J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Emotional Labor and Invisible Household Work – A Male Perspective

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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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14 Comments

  1. emmie

    Hi JD, I think you’re slightly missing the point on the term ‘Emotional Labor’ as used in this article (which I agree is not the same as the academic version). In this and similar articles, it is not, indeed, a catch-all for all housework. It’s the management aspect, not the work itself. We need a different term for this, but an article that I think makes this more clear is this one: http://time.com/money/4561314/women-work-home-gender-gap/

    Indeed, I have struggled getting my husband to understand that I’m not complaining about his willingness to go 50/50 on housework — he totally is willing! I love that! The problem is that I am, by default, the manager of this operation, and he takes on the role of just doing what I ask. Meanwhile, my actual career is far more demanding than his, yet I have to mentally keep track of all grocery staples, appointments, maintenance tasks, booking flights on time, calling people, sending thank yous, etc., etc. It is exhausting, and it is *invisible* to most men (I’m sure there are households, straight and same-sex, where a woman is blissfully aware of this invisible load on their partner, but the complaint is the same).

    • Hi Emmie, thanks for the comment. I did get the point of Hartley’s article, which I restated in almost exactly the same way you did. My point about the exact definition of emotional work was a minor one.

      I also think there is some (though not as much) household management work done by men that is somewhat invisible to women. Maybe the bulk of this work is more oriented toward things/objects (gutters, vehicles, plumbing, etc.) rather than people, but it also requires mental management (in addition the work itself). Though not as much.

      How have you addressed the emotional labor/mental management imbalance with your husband? Have you tried turning over the management of a particular area to him entirely, to see how it goes? If he is willing to go 50/50 on housework, he’s probably willing to take on a larger share of management as well. Maybe he can plan your next trip, or take over grocery shopping (including grocery list management).

      • emmie

        Yeah, i can see how in more “traditionally” divided houses, there may be some stuff that the man takes care of — like cars, or lawn work. But we live in an apartment, and I’m the one with the powertool collection, not him :). That’s perhaps somewhat particular to us, but he has, as far as I’m aware, almost 0% of the management share. The problem with asking him to take it on is that he does so pretty badly. So I end up checking-up on his management, which means I might as well just be doing it. Case in point: He’s supposed to be managing the target trips now (i.e., every 5 months or so we bulk up on toilet paper, cleaners, etc). And I watched, and watched, and watched until we got down to the last roll of toilet paper before reminding him that this was a problem. “Oh yeah I didn’t realize!” — because he hasn’t been trained to. Similarly with the cat — he’s supposed to order the food before we run out. Invariably I have to point it out to him, then he can’t find the webpage where we buy it, so I just end up doing it, even though I’ve emailed him an entire set of instructions several times. He reminds me sometimes of my most incompetent students, and this is a very smart man with a PhD. I call it “learned helplessness” in both cases. If there was a class for curing it, I’d sign him up! 🙂 We’ll keep at it, and maybe it’s just a learning curve, but it feels like he’ll be 60 before we get there, sometimes.

        • Wow, what a slacker! If you were to go on “strike” for awhile I wouldn’t blame you. Keep a secret stash of toilet paper and see how he likes wiping his butt with paper towels.

  2. Julie

    Yeah, as Emmie said, it’s more the mental tracking and management of the family needs – not the actual tasks. I do understand what Hartley is trying to say, but I would also add that women (or the person holding this “emotional” responsibility) can also fall in to the trap of inventing some of those burdens. It’s not quite fair to resent the other party for not caring about buying a birthday gift for their 2nd cousin-once-removed.

    In our house, we might have a little of what Hartley refers to, but not much. It may be that from day one I just didn’t take on many of those mental responsibilities. I don’t buy gifts for the in-laws, I don’t take on the meal planning…When or son was in school, yes, I did end up being the one tracking forms, activities, deadlines…but I just jumped in and started doing it. If I hadn’t, my husband would have. When I hear a woman say “I can’t get my husband to help me with the household chores,” I cringe a bit because the “help me” part says a lot.

    The thing about relationships is that people make so many assumptions, and start falling into roles when we really should start from scratch and talk about what our expectations are.

    • Agreed on both points, though I might rephrase “invented burdens” as “a difference in standards.” I have higher standards for neatness than my wife, so I end up doing more tidying up. Sometimes I feel a little resentful about it, but she has higher standards in other areas, so it balances out.

      Re: assumptions and expectations, that’s a great point.

      • Julie

        Ha ha, yes – “a difference in standards” is much better.

  3. Marc

    Call me fortunate (I most certainly am), but I am grateful for the opportunity to take on the emotional labor of our household, and it is both recognized and appreciated by my out-of-this-world-amazing girlfriend. I suspect that this may be the case due to the reversal of gender roles (meaning that she sees the emotional labor as her responsibility as the woman, and thus is in tune to my taking it on). Not sure how this contributes to the conversation here, but wanted to chime in anyway.

    • Right, it might be the case that men who take on the primary emotional labor/mental household management role are more appreciated by their female partners, on average, for doing so. And in such cases the work doesn’t feel invisible.

  4. Not directly connected but this discussion is making me wonder if you’ve ever written about the Bank of Pain? I think it was the best roommate type shared household cleaning system I’ve been part of. 🙂

    • I haven’t written about it, but I remember it well. A rotating chore wheel, with a $5/day penalty for each day chores undone. I’m not sure it worked to keep our house clean, but we consistently had enough in there to go out together to nice restaurants.

      • I remember it being clean most of the time? When it wasn’t the adventures the penalties paid for built community spirit. For me, that amount if money was motivating! And going out with you and Kia without any worry about paying was fun and relaxing in a different way than just going out is.

  5. Jennifer

    Ugh, this is a sore spot in our marriage. I do *all* of the management tasks (I think a better term for this, which I read in a different article, is “mental load”), and I feel very unappreciated for them. If we didn’t have a kid there would be much less of it, of course. I’m not sure how I got to be “the one” but I tend to be better at detail-oriented things and organizing in general. We have talked about it, but my husband gets very defensive and counters with how unappreciated he feels for making more money. I don’t mind doing more of the household management but it would be nice to hear a thank you sometimes. The system you and your wife have sounds very healthy. Obviously, this is something we need to work on…

    I do appreciate articles like this for naming something that bothered me, but I didn’t really know how to articulate, and also that I wasn’t alone in experiencing it.

    • I like “mental load”–that’s a much better term than emotional labor, even if there is some overlap. In regards to managing kids’ lives, much of this work does seem to fall on moms more than dads. I know I feel better when I’m more checked in to the details of my daughter’s life, but it can be overwhelming (times tables practice, reading log, good nutrition, etc.). I’m glad there are two of us and one of her.

      Good luck with increasing the mutual appreciation, it’s doable!

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