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Tired of Doing the Invisible Work in Your Family?

A recent study shows that this “cognitive labor” is real.

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Do any of the following apply to you?

1. I do most of the household management, such as planning meals and corresponding grocery lists, making sure all the home supplies are replenished, monitoring when something needs to be fixed, and raising the alarm when things fall through the cracks.

2. I am the “default parent” when it comes to interacting with daycare or school, coordinating children’s activities, playdates, driving schedules, and doctors’ visits, keeping an eye on the need for children’s clothes and other necessities as well as birthday presents.

3. I am the one to find, engage with, and collaborate with outside help, such as babysitters, nannies, the cleaning service, the yard maintenance company, etc.

4. I am the “social coordinator” in my family, organizing almost all social gatherings and outings, researching events of interest, and planning vacations.

If you said yes to at least two of these options, chances are that you carry a big burden of “cognitive labor” in your family. Notice that I did not list concrete tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, lawn mowing, or spending time with children at home or outside. While these concrete tasks have been included for a long time under the labels “housework” or “childcare,” cognitive labor has eluded researchers and the public alike, because it’s invisible and less time-bound.

The majority of housework and childcare traditionally has been done by women. In recent decades, this division of labor at home has become somewhat more evenly distributed, but research shows that women still do significantly more at home—even when they also work outside the home. That said, there are huge variations in how dual-earner families function at home.

In the Washington, D.C., area where I practice, I witness many arrangements in which partners share their home responsibilities equitably. Yet I still hear women in those families express their frustration at being constantly harried and exhausted, never having time for themselves, their work and leisure time being frequently interrupted, and having to multitask constantly. Many women, in their discussions with me and in various online forums, talk about the invisible household and childcare burden that cannot easily be defined and measured.

Harvard sociologist Allison Daminger recently published a study in which she does exactly that: defines and describes cognitive labor. In 2017, she conducted in-depth interviews with 70 married adults (35 couples). They were middle class and upper-middle-class, college-educated, 82 percent Caucasian families in the Boston area with at least one child under 5.

Based on her research, Daminger describes four components of cognitive labor:

1. Anticipation recognizing upcoming needs, problems, or opportunities

2. Identification determining options for fulfilling needs, through research, discussions with others, etc.

3. Decision-making choosing among the identified options

4. Monitoring — making sure that the decisions were executed and that the needs were adequately addressed

Both Daminger’s article and anecdotal evidence suggest that most of the anticipation and monitoring is often done by women. When it comes to identification (for example, finding daycare options), men seem to be more involved. They are apparently most involved in decision-making—as when a family needs to decide on a specific daycare or grocery delivery company.

The main limitation of this study is that it includes only a small sample that is more educated, affluent, and white when compared to the U.S. general population. Further research is needed to examine whether this article’s findings replicate and apply to people more broadly.

Why is cognitive labor so hard to recognize and acknowledge? First, this work is often invisible to everyone except the person doing it. A woman might respond to an email chain about a kid's get-together throughout the day while she is trying to finish a project in her office.

Or she might realize that a tomato has gone bad in the refrigerator drawer while preparing breakfast and might make a mental note to get more tomatoes or let her husband know to buy one before Thursday when they plan to make hamburgers (which her youngest will only eat if there are tomatoes on them).

Maybe she is contemplating how to help her son prepare for the SAT this summer while trying to decompress at the beach. Or she continuously checks when the soccer league starts accepting new applications.

This cognitive labor often is accomplished in the background while doing something else. And it is ongoing. So, it is almost impossible to say how much time one spends doing it, even though it can negatively affect a person’s ability to focus, get primary work done, or relax.

Cognitive labor and its consequences also can become a source of tension and arguments between partners, given that it is hard for the other person to appreciate how taxing this work is. Sometimes even the person doing the cognitive labor is not aware that she is doing it, so does not give herself credit and does not feel satisfaction at having completed a concrete task.

For example, it is much easier to feel good about painting a garden fence than it is to feel good about ongoing monitoring to ensure that your special needs kid’s school is adequately implementing a plan made with teachers and school counselor. So, instead of acknowledging how much one is doing and setting some limits, the cognitive laborer keeps going and ends up completely drained and worn out. It is easy to see how taking on the lion’s share of the family’s cognitive labor can lead to negative psychological, occupational, and health effects, as well as marital problems.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement and recognition regarding the burden of cognitive labor, here are some strategies that can help, based on my work as a psychologist:

1. Track everything that goes into your cognitive labor during an average week. Be especially mindful of anything you are doing in the background while trying to accomplish a concrete task or take a break. Write it down.

2. Acknowledge how much you are doing without even being aware of it. Use that to give yourself a break from time to time, and to accept yourself and any shortcomings with self-compassion. Become more flexible.

3. Share the log with your partner and have a discussion about dividing cognitive labor more equitably, if possible. After your partner realizes how much you are doing, he or she might be more likely to get on board. The best way to divide work is for partners to take what they prefer and are good at.

4. Sequester time when you only focus on a work project or your exercise routine, for example. Catch your mind as it swerves into cognitive labor mode, and return to the task at hand. At first, you might have to take time during those tasks to quickly write down a thought related to cognitive labor to feel sure that you won’t forget it. After your work or exercise period is over, you can devote a concentrated period to all the cognitive labor that needs to be addressed. Eventually, your mind will become more mindful (regular mindfulness exercises can help with this!) and able to focus without distractions.

5. Research any technological or other practical solutions that could help lighten the burden of cognitive labor. For example, you can use an app for meal planning that creates a grocery list for ingredients, try for scheduling playdates or carpools, leave it up to your babysitter to figure out dinner and games, or subscribe to a Web service with regular updates about sporting and cultural events in your town.

Sometimes just realizing that the burden of cognitive labor is not only in your head and that there are other people in the same boat can help. And now you have a name for it.

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