stuff at home isn't much more, same things I was doing before she was here just more of it.”
The story struck a chord with this unmarried woman who is living with her partner. She even feels guilty when she allows him to fail:
Louise: “I'm not a mother, but living with a partner I totally understand ... If I don't notice when we're running out of toilet roll/foil/toothpaste, and more importantly, no matter how many times I tell him we're low, if I don't remember to pick some more up when we're out, it doesn't get done ... I make sure we split all chores pretty evenly, as I can't bear the stereotype of women doing all the housework and refuse to accept it, but it's absolutely spot on that I end up doing more MENTALLY than he does - often if I don't ask for something to be done, it won't be.”
Another woman felt tired of always being responsible for the household:
Tracy: “I'm tired of being the database of where all items are located. Where are my shoes? Where's the electrical tape? Where is the screw driver? It's maddening that I actually know where it all is…”
One mom pointed out how that question every woman hates to hear — “What did you do all day?” — makes her blood boil:
Jackie: "Being on hold / on the phone for two hours with the diabetes supplies folks to fix billing issues. Why didn't I get ___ done while I was home? Don't.”
Others didn’t even realize that they were keeping track all along:
Stephanie: “Even something so simple as what time school starts/ends, what day and time football practice/cub scouts is, where lost shoes tend to be found, permission slips, school project deadlines, when trash and recycling pickups are ... all of these default to me. None of them are secrets I desire to keep, I just know.”
Even my own mom chimed in and joked that her list is very visible:
Lisa: “Puke. Poop. Fevers. Laundry. Dishes. Fund Raisers. Preschool Carpool. Soccer Practice. Music Lessons. Sleepovers. Pizza Parties. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Snuggles. Hugs. Kisses. Rocks in Pockets. Handholding. Sunday school. Scrapped Knees. Boo boos. Accidents. Storytelling. Camping. Dead goldfish. Mud. Smores. Tummy aches. Cheetos. Twinkies. Sparkle Sticks. Shin Pads and Knee Guards. Chaos. Love.”
Of course there are men who are also taking their share of the responsibility. Wade notes that men tend to ramp up the amount of time they spend at work in order to care for their families both at home and at work:
“Men feel pressured to invest intensely in their occupation for their families. When men get married and have children, they tend to respond by working more.”
She adds that when men do participate in household work, they are more likely to do the fun parts of childbearing.
“The dads play with the kids so mom can finish the work in the kitchen.”
For the many women who felt guilty or overwhelmed, Wade offered a few words of advice:
“If there are women out there who feel overwhelmed, particularly if they feel guilty with how well they are doing as a worker and as a wife, they should know it’s not their fault. This is not on them. They are trying to live up to expectations and function in a system that creates an impossible job.”
If it feels like there isn't enough time in the day, that's because there isn't. The workload of thinking may not be valued as it should today, but when kids grow up and become partners and parents themselves, it's amazing how aware and appreciative they suddenly become...so be patient.