September 27, 2017
By Gemma Hartley
Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand.
For Mother’s Day I asked for one thing: a house cleaning service. Bathrooms and floors specifically, windows if the extra expense was reasonable. The gift, for me, was not so much in the cleaning itself but the fact that for once I would not be in charge of the household office work. I would not have to make the calls, get multiple quotes, research and vet each service, arrange payment and schedule the appointment. The real gift I wanted was to be relieved of the emotional labor of a single task that had been nagging at the back of my mind. The clean house would simply be a bonus.
My husband waited for me to change my mind to an “easier” gift than housecleaning, something he could one-click order on Amazon. Disappointed by my unwavering desire, the day before Mother’s Day he called a single service, decided they were too expensive, and vowed to clean the bathrooms himself. He still gave me the choice, of course. He told me the high dollar amount of completing the cleaning services I requested (since I control the budget) and asked incredulously if I still wanted him to book it.
What I wanted was for him to ask friends on Facebook for a recommendation, call four or five more services, do the emotional labor I would have done if the job had fallen to me. I had wanted to hire out deep cleaning for a while, especially since my freelance work had picked up considerably. The reason I hadn’t done it yet was part guilt over not doing my housework, and an even larger part of not wanting to deal with the work of hiring a service. I knew exactly how exhausting it was going to be. That’s why I asked my husband to do it as a gift.
According to Dr. Michele Ramsey, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State Berks, emotional labor is often conflated with problem solving. “The gendered assumption is that ‘men are the problem solvers because women are too emotional,’” she explains. “But who is really solving the bulk of the world’s problems at home and in the office?” As the household manager for my husband and three kids, I’m fairly certain I know the answer. I was gifted a necklace for Mother’s Day while my husband stole away to deep clean the bathrooms, leaving me to care for our children as the rest of the house fell into total disarray.
In his mind, he was doing the thing I had most wanted—giving me sparkling bathrooms without having to do it myself. Which is why he was frustrated when I ungratefully passed by, not looking at his handiwork as I put away his shoes, shirt and socks that had been left on the floor. I stumbled over the box of gift wrap he had pulled off a high shelf two days earlier and left in the center of our closet. In order to put it back, I had to get a kitchen chair and drag it into our closet so I could reach the shelf where it belonged.
“All you have to do is ask me to put it back,” he said, watching me struggle.
It was obvious that the box was in the way, that it needed to be put back. It would have been easy for him to just reach up and put it away, but instead he had stepped around it, willfully ignoring it for two days. It was up to me to tell him that he should put away something he got out in the first place.
“That’s the point,” I said, now in tears, “I don’t want to have to ask.”
The crying, the snapping at him—it all required damage control. I had to tell him how much I appreciated the bathroom cleaning, but perhaps he could do it another time (like when our kids were in bed). Then I tried to gingerly explain the concept of emotional labor: that I was the manager of the household, and that being manager was a lot of thankless work. Delegating work to other people, i.e. telling him to do something he should instinctively know to do, is exhausting. I tried to tell him that I noticed the box at least 20 times over the past two days. He had noticed it only when I was heaving it onto the top shelf instead of asking for help. The whole explanation took a lot of restraint.
Walking that fine line to keep the peace and not upset your partner is something women are taught to accept as their duty from an early age. “In general, we gender emotions in our society by continuing to reinforce the false idea that women are always, naturally and biologically able to feel, express, and manage our emotions better than men,” says Dr. Lisa Huebner, a sociologist of gender, who both publishes and teaches on the subject of emotional labor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. “This is not to say that some individuals do not manage emotion better than others as part of their own individual personality, but I would argue that we still have no firm evidence that this ability is biologically determined by sex. At the same time (and I would argue because it is not a natural difference) we find all kinds of ways in society to ensure that girls and women are responsible for emotions and, then, men get a pass.”
