I recently read Gemma Hartley’s piece Stop Calling Women Nags–We’re Just Fed Up in Bazaar. Hartley’s article about emotional labor and the unacknowledged work many women do in terms of managing household relationships, logistics, and schedules has been widely read and shared in recent weeks, with many couples reporting breakthrough conversations with their partners regarding the division of labor and responsibilities.
In short, many women end up managing a household by default, and are frustrated when men offer to “help” because why is it their job to manage the household in the first place? While some couples consciously choose to divide labor into “earner” and “household manager,” in many cases women end up getting stuck with both earning and primary household management roles, and that can lead to a great deal of resentment.
So I think it’s good we’re talking about emotional labor and unacknowledged/invisible household work. It’s a topic that has come up in my own marriage since Year 1 (when Kia pretended she didn’t know how to cook because she didn’t want to get stuck doing all the cooking in the relationship) and Year 21 (this year, when we acquired a new canine family member, and a whole new category of household tasks).
Three Tenets of Household Harmony
Here are three household management principles Kia and I try to live by. Maintaining a balance of labor that feels fair to both of us is a constantly moving target, but we’ve tried to learn from our past mistakes (and the past mistakes of some of our friends).
- Ask for praise/get acknowledged (no work should be invisible). We take this to ridiculous, farcical extremes. Every time one of us cleans the kitchen, it’s either “Hey, did you notice anything about the kitchen?” or even more directly “Come admire the kitchen.” The other person is then obligated to ooh and aah with much enthusiasm. Which we both do gladly, because it’s easier than cleaning the kitchen.
- Surrender control/don’t micromanage. If you want your partner to step up and start doing a larger share of work in a particular area, you need to resist the urge to say “You’re doing it wrong.” Even if they are. Children, especially, are resilient, and will likely survive your partner’s clumsy, wrong-headed, uninformed attempts to feed them dinner, get them ready for bed, or drop them off at piano practice. After awhile your partner will get better at whatever it is, and you may discover that “truths” about your offspring (they won’t eat spicy food, they need x y and z to fall asleep, etc.) are simply habits built into your personal routine with that child.
- Optimize for what you enjoy and care about. Division of labor in agricultural and industrial societies revolutionized productivity and wealth, and the microeconomies of individual households should benefit from reasonable divisions of labor as well. We should do what we’re good at, what we care most about, and what we enjoy doing. This is more efficient and more fun that trying to achieve a perfect 50/5o split in all household areas. Of course there are inevitably tasks that neither partner enjoys or is good at. For these, outsource? Or get rid of the job entirely? (Neither Kia or I enjoy car maintenance; we got rid of the car). Or divide up the work in a way that feels fair. Or put the kid(s) to work.
So that’s our system, more or less. The overall burden of work and earning fluctuates (Kia did more household work when my foot was in a cast earlier this year) but we try to work it out so that 1) nobody feels like their load is too heavy and 2) we both feel appreciated and acknowledged for the work we do (no invisible work).
While it’s great that Hartley’s piece is encouraging discussion, I did have one issue with it.
What Exactly Is Emotional Labor?
I had to look this up. It turns out that the academic definition of emotional labor differs significantly from the way Hartley uses the term. Sociologists define emotional labor as the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. In other words it’s the work of not punching someone in the face who probably deserves it. Flight attendants, nursing home workers, and teachers all have to control their emotions, keep their shit together, and act nice, even when the people they are caring for act rudely or inconsiderately. Even if the person on the other side of the interaction is being perfectly reasonable, there is still work to these roles (including all family roles). You have to be nice to your customers/clients (or you’ll lose your job) and you generally have to be nice to your family (or your closest relationships will suffer).
Hartley includes some things that fall into this this definition of emotional labor, like communicating with in-laws and doing the greater share of childcare, but she also lumps in a bunch of other things, like household scheduling, tidying up, adding items to the shopping list, and doing laundry. Has the popular definition of emotional labor morphed to include all housework? Or is Hartley’s emotional labor component not strangling her husband because he doesn’t do household tasks (except to “help out”)?
I think it’s an important distinction. In our household, Kia does more emotional labor in the sociological sense (more time comforting/consoling our daughter, more time communicating with parents) while I do more tidying up and dishes. She does more shopping and cooking, but I manage our finances, take out the garbage, and do more yard work. If emotional labor includes all household management tasks, then maybe men are doing more emotional labor than we get credit for. If emotional labor includes tidying up and doing laundry, it should also include cleaning out the gutters, changing the oil in the car, sharpening knives and swords, teaching the kid how to kickbox, killing vermin, and minor home repair projects. Household work that, on average, men more often take responsibility for (though of course not always).
I point this out not in some kind of “what about men” men’s right’s sort of way, but because I think the household management conversation is a good one to have. A fair, consciously planned household management system can go a long way toward making marriage easy and fun. So it’s worth defining the terms.
Hartley wrote a follow-up article; her husband finally “got it” and had started taking initiative in terms of household management instead of having a “helping out” attitude. Hartley’s frustration stemmed not from any sense that her husband was lazy or inconsiderate, but rather that the role of household manager had landed in her lap, uninvited. Hartley seems happy with her husband’s new awareness, but I wonder if that’s enough for lasting change.
If you’re married or cohabitating, have you talked with your partner about emotional labor/household management? How did the conversation go? What changed afterward?