In September 2017, mom and writer Cameron Reeves Poynter shared a heartfelt essay on Facebook about the invisible work she does for her family.
“I am the keeper. I am the keeper of schedules. Of practices, games, and lessons. Of projects, parties, and dinners. Of appointments and homework assignments,” she wrote, before diving into a laundry list of chores and responsibilities she takes on for her husband and two sons.
“I am the keeper of emotional security,” wrote the mom, who is based in the Norfolk, Virginia, area. “The repository of comfort, the navigator of bad moods, the holder of secrets and the soother of fears.”
Most of the time, the load is manageable for the former attorney, but other times, it’s too much to bear.
“Sometimes the weight of the things I keep pulls me down below the surface until I am kicking and struggling to break the surface and gasp for breath,” she wrote, before admitting that sometimes, “being the keeper is exhausting. Because you feel like you’re doing it alone.” (Read the entire essay below.)
The post went viral and compelled many readers to reach out to Reeves Poynter with their stories of shouldering the lion’s share of childcare and household work. (In many cases, that’s on top of their day-to-day responsibilities at work.)
“I have heard from hundreds of people ― men and women ― who told me they desperately needed to hear someone say, ‘I see you. What you do matters. You are not alone,’” she told HuffPost. “It’s hard because there is no objective rubric like a grading scale or a performance review to figure out how you’re faring with things like this.”
The mental energy Reeves Poynter described in her viral essay is what therapists call “emotional labor” — the effort it takes to put your game face on when you’re utterly exhausted from managing nearly everything at home. (Originally, the term was applied to workplace interactions, but in recent times, it’s been applied to housework and parenting tasks, too.)
The “keeper” is an apt job title and a good catch-all for the parent who handles almost all of the “invisible work” in the household: The keeper remembers that their 10-year-old has an eye exam on Tuesday, that supplies need to be bought for an upcoming science fair project, that teeth need to be brushed. The keeper takes care of the things that would cause familial chaos if they weren’t done.
It’s not just household logistics, either; the keeper often shoulders the weight of the family’s emotional burdens, too. They’re there for every tantrum, every mini crisis after a friendship spat, every lecture after a bad report card.
For working mothers especially, the so-called “second shift” takes hold once they walk through the door from their day job. It’s relentless, exhausting work and it often puts a strain on the spousal relationship.
Elisabeth LaMotte, a therapist and founder of the DC Counseling & Psychotherapy Center, said she’s heard clients complain about emotional labor and the second shift for decades.
“Women ask, ‘Why is it always on me to make sure everyone knows the schedule and responsibilities for each child? Why am I always the one to absorb the worry about our children’s collective well-being?’”
The fear of being perceived as a nag keeps many of them from speaking up, so they simply grin and bear it.
“Instead, they’ll do too much of the housework and become filled with annoyance and resentment,” LaMotte said.
Of course, there are some households where the workload split is a little less lopsided. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey of American parents, half of married or cohabiting couples living with at least one child under age 18 said their household chores were split about equally. But 41 percent said the mother did more, while 8 percent said the father did more work.
Then there’s caring for children: In 2015, fathers reported spending, on average, seven hours a week on childcare. That’s almost triple the amount of time they spent on the kids back in 1965, but they’ve got a long way to go before they catch up with their wives: Mothers spent an average of about 15 hours a week caring for the kids in 2015.
“The thing is, once women give themselves permission to let go of all the responsibility, they’re usually surprised at how much their husbands do pick up the slack. They might be annoyed that he doesn’t do it the same way she does, but it does get done."”
In a culture that encourages women to “lean in” at work, we’ve also discussed why we don’t ask men to lean in a bit more at home to balance things out. We don’t, in part, because women have been taught to accept their duties and not rock the boat with their partners. And far too many women think, “If I don’t do it, it will never get done,” said Aaron Anderson, a couples therapist in Denver.
“The thing is, once women give themselves permission to let go of all the responsibility, they’re usually surprised at how much their husbands do pick up the slack,” Anderson told us. “They might be annoyed that he doesn’t do it the same way she does, but it does get done, and they end up appreciating their spouses more.”
Indeed, sometimes allowing things to fall apart a bit ― dishes left in the sink, laundry undone ― is a necessary catalyst for change in a marriage, LaMotte said.
“If the over-performing spouse can tolerate refusing to pick up the fallen pieces, the under-performing spouse will almost always function up to the emotional task at hand,” she said. “It’s not easy, but allowing things to fall apart is often the blueprint for authentic change.”
Of course, you can’t let the needs of your crying baby fall to the wayside in the same way you can ignore the pile of trash building up in the kitchen. Most women don’t want to micromanage or dictate a “honey-do” list for their spouses, either. They want a partner with initiative, someone who will schedule the kids’ orthodontist appointments or snuggle them to sleep at night without having to be asked.
But for any lasting change to be made, both partners need to accept that they may have drastically different approaches to housework. Though most men genuinely want to help around the house, they worry about doing a subpar job, said J.D. Moyer, a married science fiction writer from Oakland, California, who has written about emotional labor in the past.
“My wife and I have both learned to explicitly ask for praise and acknowledgement when we get something done."”
After being married 21 years and having one daughter, Moyer and his wife Kia have worked out most of the kinks of household labor. Shared online docs ― like a shared Evernote grocery list ― take the guesswork out of what needs to be accomplished. And simply recognizing a job well done works wonders too, he said.
“My wife and I have both learned to explicitly ask for praise and acknowledgement when we get something done,” Moyer said. “It’s kind of silly to say, ‘Hey, come take a tour of the clean kitchen!’ but it beats feeling unappreciated and resentful.”
Reeves Poynter also stressed the importance of being an observant, active participant in your household.
“You have to look. Look at your house, your children, your spouse and see their splendors and their failures,” she said. “Look for the chances to help before anyone asks. Look for the moments to say ‘I see you.’”
Once you’re in the practice of actively looking, don’t let yourself slip back into disinterest or disregard.
“Never look the other way,” she said. “Never stop looking with your eyes and with your heart.”