How the Internet Makes Women’s Work Visible

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When I left my fancy corporate job so that I’d have the flexibility to support my autistic son, I had a lot of fears. I was afraid of losing most of my income. I was afraid my son would drive me nuts. I was afraid I’d never get to wear my nice work clothes.

Most of all, I was afraid I’d disappear. Okay, I wasn’t worried that I’d disappear from the planet, but I figured that in leaving the formal workplace, I might as well be. I’d become one of those women who labors alone, unseen and unappreciated, until the day my husband comes home to find me weeping into a pile of Lego.

In her biweekly column “The Digital Voyage,” Alexandra Samuel investigates the key psychological, social, and practical challenges of migrating to an online world.

My fears weren’t entirely unfounded. It turns out that being a freelance writer doesn’t pay as well as being a corporate VP. (Who’d have thunk it.) It turns out that my son does drive me nuts, a lot of the time. It also turns out that I was totally right to worry about my work clothes, because these days my uniform consists of leggings, a sports bra, and a tunic—an ensemble that would have horrified my previous professional self.

But my biggest fear turned out to be almost completely baseless. Far from disappearing, my new life as a work-from-home mom has made me feel more seen than I ever was in my professional career.

And it’s all thanks to the internet. When I survive a morning of back-to-back tantrums, I can count on a torrent of likes and encouraging comments if I post about my drama on Facebook. If I share a photo of me wrestling my son on the floor of the special ed classroom, I get the “wow”s and “keep-it-up”s that replenish me. Simply posting a cute kid quote on Facebook or Twitter will elicit LOLs and chuckles that make me feel like my parenting is unfolding on a larger stage. And of course, as a blogger and writer, I also relish the feedback I get when I delve into some aspect of my parenting experience in greater detail.

The online recognition that mothers can now access stands in sharp contrast to the way women have experienced their unpaid work for generations. Feminist scholars have convincingly shown the many ways in which caregiving, and other types of work traditionally undertaken by women, have been erased from view.

This is where my experience as an internet-era mom breaks with feminist accounts of caregiving.

First, much of this work is intangible: planning, stock-keeping and communicating are all activities that are vital to the sustenance of a happy family, but they can not be seen. As Eichler and Albanese quote from Marjorie DeVault’s widely-cited book, Feeding the Family, “The work is noticeable when it is not completed (when the milk is all gone, for example or when the meal is not ready on time), but cannot be seen when it is done well.”

Second, even tangible work is largely unwitnessed; as Arlene Kaplan Daniels describes:

For both middle- and working-class wives, the pressures of household work often include isolation. The private work in the home is set off from the public affairs of the world, leaving many women with a sense of alienation and distance that can be oppressive-contributing to what Betty Friedan (1963) called the sickness without a name….These problems are exacerbated by the lack of attention to and serious respect for the work in the private sphere.

The double sense in which much of women’s work has been historically invisible creates problems both for the study and valuation of that work. In her analysis of the exclusion of unpaid work from the field of industrial relations, Anne Forrest observes that

Any sustained investigation of unpaid work as work would destabilize the discipline (if not the workplace) by radically altering the accepted understanding of the employer-employer relationship as the pre-eminent source of industrial conflict. Insofar as employers and male employees wish to maintain their consumption of the cleaning, caring, and support services routinely provided by women without remuneration, they share a common interest (albeit for different purposes) in perpetuating the fiction that unpaid work is not work.

And for women caregivers themselves, the invisibility and devaluation of caring work becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. As Daniels argues,

a real pressure underlying the work of the homemaker is lack of validation. The work is private; there is no audience beyond the family and the work is personalized for the family members who rate it as they please. Under these circumstances it is not hard to see why women, family members themselves, do not understand some aspects of their activity as work.

This is where my experience as an internet-era mom breaks with feminist accounts of caregiving. Whether it’s on my Facebook wall, in a parenting group, or on my blog about raising an autistic son, I get the kind of validation for my maternal caregiving that I would have killed to get in a performance review. All I have do do is write a Facebook, Twitter or Medium post about parental efforts like getting my son onstage at his school concert, or dyeing my daughter’s hair with purple leopard spots, and I get back comments that tell me I’m “a goddess,” “amazing,” or “a wonderful fierce mama.” And I didn’t have to sit through an hour in the HR team to get those kudos!

Kara Van Cleaf captures this dynamic perfectly in her article on mommy blogging:

As mothering remains socially unsupported and economically devalued, participation in internet communities provides a space for women to regain value….Mommy blogs do not represent a sudden increase in maternal consciousness. Instead, relief from the devalued work of motherhood can be found online.

While the internet thus offers mothers a way of trading the invisibility of caregiving for the validation of social media—particularly for those of us who are game to overdisclose— it’s far from clear that validation can be exchanged for tangible gains.  While Van Cleaf notes that mommy blogging can be profitable for some women, the vast majority will never earn a dime for taking their parenting public, whether it’s on a blog, or on Facebook or Instagram: the benefit of visibility is strictly psychological. Once upon a time, an at-home mom could (at best) hope for appreciation from her spouse or immediate family; now, she can access a global community of parents who can not only cheer her efforts, but relate to them.

Women’s work isn’t devalued because it’s invisible. Women’s work is devalued because it’s done by women.

But perhaps that will change. After all, the devaluation of women’s work has historically been inextricable from its invisibility. Work that takes place in the public world of the office or shop floor is seen, valued  and paid; work that takes place in the private world of the home is unseen, devalued and unpaid. Is it possible that in changing the first two parts of that equation, we’ll change the third?

I’m skeptical. All we’ve done by making our caregiving work visible—besides feeling a little better about ourselves—is to make another truth visible, too. Women’s work isn’t devalued because it’s invisible. Women’s work is devalued because it’s done by women. And the internet can’t fix that.


JSTOR Citations

What Is Household Work? A Critique of Assumptions Underlying Empirical Studies of Housework and an Alternative Approach

By: Margrit Eichler and Patrizia Albanese

The Canadian Journal of Sociology , Vol. 32, No. 2 (Spring, 2007), pp. 227-258

Canadian Journal of Sociology

Invisible Work

By: Arlene Kaplan Daniels

Social Problems , Vol. 34, No. 5 (Dec., 1987), pp. 403-415

Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems

The Industrial Relations Significance of Unpaid Work

By: Anne Forrest

Labour / Le Travail , Vol. 42, (Fall, 1998), pp. 199-225

Canadian Committee on Labour History and Athabasca University Press

"Of Woman Born" to Mommy Blogged: The Journey from the Personal as Political to the Personal as Commodity

By: Kara Van Cleaf

Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3/4, THE 1970s (FALL/WINTER 2015), pp. 247-264

The Feminist Press at the City University of New York

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

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