Gemma Hartley | an excerpt adapted from Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward | HarperOne | November 2018 | 16 minutes (4,288 words)
“Just let me do it,” I told Rob as I watched him struggle to fold our daughter’s fitted sheet shortly after he took over laundry duty. It’s a phrase I’m sure he’s heard from me countless times, and even when I’m not saying it out loud, I’ve often implied it with a single you’re-doing-it-wrong stare. I cannot pretend that I have not played a part in creating such a deep divide in the emotional labor expectations in my home. I want things done a certain way, and any deviation from my way can easily result in me taking over. If the dishwasher is loaded wrong, I take it back on instead of trying to show my husband how to load it. If the laundry isn’t folded correctly, I’ll decide to simply do it myself. On occasion I have found myself venting with friends that it is almost as if our male partners are purposefully doing things wrong so they won’t have to take on more work at home.
While I don’t think this has been the case in my own home, for some women this is a reality. A 2011 survey in the UK found that 30 percent of men deliberately did a poor job on domestic duties so that they wouldn’t be asked to do the job again in the future. They assumed that their frustrated partners would find it easier to do the job themselves than deal with the poor results of their half-hearted handiwork. And they were right. A full 25 percent of the men surveyed said they were no longer asked to help around the house, and 64 percent were only asked to pitch in occasionally (i.e., as a last resort).
Even if men aren’t consciously doing a poor job to get out of housework, their lackluster “help” still frustrates. A similar survey conducted by Sainsbury’s in the UK found that women spent a whole three hours per week, on average, redoing chores they had delegated to their partners. The list where men fell short left little ground uncovered: doing the dishes, making the bed, doing the laundry, vacuuming the floors, arranging couch cushions, and wiping down counters were all areas of complaint. Two-thirds of the women polled felt convinced that this was their partner’s best effort, so perhaps it’s not surprising that more than half didn’t bother “nagging” them to do better. They simply followed their partners around and cleaned up after them.
A survey conducted by Sainsbury’s in the UK found that women spent a whole three hours per week, on average, redoing chores they had delegated to their partners.
The ways in which women cling to maintaining rigid standards is what sociologists call “maternal gatekeeping,” and what we refer to, pre-baby, as simply “perfectionism.” We actively discourage men from becoming full partners at home, because we truly believe we can do everything better, faster, more efficiently than everyone else. Because we are the ones who control all the aspects of home and life organization for our families and especially our children, we become convinced that our way is the only way. We are hesitant to adjust our personal expectations, especially because we have put so much work into caring about our household systems. We’ve carefully considered how to best keep everyone comfortable and happy, so it seems natural that everyone should conform to the best-thought-out plan available: ours.
This thinking is consistently reinforced by a culture that tells us that we should hold ourselves to this higher standard. That if we don’t strive toward perfectionism, we are failing as women. We feel as if we are letting our families down, we are letting womankind down, we are letting ourselves down when we don’t perform emotional labor in the most intense possible way. Yet this level of perfectionism can be exhausting, and it dissuades those men who would help from even trying. Instead of assuming that men can hold down the fort while we are out of town, we leave a veritable handbook on how they should best care for their own children. Dufu writes in her book that she once wrote a list for her husband titled “Top Ten Tips for Traveling with Kofi,” which included, among other things, a reminder to feed their child. I have left freezer meals and detailed instructions for my husband on how to feed himself when I am out of town so he doesn’t wander into the grocery store and spend $200 on two days’ worth of food, instead of involving him in the process of meal planning so he could take it on himself. It’s not just society but also my maternal gatekeeping that contributes to the mental load I’ve taken on. I don’t leave room for mistakes, and because of that, I don’t leave room for progress. Then again, when I do, I’ve been let down.
We had both been warned by my oral surgeon that my wisdom tooth extraction was likely going to put me down for a few days, but instead of the intense prep I would normally do ahead of time, I assumed my husband would take over what I couldn’t do. He’d been slowly but surely picking up his share of emotional labor since my Harper’s Bazaar article had appeared three months earlier. He seemed ready to take on the type of full day I would have put in before he was laid off. The day of the surgery, I felt mostly fine immediately afterward. I took my pain pills but was moving around, had minimal swelling, and spent the evening going over the plans for the next day with Rob. I had worked with our son on his homework, but there was still one page that needed to be finished in the morning. He was allowed to bring in a Game Boy for the special “electronics day” their class had earned. Our daughter needed to go to preschool at 8:30 a.m., but her needs were simple — get her dressed, brush her hair, fill her water bottle. Our son had the option of hot lunch if the morning got out of hand, and I encouraged Rob to use it but just remember to pack him a snack. He had been around and helping with the morning routine for weeks since his layoff. I assumed he could do it alone just this once, though we both thought he wouldn’t have to. After all, I was fine.
