“Bring an Apple to School Day” Ruined My Weekend So I Must Be Doing Something Right
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I tried to explain “invisible labor” to my wife, the Breadwinner in our family, by telling her how “Bring an Apple to School Day” ruined my weekend.
“’Please make sure to send an apple to school with your child on Monday.’ Did you see that note last week?” I asked.
“Yes….” she said, amused. She settled onto the couch, and I continued.
“Seems easy, right? But because of that note, I had to go check to see if we had any apples. We had one. I had to decide if I wanted that apple to be The Apple, or if I should plan a trip to the store to buy more apples. I had to weigh the benefit of having extra apples minus the cost of making an unwanted trip to the store, versus the risk that someone would eat The Apple before Monday and, therefore, ruin ‘Bring an Apple to School Day.’
“I decided that apple would be The Apple. I washed it. Then I had to think about how to remind myself to pack The Apple on Monday morning. I wrote a note on the refrigerator. But what if I didn’t see the note? I told our son to remind me. Then I kept talking about The Apple all weekend, so that he wouldn’t forget to remind me.
“But most importantly, I spent the next five days worrying, checking, and re-checking the fridge to make sure that NO ONE ATE THE APPLE!”
“You should’ve just hidden The Apple in the other fridge,” she said. “Problem solved.”
I hung my head, took a slow, deep breath through my nose, and exhaled a heavy puff of rage.
“That’s a good idea. I didn’t think of that,” I said, biting my top lip. “And that’s too bad, because it was my job to think about the fuckin’ apple! Not yours!”
After my rant, my Breadwinner wife still didn’t understand invisible labor, and it made me smile.
I must be doing something right.
Invisible labor is the unpaid, unacknowledged, unexciting work that exists in the margins of a functioning household. It’s sometimes referred to as “emotional labor,” because when people get a little burnt out doing that work, they start getting emotional and using the F-word to describe an apple.
In most families, that work falls to women. But I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I do the “women’s work” in our family. And if men truly want to support the working women in their lives, they should too.
In a great TEDx talk, Regina F. Lark described the two types of household labor that typically fall to women. There’s physical labor, like cooking, cleaning, and caring for the kids. Then there’s what she calls “emotional labor:” the planning, anticipating, and remembering of everything that affects your home and the people in it. It’s buying birthday presents on time for birthday parties. It’s remembering that you’re running low on olive oil, and toilet paper, and your wife’s favorite hot sauce which is impossible to find because there’s a Sriracha shortage. It’s “Bring a Fuckin’ Apple to School Day” and every small, easy, yet relentlessly inconvenient task that it represents.
If you’re a parent and Lark’s speech about invisible, emotional labor doesn’t resonate with you, that means your partner is doing it. Ask them about it, then settle onto the couch and try not to incite rage with your helpful suggestions.
Women are earning more and progressing further in the workplace than ever before. The well-intentioned men in their lives think they are supporting their wives’ careers by sharing household and childcare responsibilities equally. But women don’t think it’s equal, and the data shows that they’re right.
A Washington Post article cited data showing that the more women out-earned their husbands, the more housework they performed (even when the husband was unemployed!). A similar article by NPR reported that in couples with “egalitarian marriages,” where the husband and wife both contribute the same income to the family, women still significantly outpace their husbands in hours spent on housework and childcare each week.
“We’re doing more than our fathers’ generation did!” we dads say, congratulating ourselves while we change a diaper, drink a beer, and man the grill at the family BBQ. Unfortunately, that was a low bar. Women, objectively, need more help if they’re going to have the freedom that men do to choose how they spend their working years.
And that’s part of the problem: dads still largely think they are “helping” with “women’s work.” But it’s not women’s work. It’s not men’s work, either. It’s just work, and someone has to do it.
A friend of mine had the opportunity to go beyond “helping” in his household when his employer laid him off.
“You’ve gotta help me,” he said with a smirk. “If I’m a stay-at-home dad now, what do I do all day?”
“Well, you can start by handling all the meals,” I said. “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meal-planning, grocery shopping, cooking. That’ll get you started.”
He froze. “… I don’t know how to do that!”
Nearby his full-time, working wife rolled her eyes and said, “I’ve been trying to get him to do more of that stuff.”
The next time I saw him, he had a new job.
Most men just don’t know what they don’t know about managing a household. I thought I’d teach my unemployed friend a little about what it takes, but he immediately fled back to the safety and comfort of traditional gender roles. To think, I even spared him the “invisible labor” part.
