Invisible Hand of Labour

<strong>Invisible Hand of Labour</strong>

Emma Dwyer

While pregnant with my first child, a contract I had in an arts organisation came to an end and I moved to full time freelance work. After she was born, I took maternity benefit for 24 weeks and then a portion of the Job Seeker’s Allowance (Ireland’s Social Welfare Programme). This came to an end when my tax credits ran out and I had no secure income. It was a precarious time, myself and my partner were renting and I was working on his days off to earn money by writing, facilitating training sessions, and doing marketing for various arts organisations. Small tasks weighed over me until I could get to them. Emails were left starred in my inbox for days until I could give them the time to respond. I typed with one hand while holding a child in the other. I had meetings while breastfeeding. I made it work, I worked in the gaps.

As a parent I have worked non-stop for the past three years. I breastfed my two children for the first 12 months of their lives. I looked at the dirt in my house from the sofa while I cluster fed babies. I changed reusable nappies, I washed and folded said nappies, wiped tears off snotty noses, cooked meals, peeled bananas that were immediately mushed into the ground, into the carpet, I potty trained, weaned, and administered much Calpol to soothe much teething pain. I cooked risotto with one hand, a child on my hip. I hoovered with one hand and bought a mop that could be used with one hand. I felt like I was always trying to do something with one hand. This was my invisible labour, with my invisible hand.

Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution currently reads: “… the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” There have been motions to remove this from the constitution, to delete it and erase it. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission says that the text “continues to perpetuate stereotypical attitudes towards the role of women in Irish society”, while the National Women’s Council calls it “sexist and outdated.”

As it stands it is meaningless in law not to mention culturally and socially. In 1989 a woman separating from her husband argued that her work within the family home entitled her to a share of the property – the High Court initially ruled in her favour, but a unanimous Supreme Court didn’t. I bite my tongue saying this to other women, to other feminists, but the fight for equality and the move to get women into the workplace and out of the home has meant the economy has grown and now there is an economic need for most families to have two incomes. For women to ‘neglect their duties in the home…’ to pay for that home.  

However, there is still a significant number of people categorised or identifying as homemakers. At the last census in 2016, in families with parents in couples 12 per cent were homemakers, and the vast majority were women (98%). While for single parent families only 4 per cent of one parent fathers were homemakers, compared with 19.8 per cent of one parent mothers. When looking at unemployment numbers for this same demographic, 13.1 per cent of one parent single parent families were unemployed compared to 6.9 per cent for families with couples. You’re more likely to be unemployed as a single parent than if you’re coupled up. Where do they sit within article 41.2?

As outdated and contested as it is, that article is the only constitutional recognition of the invisible labour that is often carried out by women in the home. There have been calls to retain this article in our constitution and to reframe it with non-gendered language. In 2021 the citizens assembly voted that the, “Article 41.2 of the Constitution should be deleted and replaced with language that is not gender specific and obliges the State to take reasonable measures to support care within the home and wider community.”

This invisible labour exists mainly for women. The startling reality is that, women who work for pay often work a “double shift” paid in the labour force and unpaid housework and care work. Globally, women spend four and a half hours working for no money, twice as many hours as men do on average. I am glad to say that I have a partner and I call him that because we share the workload as much as possible in the house, certain things fall to me, certain things fall to him, I have the mental load, he has the laundry load. But it feels equal and when I describe this to friends, my family, people commend him, “isn’t he great taking care of the kids?” they say.

Since having my second child, I have had to take on more work, to outsource my childcare four days a week because the government no longer supported me after the first 24 weeks of my baby’s life and we had ends that needed meeting. We did get support to put them in a creche through the National Childcare Scheme, but I couldn’t get support to mind my own children, to pick their snotty noses for them, cut their gangly nails, or to check their ears for wax, there’s always so much wax.

62% of mothers, according to a 2017 survey, would prefer to stay at home with their children if they could afford to. So why isn’t there a carers allowance available to all parents? A living wage or care income for parents would mean that we could opt to stay at home if that is what we wanted to do. If I was given the option to take the allocation of funding that the government have offered to a creche to take care of my children, I would take it myself and spend as much time with them as I could while also working part time to keep the brain active and the tax contributions going. This is my personal preference.

The concept of being paid to do the job many parents do in the home is not a new one. Fifty years ago, in 1972 the Wages for Housework campaign was launched at the National Women’s Liberation Conference in Manchester. American activist Selma James, along with Italian Marxist feminists Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici presented a policy that reframed women’s homemaking as labour. Federici later published a book Wages Against Housework (1975), with the opening line: “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.”

In the 70s this was met with resistance from some saying it would further entrench women in their position as homemaker and be regressive for feminism. After 50 years of campaigning, today there are arguments for it contributing to a more equal and just society. The Global Women’s Strike and Women of Colour GWS is an international multiracial network campaigning for recognition and payment for all caring work for people and the planet. In March of 2020 they released an open letter to governments amplifying their call for a “care income” in light of the extra burden placed upon families during the pandemic. The system very much feels broken not only for single parents, but also for couples who are parents. There are so many inequities faced by mothers in particular. Having the option to be paid for invisible labour, to make that labour visible would mean that the invisible hand of the market might tip, shift, slightly to make it possible for parents on average incomes, paying average rents or mortgages to opt to take care of their children at home, to maybe even relax or enjoy leisure pursuits in the evenings rather than cook, clean, launder. As parents I often feel we should be out on the streets demanding change, I have talked to so many others who feel the same as I do, it’s not working for us. But we’re tired, and we’re probably too tired to protest.

Emma Dwyer is an arts writer and works in arts communications. She is based in Cork. Find out more at

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