I interviewed Allison Daminger, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University, who
has written extensively about cognitive labor.
Excerpts from my interview are below.
Q. What advice would you give to people who want to broach this of cognitive labor with their partner, without
it being contentious or accusatory about the division of labor in their home?
Allison: I would recommend starting small and concrete rather than vague and global. Rather than saying, I do
too much, like, you need to help out more, I think starting small and figuring out exactly what are the tasks
or areas where you feel like you're holding the load.
Let’s just say, hypothetically, laundry
is really burdensome to you. You don't like monitoring the hamper or you don't want to be the one to
have to remind people to put their clothes away. Then I would approach your partner and saying, I feel
overwhelmed. I feel stressed, I feel annoyed. Here's where this is coming from. Would you be willing to
take some of that on?
And assuming they are willing, then thinking very carefully about exactly
what is entailed in laundry. I think the mistake a lot of people make is is not specifying or recognizing how
many steps there are. So it's important to say, Okay, I want you to take over laundry. That means that you
look at the hampers on a daily basis and see if they're overflowing, that means that you keep track of
when our kids have soccer practice and make sure that their uniform is clean for Saturday practice. That means
that you tell the shopper that we're running low on detergent, so we need to re-up. Just carefully kind of
talking through what's entailed in that task and handing over the whole thing, not just one discrete task
of, Can you do laundry tomorrow? But rather, can you can you be in charge of laundry and all that
it entails? That's probably how I would approach it. I also think It's important to give your partner
space to do it in their own way.
Q. In your research, how does being the “breadwinner” and earning more money in the
relationship account for how people divide their household labor ?
Allison: In sociological literature on housework, there’s this idea called the relative resources hypothesis.
The idea is that the person who earns more gets to kind of bargain their way out of housework, because
they're contributing monetarily. So it's a key idea in the literature about, Why does this actually
happen? It's slightly different when it comes to what couples say.
I do hear from couples that
he or she is earning more money, that they're the breadwinner. I hear more often though about the specific
demands of the job. For instance, he just can't check his personal email in the middle of the
workday, or he has to be on call after hours, or, something about the demand, the lack of flexibility, the
number of hours, and the length of the commute. Those circumstantial factors come up a lot when people are
explaining why they divide things as they do.
I think each couple should make deliberate choices
that match their values, their circumstances, their preferences, etc. The problem, in my mind, is that the
same circumstances get applied unequally, depending on gender. So for instance, I have a number of female
breadwinners in my sample. And some of their husband’s takes the “female role”, but in a lot of them, the
women just end up doing both [breadwinning and caregiving]. And so the narrative will be, She’s just, so
competent. She’s a super woman at work and at home. She's so organized. Whereas with men, the narrative is
much more often, he just uses it all up at work and has nothing left at home.
So I question
whether the circumstances are quite as constraining as people sometimes make them out to be. I think
there's interaction with deep seated ideas about what is possible for women.
Q. What’s the most surprising insight
you discovered over the course of your research around cognitive
Allison: When I was doing my interviews, I would ask people, before you had your first kid or became parents,
did you talk about how the transition to parenthood might impact your career? Your division of labor? Did you
make plans about how you would divide up the new childcare work? Most people say, No, we just thought it would
kind of work out. We weren't talking about who was gonna be doing what with this baby. How it would change
I'm thinking about it a lot more than your average person because this is what I do for
work, but it was really striking how many people slid into patterns, rather than mindfully planning for them.
And often when I’m advising couples, or just talking to people informally, it's interesting to me how
they'll explain something to me. They'll say, Here's the problem and often, they haven't
really expressed that to their partner. There's a lot wrapped up in that fear of conflict. So, the piece
of advice I probably give most often is to not default into something but to make active decisions as much as
you can. It's more work in the moment but I think it serves you well.
About Allison Daminger
is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University and a Fellow at the Radcliffe
Institute for Advanced Study. Beginning Fall 2022, she will be an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on how and why gender continues to shape individuals’
experiences at home and at work, even as support for gender-egalitarianism keeps growing.
I experimented with a low-stakes dialogue tool for cognitive labor using found objects in the home, as a way to casually talk aboue the topic.