A Few Words About Emotional Labor
In the past year, I’ve read several articles by women confessing that they do more housework and childcare than their husbands do. Research backs this up. Women might make the doctors’ appointments, update the grocery list, and ensure that the home is clean. We call this unacknowledged work, which keeps our lives running smoothly, “emotional labor.”
I first read about emotional labor in Gemma Hartley’s article “Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up.” She now has a book out, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. French artist Emma also illustrated a beautiful story about this concept in “You Should’ve Asked.”
Tesia Blake wrote two great stories about this: “Men Don’t Need Six Month Reminders” and “It’s like We’re Not Even Speaking the Same Language.”
Certainly, not everyone is in a male-female partnership. Yet the people writing these articles are almost always women writing about a male partner. What gives?
Most of those articles have comment sections, where men can lament that they are just different from women. And we absolutely treat men and women differently — if we choose to. But strict gender roles aren’t good for men or women.
Someone I’ve known since we were kids recently came to me for advice. His wife had threatened to divorce him unless he started cleaning around the house more. He asked me what to do.
My response? “Clean the house, or look for a new one.”
Last I heard, he is cleaning.
But I thought about that for awhile. When we were growing up, I never remember him having chores like I did. I was told to keep my room tidy. I had to prepare dinner and load the dishwasher and take care of my younger siblings. Caretaking was instilled in me early on. Was he held to the same standard?
People say, “Men and women are different. Men do yard and car work.”
Let me stop there and explore for a moment. I have learned how to mow a lawn. I do it when my husband’s working a lot.
I also learned how to do car maintenance. I’m no mechanic, but I take my car in for all necessary work. If I hear someone’s car making a squeal when they first start driving it, I take them aside and say that maybe they need their serpentine belt tightened.
I can also do heavy lifting around the home. Painting, hammering, minor fixes — it’s all in my repertoire. If something happens, I’m the one who schedules a contractor.
But when I first got married, no one asked me if I did any of that. Coworkers asked what I cooked my new husband for dinner, or if I found it challenging to unpack a lot of boxes when I moved. They asked when I was expecting my first baby. And who was asking me all of this? Other women.
We learn things if we’re taught, or if we take an interest in them. But society puts people into boxes: women clean the home and take care of children, men do the car and yard work. (Ever flip open newspaper flyers around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? Women are supposed to get flowers as gifts; men get tools.) I think everyone would be a lot happier if we gave these roles more flexibility.
I see this when people congratulate men for “babysitting their children,” and men have to correct them: “No, I’m being their parent.” We’re setting women up to do all of the emotional labor, and not always letting men into the picture.
I was talking to a guy about this topic recently, and he said he hadn’t heard the term “emotional labor” before. I was surprised, because I’ve read a lot about it. But had I ever brought it up to guys in conversation? Have I specifically said, “How do you feel about emotional labor?” Nope.
Men might feel shut out of this conversation, but I say: Come right in. I want to hear more about men’s thoughts on gender roles.
Part of the problem is that a lot of emotional labor is unspoken and, to others, invisible. Not everyone notices it. But people notice right away when it isn’t done.
I’m lucky in that my husband is really good about keeping the house running smoothly. He changes the batteries in the smoke detectors, and does a lot of stuff I never would’ve thought of. But I remember birthdays, and mail out cards and gifts.
Why? Because I get the fallout if it’s not done.
I had someone complain, right before my wedding, that she didn’t like our thank-you note for a gift she’d sent. She called up my mother-in-law and complained that I was informal and, therefore, lazy and ungrateful. (Everyone else said that the notes were fine.)
Never mind that I was only 1/2 of the married couple, and my husband didn’t get any grief sent his way: my emotional labor wasn’t on point.
Women are told to be polite, to please, and to notice. Society says, This is your job. Do it or you’ll get blamed.
So, a lot of the time, we do it.
I make sure the house is tidy because if I don’t, people notice. When people come over my home and see a stack of mail on the table or dishes in the sink, they tell me, “Oh, you must be so busy.”
I mail the birthday cards and gifts, because people complain if I don’t. I am not naturally skilled at this. I just keep an address list and some stamps on hand.
If you’re not looking, a lot of labor can slip by you. One time I came home, and the bathroom floor mat looked different. It was the same color, but fluffy. Clean. I asked my husband if he bought a new bathroom mat. He said no, the cat did something unspeakable to it, so he put it through the washing machine.
Then he said, “How did you even notice that the bathroom rug looks different?”
I don’t know. I just notice.