But I wished my friend would have just tried handling the meals, even for a month. The experiment could have changed his, and his wife’s, life. Because that’s what happened to me.
I always joked about becoming a stay-at-home dad because I hated my job. I never thought that it would actually happen. When it did, I, like my unemployed friend, didn’t feel up to it. I had no idea what I was doing. Like many men, I wasn’t prepared for the job. I wasn’t naturally good with kids. I was a slow, mediocre cook. Multi-tasking was (and still is) nearly impossible for my brain.
But I did the job, and I learned. In the corporate world, it’s called “on-the-job training,” and it’s one of the best, most efficient ways to gain proficiency in something new and scary. High performers crave opportunities to show their resilience and adaptability in new domains. And, speaking from experience, only high-performing men need apply for “women’s work.”
Invisible labor didn’t exist for me until I was sitting at home with two kids and realized that they would never go to the doctor, never have a playdate, and never try a new food unless I did something about it. The stain on the floor that I walked past ten times a day would never get cleaned unless I, personally, put the baby down, got down on my knees, and scrubbed it. The barf in the car seat would never stop smelling until I, personally, disassembled the seat and cleaned every last droplet of vomit from its deepest, darkest crevices with a toothpick.
If not for my attention, my son would never be able to participate in “Bring an Apple to School Day.”
Three years later, I’m proficient in housework, childcare, and invisible labor. And by doing this work, I’ve unlocked hidden potential in my wife, in my kids, and in myself.
Because of the work I do, my wife is free from many of the burdens carried by working moms. Since I perform most of the invisible labor in our household, she can focus on the visible work, like all her male peers do: crushing it at the office, leaning into her professional networks, and maintaining sacred leisure time to recharge. By taking invisible labor off her plate at home, I’m helping her level the playing field at the office, enjoy her work more, and minimize “Mom Guilt.” If she can compete with the unfettered men in Corporate America because of what I do, then handling all the meals will have been worth it.
Perhaps more importantly, my three sons get to see me at work every day. It’s not “women’s work.” It’s just work that I happen to do in front of my kids. And because of that, they get to grow up knowing that men can cook, men can clean, and men can plan playdates. They get to see me wrestle with emotional labor. They get to see me experience negative feelings like frustration, anxiety, and anger, and they get to see how I regulate them, recover from them, and learn from them. If they grow up to be more emotionally balanced, generous, nurturing men, then my barf-caked toothpicks will have been worth it.
Even though I’m salty about “Bring an Apple to School Day,” my life is also better now that I’m in this role. I’m freer today to measure the value of my work in ways that go beyond the number on my paycheck, the title on my LinkedIn profile, or the rating I get during my annual performance review.
Instead of always pushing for more money, more prestige, and more recognition, like everyone else does, we can choose a different path; one that is perhaps more satisfying and less soul-crushing than the jobs that we tolerate. We can pursue less money (or less hours in the office) and invest time in our families. We can accept less prestige by saying “no” to opportunities that might be the right ones for our career trajectories but are the wrong ones for our families given our wives’ recent promotions. We can take less recognition by de-prioritizing our reputation in the office. We can leave early to pick up our kids, to volunteer in our communities, and to buy extra apples for our “Bring an Apple to School Days.”
It sounds counterintuitive, like you’re going backwards in your career. But if you’re not sacrificing something, it’s likely your partner is.
My life is harder now that I manage our household. That invisible, emotional labor takes a toll that even the latest nights at the office couldn’t touch. At some point, you always leave the office. You’re always rewarded on the second Friday of every month with financial validation. And no one questions what you do all day, like they do now.
But luckily, I can do hard things. Any man can. And you don’t have to be a stay-at-home dad to do the hard, intangible, invisible work that undergirds a thriving family. You just have to work a little harder.
Just try it for a month and see what happens: it might change your life. Pack all of the lunches. Coordinate all of the playdates. Manage your family’s calendar. Ask your partner about invisible work, and then do everything you can to take any of it off their plate. Push through the initial awkwardness, accept feedback, and own it when you fail, just like you would at a fancy new job.
And for “Bring an Apple to School Day,” be a man and take care of the fuckin’ apple.
Dave Pidancet is a stay-at-home dad, writer, and minivan enthusiast. He can be found chasing his 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and 6 month-old sons through the streets of Los Angeles, writing at thebrodad.com, and socializing on Instagram (@The_Bro_Dad) and Twitter/X (@TheBroDad)