Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hidden work or why I can be abnormally stressed

Let's talk about hidden work. When you are in the realms of parenting especially but really any long-term relationship where you are both working toward a common goal, there is the risk of doing hidden work. There isn't any complex definition to hidden work as it's defined in the social science literature beyond "work that goes unrecognized by those who aren't doing it." Usually in parenting hidden work describes all the things that (stereotypically) are done by women that men seem totally surprised need doing.

A good example from my life is scheduling well child visits. I keep track of them for the most part by entering them in my digital calendar and inviting my spouse to them. I have been away from home more or less from May until August and didn't attend Little Monster's 15 month appointment back in May so I didn't schedule her 18 month appointment afterward. With the kid I usually took her to well child visits by myself since usually my spouse was working, and with Little Monster we have gone together up until the 15 month appointment during which I was working (my spouse was very underemployed last year and thus had plenty of time to come with). I had never explicitly stated that at the end of every well child visit, I walked over and scheduled the next well child appointment. I just always did that, and for what is still a majority of the well child visits our girls have attended, I did it with nobody else knowing it's what I always did. It was hidden work from the other person in the relationship who needed to be working on the same parenting project as me. As you might imagine, I mentioned when Little Monster was 17 months old that I was curious about when her 18 month appointment was since I'd be in town then and might be able to attend it if it were in the afternoon... and there was no appointment yet. It meant that she just had that visit this week when she is now 18.75 months old. Is that the end of the world? No. But it's representative of the sort of trouble a lot of couples run into.

For us specifically, playing Chore Wars is a way for us to explore ALL the work and to make it all explicit. We don't have much hidden work but it's important that we keep working at it so we are both aware of the silent contributions the other person is making to keep things going smoothly. The other night, the baby woke up and I slept through it (nights aren't my thing because I get up much earlier than my spouse so I wouldn't have gotten up even if I had known she was up). Without a way to communicate that happened, I would never have known that Little Monster held a baby party from 1am to 1:40am in the living room. We have a weekly family meeting now where we all share something that's going well, something that could go better, and something we personally are going to improve. This week we've split it so I should be emptying the dishwasher and my spouse should be loading it. I actually think we need a white board where we write what everyone is doing to improve this week so we don't lose sight of it.

I have heard from a variety of folks that my spouse and I have such a good relationship. From my seat inside it, I'd say it's pretty typical and nothing especially great. We struggle just like everyone else but in different ways, some of which won't be appearing on this blog, most of which are about our non-traditional division of labor and how weird that is for everyone else. What is different about our relationship compared to those around us is that we have very little hidden work so nobody feels like they get no recognition for the great things they do. When you earn points for doing the dishes, it adds a little oomph to get it done AND your spouse knows you did it, even if there is no evidence. Say I empty the dishwasher and then reload it and then run it again before my spouse gets home from an evening meeting or my spouse does the same while I'm at work one day. Without Chore Wars, it's easy for my spouse to completely miss that I did anything because the dishwasher went from full of clean dishes to... still full of clean dishes! Obviously this means we need to be diligent and add all the parts of the various tasks we work at around the house to Chore Wars so we can record what we do. The reporting aspect keeps us accountable to each other as well.

It's my natural instinct to take on more hidden work than my spouse. I like to organize things and plan and have my living space tidy while my spouse values this much less and would rather relax. I have a hard time relaxing when it's a mess. This means that I have to be diligent about not hoarding that sort of job, that I have to let my spouse do some of it and trust that it will be done adequately even if it gets done totally differently than I had envisioned. We had our office full of boxes, with one wall floor to ceiling boxes from when we moved 2 years ago that was blocking a closet full of MORE boxes. I'd always meant to put shelves into the closet once the boxes were gone or to hold the things that were in the boxes, but my spouse decided to hang some sweater organizers and pile in some totes of stuff, and that's fine. It doesn't matter how that work of organizing the closet happened, just that it happened. PLUS the boxes are out of the office. It's a lovely space now that there's room to move without dodging the boxes. The danger of me taking on all of the work is twofold: if I don't get something done, nobody knows and so whatever it is can get to a critical level of neglect since nobody else is checking in, and I can make sure I never sleep while I get the house organized totally and spotlessly clean. Neither of those is good so it's important that I give up tasks. I explain all the steps I have been taking completely and don't assume my spouse will know one thing about how the job is done (there is much eye rolling usually but sometimes there's a moment of surprise where something I have been doing is explained and my spouse can then more fully do the job), then trust it will be done.

Trust is tricky and building it is still a work in progress (I ask if my spouse can do something, the response is affirmative, the thing is still not done after what I deem to be far too long, I point this out, it either gets done by me or my spouse... or we repeat). I still feel, despite getting let down often, that it's worth it to give up control of some things. We have a much happier relationship if I sleep and if we both pitch in to keep things running smoothly.

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