Well, I was fine until 11:45 p.m., when I woke up crying and frantically scrambling for pain pills. The left side of my face had swollen to the size of a baseball, and I spent hours awake in excruciating pain. When morning came, the situation was even worse, and I could barely function. Rob woke me at 8:30 a.m. to tell me he was taking our daughter to school along with our youngest. Our six-year-old would have to be walked to school in half an hour. I set an alarm on my phone in case I dozed off, and our son came into the room and talked with me. I asked him if he had everything ready — his lunch, his clothes, his homework. He said yes, and I lay back relieved. I was barely able to get myself out of bed to walk him to school and found myself resenting the fact that his dad hadn’t thought to take all of them to drop off like I had done when he was working. My face throbbed with pain as I slipped on shoes and a jacket, then instructed our son to do the same. Then I came into the living room at the moment we had to leave and realized that my six-year-old had been wrong. His homework hadn’t been done or checked. His lunch hadn’t been packed. He didn’t have a snack or fresh water. He didn’t have an electronic device to bring to school for their special day. Now not only was I suffering the guilt of not getting him ready, but he would have to suffer the consequences of no one helping him. He would have to stay in at recess to complete his homework. He wouldn’t get the thirty minutes of electronic time his friends would have. I was able to grab an orange and throw it in his backpack for a snack, but it was too late for the rest of it. Even though my husband had been the one on duty for the morning, I was the one left with the guilt of taking my son to school ill prepared. I felt like I should have better prepared my husband to take over for me. I should have implemented my system better. If letting Rob take over was going to mean my kids’ needs falling through the cracks, I wasn’t here for it. I needed a better option, and that better option seemed to be doing things my way.
I was trying to let go of control, or adjust my expectations, or compromise my standards, but we kept coming up short. We kept missing that elusive balance, and more frustratingly, I was the only one who felt bad about it. I was the one who cared.
When I later brought up the morning mishap with Rob, he felt guilty also, but not in the way I had. He was able to acknowledge the problem, say he was sorry, and move on. He didn’t beat himself up over his mistake in the way I was beating myself up for not hovering more diligently. Parenting mistakes aren’t a moral failing for him like they are for me. Dads get the at-least-he’s-trying pat on the back when people see them mess up. Moms get the eye rolls and judgment. Everything that happened that morning was still “my fault,” because I wasn’t living up to the standard I should set for myself as a mom: the standard of perfection.
I was still expected to be the one in charge, even when I was incapacitated, because isn’t that just what moms are supposed to do? He wasn’t expected to have the morning routine locked down. He was still a dad — still exempt from judgment. Despite now being the at-home parent, at least for the time being, it still wasn’t his primary job or responsibility. It was mine, just as it had always been. I was trying to treat my husband as an equal partner. I was trying to let go of control, or adjust my expectations, or compromise my standards, but we kept coming up short. We kept missing that elusive balance, and more frustratingly, I was the only one who felt bad about it. I was the one who cared.
The day my Harper’s Bazaar article on emotional labor went live, I went out for wine with my friend, and we immediately dove into the conversation. I wasn’t asked to explain the concept or clarify any points. She had an intrinsic knowledge of this problem that previously had no name, as did every woman I spoke to for weeks afterward. After a day spent walking on eggshells trying to further clarify the issue of emotional labor for Rob, it felt good to let loose with someone who got it. Someone who cared in the same way I did.
My friend told me how she had set a pile of bedding and other things that needed to be taken up at the bottom of the stairs. Much like my blue Rubbermaid storage bin in the closet, the bedding was difficult for her to put away and quite easy for her husband. It was also impossible not to notice — you’d have to jump over two steps or push it all to the side to go up the stairs without it. Yet that was exactly what her husband did, ignoring the obvious task in front of him, not out of spite but out of what seemed to be sheer ignorance that this was a problem at all. If it was, she would have asked him for help, right? It wasn’t up to him to notice. Realizing what needed to be done in the home was her job. She decided to go the passive-aggressive route of taking it all upstairs herself and putting it away in front of him (clearly, we are kindred spirits), getting an apology for a problem that wasn’t fully understood, and coming out on a wine date with me so she could explain to someone who would get it.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
I have had conversations with my friends about emotional labor more times than I can count, most of them long before I chose to write on the topic. Women talk to each other about the emotional labor we perform, because we all understand it deeply. We all care in similar ways. We all know how hard it is. Emotional labor is rooted in our relationships in a way that seems unshakable, even when we reach our final breaking point. One woman, upon becoming overwhelmed with the emotional labor she was performing, told her partner the only way they were staying together was for him to go to a therapist. He asked her to find one and make an appointment for him. “It went right over his head,” she says. “He’s never going to get it.”
