‘Do I have to do everything around here?’ Irish women and the ‘invisible job’

It’s not often you read a book and think: only a woman could have written this. I just did

‘Women today are led to believe that gender imbalance is largely a thing of the past,’ says Fyans. Illustration: iStock

‘Women today are led to believe that gender imbalance is largely a thing of the past,’ says Fyans. Illustration: iStock


If you’ve ever fumed “do I have to do everything around here?”, while simultaneously cooking dinner, helping with homework, folding laundry and fretting about when you’re going to be able to book your daughter’s dental check-up because that will require you taking time off work . . . you’re probably a mother cracking under the weight of “the invisible job”.

If you’re ever wondered why, when your partner becomes ratty, she doesn’t just say what she needs help with, instead of banging pots around the kitchen and expecting you to be a mind-reader, you’re probably a father who has no idea of what “the invisible job” entails.

It’s not often you read a book and think it could only have been written by a woman, but the The Invisible Job by Paula Fyans , to be published by Orpen Press on March 16th, is one of those. She’s bracing herself for the flak at a time when gender distinctions and generalisations are made at one’s peril.

But knowing what she knows now, as a woman with a demanding pharma career who walked naively into combining that with motherhood, Fyans (46) feels compelled to alert younger women to how they might get around the pot hole in the road, instead of falling straight into it as she did. And for those already in the hole, she believes there is a rope ladder out, or at least a way to feel better about yourself for being stuck there.

“I can’t not say this stuff,” she says simply in an interview from her south Dublin home, about how mammoth and undervalued a job it is to raise children and maintain a comfortable family home in today’s aspirational manner. She has prepared a template, taking up 26 pages at the back of the book, or available on theinvisiblejob.com to download, listing the myriad tasks involved.

Paula Fyans.
Paula Fyans.

Each one is waiting to be assessed on the basis of: what is involved; how frequently it needs to be done, eg, multiple times daily for feeding children, annually for assessing best utility provider deals; how much freedom you have around when to do it, eg looking after a sick child, none, defrosting the freezer, plenty; is it a “heavy lifter”, does it need to be done with high frequency with little flexibility; can it be outsourced; finally, who is going to take full responsibility for the task?

It’s a relief to hear that Fyans doesn’t actually expect couples to work diligently through this list, filling in all the categories. “God no,” she says, “it’s the principle.”

Exhaustive list

This is no housekeeping book. The exhaustive list is to illustrate the sheer scale of what we think we should be doing as parents, including many non-essentials, and the impossibility of squeezing it all in alongside two jobs outside the home.

You only need your partner to look at the form for the penny to drop, she suggests. Then between you, you can scrub off those jobs that you agree are not needed and get down to the nitty gritty of a “fair” sharing of what’s left.

I am not talking to the dinosaurs. I can do nothing for them. I think most decent men will say ‘I had no idea’ . . . 

That doesn’t mean it has to be 50:50 because it depends on a couple’s circumstances. But long-term happiness in a relationship is likely to hinge on whether or not each perceive the sharing of family responsibilities to be equitable and truly appreciate the other’s contribution.

Fyans, whose children are now aged 12 and 13, is at pains to say at the outset in the book that “no single element of the invisible job is in itself overly onerous or even unpleasant”. Rather, “the issue is the cumulative burden of having too many jobs to do and the ‘mental load’ associated with managing them all – the constant thinking ahead, scheduling/rescheduling and prioritising”.

This is what so many men still don’t get. She likens it to a zero hours contractor (dad) working for a project manager (mum).

Enthusiastic “new dads” will probably bristle at the inference that they are not doing their fair share of parenting and housework.

Changing nappies? Tick.
Supermarket shopping? Tick.
Cooking meals? Tick.
Driving the children to sport on a Saturday morning? Tick.
Ironing their own shirts? Tick.

In fact, unlike their own fathers, there is nothing they are not prepared to help out with, when they have the time.