My husband is a good man, and a good feminist ally. I could tell, as I walked him through it, that he was trying to grasp what I was getting at. But he didn’t. He said he’d try to do more cleaning around the house to help me out. He restated that all I ever needed to do was ask him for help, but therein lies the problem. I don’t want to micromanage housework. I want a partner with equal initiative.
However, it’s not as easy as telling him that. My husband, despite his good nature and admirable intentions, still responds to criticism in a very patriarchal way. Forcing him to see emotional labor for the work it is feels like a personal attack on his character. If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out—reminding him of his family’s birthdays, carrying in my head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit the kids when we go out, keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry—he would take it as me saying, “Look at everything I’m doing that you’re not. You’re a bad person for ignoring me and not pulling your weight.”
Bearing the brunt of all this emotional labor in a household is frustrating. It’s the word I hear most commonly when talking to friends about the subject of all the behind-the-scenes work they do. It’s frustrating to be saddled with all of these responsibilities, no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation.
“What bothers me the most about having any conversation around emotional labor is being seen as a nag,” says Kelly Burch, a freelance journalist who works primarily from home. “My partner feels irritated and defensive by the fact that I’m always pointing out what he’s not doing. It shuts him down. I understand why it would be frustrating from his perspective, but I haven’t figured out another way to make him aware of all the emotional and mental energy I’m spending to keep the house running.”
Even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labor becomes emotional labor. It gets to a point where I have to weigh the benefits of getting my husband to understand my frustration against the compounded emotional labor of doing so in a way that won’t end in us fighting. Usually I let it slide, reminding myself that I’m lucky to have a partner who willingly complies to any task I decide to assign to him. I know compared to many women, including female family members and friends, I have it so easy. My husband does a lot. He does dishes every night habitually. He often makes dinner. He will handle bedtime for the kids when I am working. If I ask him to take on extra chores, he will, without complaint. It feels greedy, at times, to want more from him.
Yet I find myself worrying about how the mental load bore almost exclusively by women translates into a deep gender inequality that is hard to shake on the personal level. It is difficult to model an egalitarian household for my children when it is clear that I am the household manager, tasked with delegating any and all household responsibilities, or taking on the full load myself. I can feel my sons and daughter watching our dynamic all the time, gleaning the roles for themselves as they grow older.
When I brush my daughter’s hair and elaborately braid it round the side of her scalp, I am doing the thing that is expected of me. When my husband brushes out tangles before bedtime, he needs his efforts noticed and congratulated—saying aloud in front of both me and her that it took him a whole 15 minutes. There are many small examples of where the work I normally do must be lauded when transferred to my husband. It seems like a small annoyance, but its significance looms larger.
My son will boast of his clean room and any other jobs he has done; my daughter will quietly put her clothes in the hamper and get dressed each day without being asked. They are six and four respectively. Unless I engage in this conversation on emotional labor and actively change the roles we inhabit, our children will do the same. They are already following in our footsteps; we are leading them toward the same imbalance.
“Children learn their communication patterns and gender roles (kids can recognize ‘proper’ gender behavior by age three) from a variety of people and institutions, but their parents are the ones that they, in theory, interact with the most,” notes Dr. Ramsey. So if we want to change the expectations of emotional labor for the next generation, it has to start at home. “For parents, this means making sure that one spouse does not do more of that type of labor than the other. Speaking in terms of how emotional labor is currently divided, girls will hopefully learn not to expect to have to do that labor and boys will hopefully learn not to expect females to do that labor for them. Children watching parents share that emotional labor will be more likely to be children who expect that labor to be shared in their own lives.”
I know it’s not going to be easy for either of us to tackle the splitting of emotional labor, nor do I ever expect it to be completely equitable. (I’ll admit that I probably enjoy certain types of emotional labor far more than my husband, like planning our meals and vacations.) I’m also more skilled at emotional labor on the whole because I’ve had my entire life to practice it. But if we’re lucky, he’s got a whole lot of life left to hone his emotional labor skills, and to change the course of our children’s future. Our sons can still learn to carry their own weight. Our daughter can learn to not carry others’.