It’s no wonder women come to each other with our problems instead of hashing them out with our partners. We talk about all the work we do — emotion work, kin work, domestic work, clerical work — because we know other women will not only recognize it but validate its worth, whereas men, through their actions, and the larger culture do not. There is so much behind-the-scenes work that we do day in and day out, and it often feels thankless and unseen. We share our stories with one another, talking to our girlfriends instead of our partners because that is where the understanding is. Our conversations with each other help us feel seen, make visible the invisible. It doesn’t change the dynamic with our partners, but it helps us feel a little less alone when we go home.
One woman, upon becoming overwhelmed with the emotional labor she was performing, told her partner the only way they were staying together was for him to go to a therapist. He asked her to find one and make an appointment for him.
But while feeling seen by women helps, it doesn’t provide a solution to the frustration we feel when work is left unnoticed and unappreciated at home. The mental load still waits for us. The delegation of labor must be done, and a fine line must be walked to ensure our frustration doesn’t show. So why not just talk about it with our partners, rather than behind their backs? The truth is, that’s easier said than done. Most women have had the talk about emotional labor at some point in their relationships only to have the talk become a fight. Our words fall on deaf — or at least defensive — ears.
Talking about emotional labor requires emotional labor.
When I try to explain emotional labor to my husband, it sounds to him like I’m saying, “You don’t care at all.” He hears that I don’t appreciate the work he puts in. But his response ignores the extensive emotional labor that goes into the way I live my life. We usually don’t go near the heart of the problem. It’s why my conversations about emotional labor have always been so cyclical. I try to talk to Rob, and we don’t see eye to eye. The emotional labor of the conversation becomes too much for me, so I instead talk to other women who will understand. We vent, we share, we bolster each other until we reach the breaking point again. Most of the time, the struggle takes place in my mind. On the outside, I look fine — maybe a little stressed but fine. Which is why the outbursts of overwhelm seem so out of nowhere when they occur.
“Men aren’t privy to the conversations that we have with one another, so for them it looks like we have it all together,” Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew, author of Rules of Engagement: Making Connections Last, tells me the first time we talk. We’ve been talking about the wisdom of womanhood and how sharing our stories with one another helps ease the burden of emotional labor, but now for the first time, I’m wondering if only talking to one another has been harming us as well. Having space to tell our stories, to bring our invisible work into the light is vital, but nothing changes if men cannot also see, hear, and tell each other these stories.
As we talk about her personal life, she tells me about the disconnect between her husband’s view of her as a force of nature, able to get all these things done with ease, and her frequent feeling that she needs help. What he sees is her ability to come up with all the solutions to keep things running smoothly. In his mind, if she needed the help, she would speak up about it, they would hire someone, and that would be the end of it. What appears to him as an innate ability to make sure everything is taken care of, however, is not as simple as it looks. He doesn’t understand the cultural pressure she feels to “do it all.” He doesn’t understand the mental work, not to mention guilt, that would have to be factored into changing the system.
“He doesn’t have the same lens that I do,” she says. “He means well, he just doesn’t get it.”
One of our biggest problems seems to be that we can never simply focus on any one part. We are always juggling the whole of our lives, no matter where we are or what we are doing. Even now, as I sit here writing, I am calculating the drive time to the restaurant where we are meeting my in-laws for a birthday celebration, thinking of the housework that needs to be done, refreshing email for my freelance work, trying to convince myself the mental noise will calm when I write another massive to-do list, even though I know it will simply lead me down the rabbit hole of connecting one task to another to another to another.
If it seems men don’t have this problem, that may be because it’s true. Men might be better at compartmentalizing, because their brains are wired differently. In a 2013 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, scientists found significant differences in brain connectivity patterns between men and women. On average, men had greater connectivity in each individual hemisphere of the brain, while women have much greater connectivity across hemispheres. Our broadly connected wires can be a great blessing or a great curse, depending on the circumstance. When we’re tackling the problem of orchestrating the schedules of five family members from memory, it can really give us a leg up. When we need to disconnect from home and focus on the work at hand, the connectivity of our mental and emotional load can drag us down. It can also be a big roadblock in trying to communicate the burden of the mental load and emotional labor to our partners. We’re living such different experiences through both our social conditioning and our manner of thinking that it’s hard to see eye to eye. That’s why we call our girlfriends. It’s why women I’ve never met before get it, and my partner of thirteen years doesn’t. It’s also why the most common answer I get when talking to women who feel like they’ve reached a balance is this: you have to let go. The clean house, the perfect motherhood, the laundry, the mental lists, the worry — it all has to go.