But there is a sea of difference, Fyans says, between partial responsibility and full responsibility. “It can feel as if men get to choose what they do, to opt in whenever they feel they have capacity to do so, whereas women have no choice,” she writes. “In a home where both parents work, a wife can feel hard done by if her husband regularly stays late at the office if he has work to finish while she always has to be home at 6.30 pm, on the dot, and immediately shift gears to become cook, cleaner, listener, referee, homework checker, counsellor and general fixer for as long as it takes.

“She may have had an urgent work deadline, too, but it will be at least 9pm before she can open her laptop and finish whatever she was working on when she left the office.”

The first draft of this book was finished well before the start of the pandemic. Fyans says she has since spoken to lots of couples who have enjoyed positives of lockdown, such as not rushing out the door every day, spending more time together as family and no more fomo (fear of missing out), as nobody else is going anywhere either.

It has allowed some people to re-evaluate their lives. Most fathers, if home more, are doing more and maybe seeing the effort involved in aspects of home life they previously took for granted.

Provided, of course, they are not one of those fathers staying all day in the good room with the best wifi signal, doing his “more important” job while his partner juggles homeschooling with her paid employment. In which case, for women already spinning too many plates, this has magnified the problem, she says. “It has been very easy for men to go ‘this is nice, I don’t have to commute – and what’s for lunch’?”

Obviously where one person spends significantly more hours per week in a paid job (forming part of your joint household income), it makes sense for the other person to spend more time on the invisible job, she acknowledges.

However, “both paid and unpaid work that contribute to your joint welfare should be recognised equally. If you are each doing your fair share, you should end up with a similar amount of free time each week to spend on non-work activities (whether paid or unpaid) and similar flexibility to manage this time”.

There is no hard and fast recipe for structuring family responsibilities. “It just needs to be an open conversation between couples. I am not dictating that anyone stay home at all, or ever, or full-time, or part-time.”

If a couple decide that one of their careers is going to have to be “crashed”, and more often than not it is the woman’s, then the long-term implications for her needs to be recognised by both.

The message that “women can have it all” was a Trojan horse, she maintains, as it meant they could, if they did it all. Although it can be argued that some “gatekeeping” women contribute to their load by believing theirs is the “right” way in most domestic matters or, as Fyans has observed, get some sort of self-serving “buzz” out of being the only one able to soothe a child.

Usually, dual income couples are on a fairly equal footing until the children start to arrive, then they have to face the reality that three full-time jobs into two don’t go. 

“The maths has been conveniently glossed over,” she agrees. Even with some outsourcing, juggling one and a half jobs is challenging but when one partner is carrying more than half of the domestic one, it is likely to be crippling. For all the talk of workplace equality, the “glass ceiling” some women find between them and the top jobs is one constructed in their own home.

In Ireland, it is still predominantly women who take on the responsibility of looking after the household, with 81 per cent of females recording daily involvement in housework, compared to 44 per cent of men, according to a 2019 ESRI study, “Caring and Unpaid Work in Ireland”. Women also take on the majority of caring for their children, partner, parents, and other relatives. “Women today are led to believe that gender imbalance is largely a thing of the past; that we live in an era where women are free to achieve their potential on an equal footing with men,” says Fyans.

“Yet, the reality is that we are still miles away from gender equality. This is true both in low-income and high-income countries and the main reason for this is the time women are obliged to spend daily on the invisible job, such as unpaid caring and household responsibilities.

“Between 1997 and 2012, the time spent per day has only decreased by 15 minutes, or one minute per year. At this rate, the International Labour Organisation estimates that the gender gap for unpaid caring responsibilities will not disappear until the year 2228, so 207 years from now.”

Triple burden

The World Health Organisation has flagged the pressure on women due to the “triple burden of productive, reproductive and caring work”. Yet, as Fyans comments: “Women often carry on for years, not fully realising the impossible burden they are carrying. They just keep going stoically, telling themselves to try harder: ‘This should all be doable; it must just be me.’

“You may not realise how close you are to the edge until some big boulders are thrown into the mix to test what you can cope with.” For her these included an increased workload after losing a key team member in the office; two close relatives dying unexpectedly and two medical emergencies with her son.

