Caring as Invisible Work

By Samantha Jaroszewski

Feeding the Family

Over winter break, I read Marjorie Devault’s Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work, a book Devault argues that those responsible for the caring work of the family, usually women, deploy a vast store of tacit knowledge to perform their work, specifically feeding the family. Devault discusses this work as “feeding” work rather than merely food preparation because of the processual ways in which caregivers are constantly considering, calculating, negotiating, and preparing for the nourishment of their families. Feeding work constitutes part of reproductive labor, the daily or oft repeated tasks that reproduce the ability of household members to contribute to society. This usually includes feeding work, childreading, home economics, and other domestic sphere tasks without clear boundaries or definitive ends, summed up in the idiom, “A woman’s work is never done.”

I liken this work to a computer running with a high powered program running in the background. Writing this post, I had R Studio running on my desktop, a handful of annotated pdfs and eight tabs open in Chrome. The mental space my computer dedicated to these background tasks cannot be allocated to running whatever foreground program I needed at the moment. Similarly, Devault argues, women engaged in housework, work without clear boundaries and no actual “end,” impinges on their capacity to dedicate their mental CPU to other tasks.

In our roles as students, too, we have this constant background noise of the “reproductive labor”  of our schoolwork. There is always more to read, more to write, more to do. There are always four talks a week that we wish we could have gone to, but couldn’t spare the time that would be better spent getting our own stuff done. There are the paper and conference deadlines that loom above our heads, making it difficult to ever take a full break from work. These tasks garner us no positive reinforcement, no awards or praise. Its just part of the job. Similarly, there is much work and constant effort exerted towards feeding the family that just gets noticed when it doesn’t get done. We develop systems of tacit knowledge and routinize the tasks at hand in ways that perhaps we can’t articulate. Many of Devault’s interlocuters had trouble putting their routines to words, the ways that they made the decisions about food based on the preferences, schedules, tastes, and resources of each member of the family unit.

Devault’s book and her theoretical framing of mundane reproductive labor as gendered and inseparable from emotion-work for the women who perform it, has helped me reflect on my own practices and behaviors. It also reminds me to be thankful for the caring work that my husband does — not least listening attentively to my mundane stories about the lecture in my theory class — and the devalued caring work of many traditionally gendered occupations: mothers and child-rearers, teachers, nurses, cooks, housekeepers and secretaries. When I think of the women in any of those roles, I recall their warmth, their care. As people who care — not just gendered persons — Devault offers us a useful map of the caring landscape: the work that goes into feeding a family and organizing the care of a household.

  • What ethnographies, studies, or theories made you reflect on your own everyday practices?
  • What are other examples of invisible labor?