There are very few things I do for the joy of control or cleanliness. There is a lot I do to avoid dysfunction and tension. The idea that women should simply ease up to avoid conflict belies the fact that we do this care-based labor with intention.
Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball, spends her entire book detailing a journey from total control freak (she refers to herself as recovering from “home control disease”) to a truly equal partnership with her husband. I immediately recognized her situation before I was halfway through the introduction as she writes about the bubbling resentment she feels upon realizing what an unfair load she has opted to take on in comparison to her husband. “I was his solution to having it all. What would be mine?” she asked herself.
So she made a change and handed off some responsibility (and mental load) to her partner. I was swept into her story but somewhat horrified when I learned what dropping the ball meant for her. Handing over the reins to her husband seemed to also mean turning a blind eye to a job done incredibly poorly. She tells about how she handed over mail duty to him, and it piled up on the table for three months before being opened. There were parking tickets that went to collections, birthday invitations that went without an RSVP, not to mention the eyesore of a mountain of mail. When he offers to take over meal prep duty after she receives a job opportunity, he makes a single stew for them to eat all month long. It’s not the way she would have done it, but it’s efficient, and it works. She says she feels capable of letting her preconceived standards slide because she is clear on her priorities. “It’s important to disrupt what a standard even is,” says Dufu. “I take issue with the narrative that a woman’s standard is either the best way or the most efficient way.” I have to admit, it’s a pill that’s hard for me to swallow. She tells me they have come to a bit of a compromise on the stew (he has added a bit of variety and makes a different meal each week nowadays), but they don’t have a lot of back-and-forth to perfect the way he does his part. They never have. The work she is doing in lieu of micromanaging is more important than making sure everything is done “her” way.
Clearly going completely hands-off works for her. She shifted her priorities and let the less important balls drop, along with any guilt she felt. She even tells me about a birthday party her daughter had recently missed because she does not handle the calendar (that task is squarely in her husband’s court). Since most parents don’t forward invitations to dads, this isn’t an unusual occurrence. Her daughter was in tears. All her classmates were at the party, and she wasn’t, and for a second grader, that’s total devastation. Dufu knows she could have prevented this and other calendar heartbreaks. But she won’t. She doesn’t pick up the balls she has decided to drop, or the guilt that goes with them. Instead she takes her daughter out for a pink-sprinkle doughnut and knows another party will come. She knows her value as a mother doesn’t hinge on one missed party or anything else she has decided to forgo for the sake of fulfilling her best and highest purpose. “There are so many things that I don’t do, that I have decided are okay for me not to do.” I feel envious of her freedom though perhaps not of the method she used to achieve it.
“I would die,” I told Rob as I relayed the mail story.
“You would kill me,” he corrected.
Every now and again, I drop the ball on laundry: I do a load and it sits in the dryer for a few days while I am overwhelmed by other tasks. My husband will happily dig out whatever he needs and leave the rest, but it becomes a point of contention if he runs out of workout clothes or my son’s favorite pair of pants remains unwashed. It is why my household system usually does not allow for laundry to sit unfinished, at least not for more than a day. It’s easier for me and for everyone else if the laundry is folded and put away. It gets everyone ready for the day and out the door with minimal panic over what to wear. From a distance, it may look as if my system of doing laundry daily for one load or every other day for both lights and darks is overkill — born from a desire to be the boss of the household and nothing else. Why does it matter so much? Why don’t I just relax? Because I know it inconveniences not just me but others if I let it slide. It matters because it helps me take care of my family with the least amount of friction. There are very few things I do for the joy of control or cleanliness. There is a lot I do to avoid dysfunction and tension.
The idea that women should simply ease up to avoid conflict belies the fact that we do this care-based labor with intention. Certainly, we are capable of compromise, but when it comes right down to it, we are the ones who have carefully considered why we order our lives the way we do. Telling us to ease up is not a favor. It is a misunderstanding of why we undertake emotional labor in the first place.
We don’t want to be nags. We just want everything to get done, and it’s hard to do it alone. Being seen as a nag is one reason women spend so much mental energy choosing whether to delegate tasks, otherwise known as “asking for help” — which most women don’t want to have to ask for in the first place. It’s the reason some women take the mental work of delegation off their plate and decide instead to become martyrs to the household work. I’ve flip-flopped between the two unsavory options in my own life more than once. Becoming the martyr takes the mental work of delegating off my plate but increases my overall workload. Being the nag takes extensive emotion work to get everyone to comply. Some women successfully take alternate paths, like freeing themselves of emotional labor, but that never seemed like a solution that could last for me. I don’t want to give up the work of caring. I just want others to care as well.
* * *
Gemma Hartley is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. She lives in Reno, Nevada with her husband and three children.
Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky