You remember the birthdays. You match the socks. You pull the kids’ outgrown clothes and you flip the drawers when the seasons change. You schedule the doctor’s appointments. You keep a calendar: who has soccer practice, when it’s your turn in snack rotation. You pack the lunches. You line up clothes for everyone to wear the night before, if you’re super organized; you make sure their clothes are clean, if you’re not. You may do all the cooking and the meal planning. You may do all the laundry.
And it’s not that your partner doesn’t help. They help. They might offer to help you fold clothes. They might offer to run to the grocery store with a list (but call you three times in the while they’re there, because they’re anxious to get the right thing). And if you ask, they will do things, but you have to point them out.
You have to pile the plastic totes of the kids’ clothes in the middle of kitchen floor, then ask, “Can you take these up to the attic?” And wait. And wait. And after several days later, after stepping around them and your simmering rage, they will carry the tubs up to the attic. Or you will get sick of it and do it yourself. But mostly, they help — though they often expect thanks for doing so. They will make the kids pick up when you tell them you can’t stand it anymore. They will put their clothes in drawers when you tell them the clothes baskets are driving you nuts. You will points things out. They will do.
All this stuff you’re doing? It’s called “emotional labor.” The Guardian calls it “repeated, taxing and under-acknowledged acts of gendered performance;” one woman in Harper’s Bazaar describes emotional labor as being, “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.” When we have to tell people to pick up the Fig Newton wrapper the kids left in the hallway that’s been sitting there for two damn days, it’s frustrating and exhausting. We could do it ourselves. But that’s, again, another form of emotional labor.
Lacey (name changed) is a prime example of being fed up with emotional labor. “I manage my daughter, my husband, and my MIL’s life like a second husband,” she says. “It’s fucking exhausting and they have no idea why I’m so tired all the time … laundry, errands, food, meal planning.”
Lest you think Lacey is just doing her wifely duties, here’s what happened on a recent trip to a mega-resort that the family begged for. “They want a vacation, guess who spends days researching hotels and things to do. Then the vacation happens and no one gets out of bed in time to do anything that was meticulously planned for weeks, at their request. And they get mad when I lose it and say I’m not planning these things anymore.” They told her she was being spiteful. No, she countered, I’m fucking exhausted, because, “they have no idea the time and effort that went into any of it.”
It’s so bad that when her mother tried to give her tickets to an out-of-town event, she refused. She said there was no way she was planning another out-of-town weekend, because she knew who was going to do all the work.
This is emotional labor. It’s not nagging. It’s the expectation that women will take care of certain things, and when they don’t, totally flipping out that they aren’t performing their duties. Some things are women’s work — and that’s the way it is. At least that’s what society seems to think anyway.
Another mom, Rose (name changed), shows this when she talks about a terrible Christmas that happened before her divorce. “I remember one Christmas we had less than $5 in our account. I was waking up 12 times a night to nurse colicky 3-month-old twins and take care of my legally blind 20-month-old. I was exhausted beyond description. He asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I told him: Just one night of sleep. Just a few hours of no interruptions so I could feel even 1% human again. We couldn’t afford anything else. I would pump and we had back up formula. No go. He flat out refused. Said it was my job and he couldn’t handle it. So I got nothing as a gift.”
Emotional labor means there is women’s work and men’s work, and women are expected to do certain things — no matter what type of toll it takes on them: mentally, physically, or emotionally. After their divorce, Rose’s husband even called her to ask what he needed to buy his sisters for Christmas. She made him a list. He went to the store and kept calling her about where things were, what scent to get, and so on. Then he asked when she was coming over to wrap the presents. While this is an extreme example, it shows how some tasks slip into the women’s realm: so much so that her divorced husband expected her to basically Christmas shop for his sisters, because Christmas shopping is something that women do. `
Me? I do a lot of pointing out. My husband and I have separate spheres of influence (his: food; mine: clothes/laundry), but when it comes to Things On the Floor, he will ignore them, or step over them, or simply not notice them until I’m near tears and begging for someone, anyone but me to pick them up. That’s emotional labor. I have to delegate. I have to make the kids clean a lot of the time, which, in their minds, makes me Satan. Cue more emotional labor.
The Guardian suggests that emotional labor is the next feminist issue. This is also expected everywhere from the workplace (think your barista drawing a smiley face on your cup, or an executive expected to make chit-chat or remember birthdays) to the bedroom. While the sexual revolution has come far, we’re still doing emotional labor in the bedroom, The Guardian says, maintaining a male-centric view of sex. Think not? Well, when 25% of women fake orgasm 90% of the time, we might have a little bit of a problem.
The first step to ending this tangle of emotional labor? Education. Women need to know what’s going on — and so do men. Then everyone needs to work together to end it. Men need a self-awareness of what they’re asking and expecting women to do.
Women need to realize what they’re expecting themselves to do. It may mean leaving things undone: appointments unscheduled, toys strewn about, clothes in drawers. It may mean not planning meals for the week, and making your spouse do it instead.
Regardless, we all need to examine the emotional labor we’re doing in our lives — the work itself, the delegation — and address it, for our own mental health. For our own physical health. So that maybe, when the kids go to bed, we won’t crash, exhausted, along behind them.