Discover more from Heigh Ho — Work and Working Life
Unpaid Domestic Work — in Conversation with Nikki Reynolds
A candid discussion about women's unpaid domestic labor and mental load.
I invite you to eavesdrop as Nikki Reynolds of Inspired Wellbeing Solutions and I have a no-holds-barred conversation about unpaid domestic work — which includes tasks like caretaking, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and mental load — and the disproportionate burden it places on women.
In the conversation, we refer to a previous Heigh Ho post, Domestic Work — Unpaid and Unseen, which delves more into research on unpaid domestic work (aka unpaid domestic labor) and its affect on women’s mental health, financial wellbeing, and return-to-office.
Here’s an excerpt from our conversation (transcript edited for clarity and brevity):
Excerpt: In Conversation with Nikki Reynolds
Bob: Unpaid domestic labor, also called unpaid work, can be defined as time and energy expended within a household for the benefit of its members. Does that sound right to you?
Nikki: Yes. I like how that definition says time and energy because even when one isn’t performing tasks, there is energy, in terms of remembering, organizing, reminding, scheduling.
Bob: That was something you really awakened me to. When you reached out to me, you also included a link to a comic called You Should Have Asked that leads us into this conversation about mental load.
Nikki: The comic is by an author… I believe she goes by Emma. And the premise is a scenario where a couple is invited to another couple’s home for dinner. The wife is trying to feed the kids, so the adults can have their meal later. Things go haywire in the kitchen. The husband walks in and says, “You should have asked. I would’ve helped.”
So that’s the point of the title, and it goes on to discuss how, in many households (and of course I'm generalizing), even if a partner — in this instance a male partner — is willing to help, it needs to be explicitly asked of him. That relationship really doesn’t reflect a partnership. It reflects a hierarchy where the woman in the home manages all the logistics and to-do list, and the husband engages when things are explicitly asked.
Bob: So, we defined unpaid domestic labor largely in terms of physical chores, and there is an even more unappreciated, less recognized component, which is the mental load or the invisible family load: Remembering, managing, reminding, scheduling.
Nikki: Yes. A big focus of the comic from this opening scene is about the mental load and how it’s largely a burden that women carry more than men.
Bob: Why do you think that is?
Nikki: It’s incredibly complicated, but so much of society and our culture reinforces this concept that within a household, the woman is in this managerial or director position.
And I'm sure there are households where a male partner isn’t willing to participate… period. Or may not even ask.
This idea of needing to be asked… let’s dive into that further, thinking about the workplace. If someone was managing a team and there was a team member who constantly said, “What should I do now? What do I do next?” or had to be told, “Do this project. This needs to be done” — in the way that someone in a household [is told] the dishwasher needs to be emptied, the laundry needs to be folded, this, that, and the other thing — that team member in the work setting would be an underperformer. And they may very well lose their job.
Bob: I saw a study that said that there are three different kinds of… They called it invisible family load: Cognitive. Management. Emotional.
For some people, the onus of responsibility for management and cognitive was a positive thing. They had more satisfaction in their family lives and better work performance. The emotional component took the greatest toll.
Some women thrive on being in charge of the household. Any thoughts about that?
Nikki: There’s no part of me suggesting [domestic] work is not honorable work or valuable work. Quite the opposite. It is.
I fully support families that have all sorts of arrangements. And I have close friends who work inside the home, work full-time outside the home. And I by no means would ever insinuate that one is harder than the other.
To me it just goes back to “Is it valued?”
Society needs to come a long way in valuing and appreciating that as well. This came to my mind a lot with the term stay-at-home mom, or stay-at-home dad. In my personal interpretation that sounds like a pleasant day. It is a full day and a hard day taking care of your kids all day.
Bob: I love what you said about that language. There was a time when I was a stay-at-home dad, and not only does it suggest that you’re leading a life of luxury, or it might be interpreted that way, but it suggests that it’s abnormal — counter to being at work where you should be. We could say I wasn't a stay-at-home dad, I was just a dad. And the same for moms.
We covered a a lot of ground. Is there anything else on this topic of unpaid domestic work that you want to share?
Nikki: The last thing is for people in HR positions and wellbeing positions. One, there’s value in trying to better understand your population. So if you take nothing else from this, a lot of people and a lot of women may walk into work feeling a significant burden from everything they need to do at home.
Also, when we think about hiring and what we value… we know it’s common that many women step back a little bit from work. Someone who steps away from the workplace but is under immense burden to do all the things we've talked about — the management, the logistics, the coordination — they are honing skills. They are just not honing them in a workplace. And those skills should be seen as valuable when it comes time for them to reenter the workforce.
Bob: Nikki, thank you for bringing that up. And I want to mention that there are a lot of people who are doing domestic unpaid work, who are not part of the workforce, don’t wanna be part of the workforce, will never be part of the workforce. And a lot of this applies to them as well.
Nikki, thank you so much.
Nikki: Thank you, Bob.
[Bookmark this page and return later to listen to the full conversation.]
About Nikki Reynolds
Nikki is a passionate wellbeing professional who has built and implemented custom wellness programs for small organizations for over 15 years. In 2022, she founded Inspired Well-Being Solutions, a personal and corporate wellbeing consulting business. She serves individuals and businesses in the Rochester, NY community and beyond with wellbeing strategies that are custom, inclusive, and personal.
Nikki’s an avid outdoor enthusiast in rain, snow, or sunshine. She enjoys hiking, fishing, triathlon racing, traveling, cooking, gardening, and boating on New York’s waterways. Her greatest passion is spending time with her husband, Dan, and children, Cole and Iris.
Read the prequel…
New York Times Gift Articles
(no paywall through August 9, 2023, compliments of Heigh Ho)
Working 9 to 5, Hopefully. “‘In college I was looking forward to becoming an adult, and now I’m here and it’s horrible.’ Seventeen 2023 graduates show and tell us how they feel about entering the work force.” (July 19, 2023)
Lindsey Graham and Elizabeth Warren: When It Comes to Big Tech, Enough Is Enough. “We need a nimble, adaptable new agency with the expertise, resources and authority to rein in the tech giants that control our digital lives.” (July 27, 2023)
Thanks for reading Heigh Ho — Work, Workplaces, and Worker Wellbeing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.