However, the proverbial “straw” was their au pair announcing that she was leaving – tomorrow. “While we muddled through for a while with no childminder, this was just one boulder too many. It was time for one of us to stay home and dedicate time to looking after our family and restoring some calm. With only one applicant for the post of stay-at-home parent, ‘we’ decided this someone would be me.”

Much of what she writes about won’t come as news to the women who have been there, done that and got the T-shirt. But those going through it now will undoubtedly identify with plenty of her observations.

In spelling out just what her eyes have been opened to, presenting copious data from scientific research to back up her view, she is urging personal and political action to stop this continuing “oppression” of women. She doesn’t use the word lightly and also points out that men have much to benefit in liberation from their own internalised oppression.

Men will “get it”, she says confidently, believing that the partners of women she is writing this for are “good men”.

“I am not talking to the dinosaurs,” she says. “I can do nothing for them. I think most decent men will say ‘I had no idea’ . . . ”

Paul Fyans.
Paula Fyans.

You can’t build a good society without nurturing the upcoming generation and it is parents who are best placed to do that. But how can they do it if their time and energy is consumed by the process of providing a roof over their heads? “The problem is the guilt for that is placed at the door of the mother, not the father. But it should be guilt that is placed at the door of a finance minister.”

There needs to be more recognition and support of the worker-carers that most of us are for significant periods of our lives, she says, be it for children or older relatives.

Covid-19 has shown how societal change can happen very quickly. The only thing stopping progress on family-friendly measures is inertia and fear, she suggests, yet Nordic countries have paved the way.

It is only for the past six years that new fathers in Ireland have been entitled to two weeks paid paternity leave

A crucial phase for gender equality, from both the personal and public policy perspective, is the weeks and months after the birth of the first child. It is then that couples tend to start a pattern of parenting that will persist.

It is only for the past six years that new fathers in Ireland have been entitled to two weeks paid paternity leave. But no matter how attentive a new father is to mother and baby over that fortnight, it is very different from being left in charge to care for that baby.

Finland, for example, has long insisted that only some of its much more generous paternity leave can be used at the same time as the mother is on maternity leave. A “tag” approach to caring has been encouraged (with now equal parental leave of 6.6 months each for mothers and fathers promised from this year), which is not only good for parents and child but also helps to reduce workplace prejudice against men stepping up to caring responsibilities and in regarding women of child-bearing age as a liability. “You make certain steps towards things being more equal, more inclusive and look at all the fringe benefits that come with it,” says Fyans.

Whereas here, caring work is slave work. “No one pays for it on paper but they are paying for it in all of the ways their lives are being damaged, their health is being damaged, their economic security in old age is being compromised. That might be uncomfortable for some people but it needs to be acknowledged.”

There will be a “crunch” in coming to terms with this within individual relationships, she warns, but if you do have the talk, it works. “It’s win win.” That’s why the sub-title of the book is, How Sharing Home and Parental Responsibilities Leads to Happier Lives.

“I genuinely think we have all been living in a way that is not good for society.” Men are constrained by expectations too.

Although change is needed at a political and societal level, she believes it is possible to avoid being bulldozed by the “invisible job”, if you are forewarned. “People who need to know most about this are people who are not yet in it – young women.”

She talked to plenty of younger women for her research “and they are looking at me blankly, age 22 and 23. If they are 30 and don’t yet have kids, they say they are beginning to talk about this, which is brilliant, but they really don’t know what is coming. Not that you ever want to listen to somebody who is 10 years older telling you what to do.”

Fyans didn’t really want to put herself in the book but felt she had to, to explain things. “I want to prevent 20-year-old women going through what every 30-something and 40-something woman I know has been through. Every one of them.

“Men and women can have more fulfilling, inter-dependent, happier lives in every sense as parents, as workers, as partners, just by realising that this thing is coming, and vowing to do it together in the most sensible and fair way possible.”

And the icing on the cake? With reduced exhaustion and resentment, couples will enjoy more sex.

“I have the data to prove that!”

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