So, quick: In your family, who sends the holiday cards? I mean, who keeps the address list from year to year, who selects and orders the cards, and who addresses them, stamps them, and mails them? Also: Who reminds the other spouse about family birthdays far enough in advance to buy gifts? Who plans out holiday meals? If you and your partner want to go out for an evening, who calls the babysitter? Who arranges picnics for local families in the park?
In my family and in my neighborhood, it’s generally the wife/mother who does all of this. I’ve never really thought about these little chores, precisely because they are so little—it’s just a text to the sitter or an email about a picnic. But as any parent knows, these emails and texts and “arrangements” can eat up your day (and constantly interrupt your work, if you’re a working parent).
These small tasks are more important than we realize, because they’re the foundation of friendships and social ties in the community. We women are socialized to do them: to remember birthdays and send cards, to call after a big interview, to listen as a friend unburdens herself after a break-up. Girls develop intimate, one-on-one “BFFs” early on (in fact, I’ve never really heard anyone talk about a BFF for a boy—for my own sons I tend to say “his good buddy”), and girls generally keep up the work that it takes to maintain relationships over the long haul.
Sociologists call this kind of effort emotional labor—labor that’s included in professions like nursing, social work, or even being a server or barista. (Not coincidentally, these kind of jobs are often performed by women.) In the personal or domestic sphere, women do emotional labor by being a sounding board for their friends and family, by arranging holiday get-togethers and celebrations, and by keeping social activities up for themselves and the family as a whole (and sometimes for their partners as well). As this epic Metafilter thread points out, these efforts are indeed work, even though they’re uncompensated.
According to a new study, men and boys generally socialize in groups, eschewing the closer one-on-one relationships that girls and women have. As Pacific Standard reports in a story titled “Men Need Friends,” “When men do have especially close relationships, we teasingly call them “bromances,” as if there must be something amorous between two men who choose to spend time together one-on-one.”
I have two boys, and they both seem to be making friends like normal boys do. But I wonder if I had girls if I’d somehow be teaching them—either consciously or unconsciously—to keep a drawer of blank birthday cards, to have a generic gift or two on hand, to remember our friends’ big life events and ask about them, or to start considering what to cook for Thanksgiving a month in advance.
Because here’s the thing about these bits of social maintenance: Sure, it’s not fair that the majority falls to the woman in the household. But it’s also unfair to men, because, as the Pacific Standard story says, men “have the fewest friends of any demographic. And as more and more people delay marriage or forgo it entirely, men are often left without strong social networks to rely on for support.”
Men of the older generation, I think, particularly relied on their wives to arrange their social lives. Men of our generation are better at it: My husband is a very involved caregiver for our kids, and he’s developed a pretty strong network of dad friends in the neighborhood. He arranges holidays with his family and just tells me what’s what. But there’s no denying that women build, from childhood, a set of skills for maintaining one-on-one ties and community ties. Boys, for whatever reason, aren’t getting these same skills, which leaves them vulnerable to loneliness and isolation.
I’m not sure exactly what the solution is, besides modeling “strong social ties” behavior for my boys. So this year my son will help me with the Christmas cards. Better yet, maybe he’ll help Daddy with the Christmas cards this year.