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3rd February 2024

Women’s ‘invisible labour’ is the backbone of Christmas

All of the work women put into the festive season goes underappreciated, underacknowledged and unpaid; I’m fed up with it
Women’s ‘invisible labour’ is the backbone of Christmas
Credit: Eugene Zhyvchik @ Unsplash

To-do list: ensure the roast potatoes are crispier than a holidaying Brit’s back to avoid complaints, tick; swathe the dining table with the family’s linen treasures, tick; put Proseccos (plural, tis the season) in the fridge, tick; make sure it’s guzzled like it’s water, shaky-looking backwards L; get through the festive season one hour at a time, tick.

For some strange reason, the question “How was your Christmas?” is one of the hardest to answer. Although it’s usually well-intended by the questioner, the question often provokes a stuttered response. How much detail do you want me to go into? What will send the questioner to sleep first: a detailed recounting of exactly how Toby, who has just started to crawl, unwrapped the B&M toy aisle’s finest offering, or will an armchair and BBC Radio 4 be a more efficient method?

Like an advert, the speaker will recount to the questioner some of the very best scenes. Mental images flash by of a table buckling under the weight of the festive feast, while in the room next door, the floor is scattered with wrapping paper. The production team selects the very best scenes; usually those which will adequately please the questioner.

While the production team sees the behind-the-scenes work which makes the advert joyful (and other Christmastime-specific, eye-roll-inducing synonyms,) seeing is different to remembering and recognising.

The behind-the-scenes work of this advert is the ‘invisible labour’ of women.

The term was coined by Arlene Daniels in 1987 and is as apparent then as it is now. Unlike an action, which is visible, ‘invisible labour’ recognises the work, time, mental considerations, and effort behind the action. Daniels’ theory proposes that ‘invisible labour’ is a series of ‘uns’: the labour is unpaid, unacknowledged, and underappreciated.

Invisible labour peaks at Christmastime. It becomes the backbone of Christmas. Women occupy every position in the so-called production team so that your family’s Christmas can be framed like an advert.

This was something which I didn’t come to realise until last Christmas. When I was younger, Christmas was like a flurry of constant activity; the family calendar was crammed with people to see and things to do. It was like a fun game of Cluedo, without the murdering. But, to my parents, Christmas was like a game of chess. All of the moves – taking place in my own house to one in the opposite part of the country – were carefully calculated. I was witness to the outward actions but had no awareness of all of the mental and physical maths behind the actions.

At a dinner party my family hosted – invisible labour flying through the roof – a friend’s mum admitted to me that she didn’t understand why her mother, now in her 80s, disliked Christmas so much until she became a mum. It was because her mother spent all of her time in the rooms outlying where the action was happening. She was the producer of the advert, but not the widely-recognised acclaimed star of the advert.

While the family are chatting in the living room, the mum is preparing food and drink in the kitchen. While the family are admiring the kids playing with their presents, the mum is tidying up. While the family are getting ready to go for a walk, the mum is shepherding everyone, running through a mental checklist. Yet all of her time, effort and thought goes unrecognised. The intention is overshadowed by the action, and it is only the action which is appreciated, or, at least, recognised.

The burden of invisible labour gets passed down from generation to generation. When my grandma reached a certain age, it was my mum who took on more responsibilities – physically, emotionally, administratively – to ensure that all of the normal, key components of Christmas just happened. When asked “How was your Christmas?”, her answer doesn’t convey how she had to make sure everyone was up, dressed and ready in time for guests arriving, or how she had to make sure the oldies were comfy in their seats and weren’t too tired and didn’t need ‘anything else,’ or the fact that she spent hours making a Christmas pudding just because a total of two family members like it.

Social conventions go hand-in-hand with women’s silent acceptance of their invisible labour. Of course: we’re British, we’re polite, and we don’t overindulge in our emotions. The immense amount of effort, time, and cognitive planning goes unacknowledged – as it does throughout the year, but especially so at Christmastime.

The advert focuses on those in front of the camera, rather than those behind it. Which gives an unfair and unjust presentation of the festive frivolities. Women’s work is sidelined in favour of the more aesthetically pleasing, heart-warming moments; which is somewhat ironic given that it is women’s invisible labour which shaped these very moments.

To top it all off? As our guests departed to join the motorway’s Boxing Day version of the “rat race,” it was my dad who got the Paul Hollywood-style handshake and congratulations for hosting another “perfect Christmas,” not my mum.

In 2024, we should sit this one out. Make the men do all the work we women have spent centuries undertaking.

Alexandra Baynes

Alexandra Baynes

Head Editor of Opinion Section. Radio Host on Fuse FM. Twitter: @lexiebayness

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