You're both tired from a day's work. Now who does the dishes?

Unequal housework and rest times are adding to the invisible load in too many domestic lives, a survey shows

Women do far more housework and childcare than men, studies from around the world show. AFP
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Are you procrastinating about washing the dishes while reading this? Or perhaps at the back of your mind you’re planning dinner and thinking about what you need to pick up from the supermarket.

A new survey by Samsung, of over 6,000 respondents across Europe, says that people in Britain spend 76 per cent as much time thinking about tackling housework as actually doing it, and this creates an "invisible load".

It is the next iteration of ideas that already exist, the mental load version 2.0. These are societal inequalities that women have been trying to shine a light on for a long time. It is the notion that the monitoring, planning and organisational elements of life require one to be on constant alert. These tasks use up time and energy and lead to exhaustion and with exceptions, this load falls usually and disproportionately on women.

Sadly, this accumulation of tasks that keep households and families running – and thus the whole of society – is socially and economically often considered less valuable than a 9-5 job, and dismissed as "women’s work". However, if you want to see its value, a good example would be the impact of the women’s strike in Iceland in 1975, when 90 per cent of the country’s women refused to go to work, do housework or childcare. It took literally just one day of women not doing "women’s work" to create societal change.

There are plenty of studies from around the world that show women do far more housework and childcare than men. Yet, men take far more leisure time. These realities are often corroborated by simply looking at the people around.

Rest is a crucial component for people to be healthier and more relationships to be more equitable

The European Institute for Gender Equality’s Gender Equality Index of 2021 found that about 91 per cent of women with children spend at least an hour every day on housework compared with 30 per cent of men with children. And employed women spend about 2.3 hours each day on housework compared to their employed male counterparts at 1.6 hours. As for leisure, a 2023 Pew Research analysis based on the American Time Use survey found that men with children under the age of five had at least 4.5 hours more leisure than women.

There has, however, been an increasing acceptance that for an improvement in women’s economic status, work opportunities, equality of pay and engagement in the public space, workloads at home need to be shared. The mental and physical load needs to be equal.

But there’s a third component that needs to be added: that rest also needs to be fair. It would lead to an immediate change in women’s lives. After all, women’s physical and mental health burn out rates are very real – an unhappy modern reinvention of the "problem with no name", as it was said about American housewives in the 1950s and '60s falling into depression.

In her book How to Keep House While Drowning, KC Davies describes how couples will often argue about who should do housework and childcare by competing about whose work is deemed more "valuable". For example, the husband might argue that he has worked hard all week at his job, while the wife might argue that looking after the children all day is no picnic either. But her work will continue over the weekend while typically he will take time off. And if it were the case that she too had a regular job, the disparities of workload and unequal rest would grow even more.

Davies points out: “They can argue till they are blue in the face about who works harder. The truth is that both are tired. Both want their labour appreciated. And both deserve rest. That’s right; even if you have the 'easier' job, you still need rest.”

And she adds that in a true partnership each one cares for the well-being of the other, and so reaching equanimity on rest seems to bode well for a happy family life. And if one partner (statistically most likely to be the husband) still feels that he deserves rest and she doesn’t, or her work isn’t that valuable, then that is a different conversation about respectful relationships.

In all this, rest itself needs to be clearly defined. Ask any woman who has been a stay-at-home mum but then gone back to the workplace. It’s often a palpable relief. Many women talk of "escaping" to the office: they're relieved to be able to drink a cup of tea from start to finish, eat lunch and get through the day in relative peace. Because when you’re attending to children, or prone to interruptions, there is no rest.

Davies says that for true rest to happen it needs agreed parameters, which primarily focus on autonomy (you decide fully what to do in that time); not being on call (which is to say, you’re not available to wipe snotty noses, explain where to find the ketchup or fix a problem) and perhaps most notably, a rest from responsibilities. This is the crux of the invisible load: that no matter where you go, the burden sits on your shoulders.

Clearly defined, fair rest is a crucial component for people to be healthier and more relationships to be more equitable in the home and as a consequence at the workplace. But not only that, it reorients us away from "work" as the thing that is valuable to instead thinking about individuals, relationships and families as the source of value, and ultimately what is most important.

And if you’re still thinking about the dishes or what to cook for dinner, you might need a rest.

Published: February 16, 2024, 7:00 AM