When my partner first moved in with me, sharing space with him and my young adult children wasn’t hard to be honest, as they all get along. When he raised the concept of us moving in together I must admit that, while I was looking forward to it, I also knew from experience that cohabitating always involves teething problems. Having been living sans partner for some years, I decided, in the name of adulting, to talk about the things I thought might be potential pot holes. What I really needed was a partner in the true sense of the word. Someone who would equally share the housework, sure, but also the emotional load.
Of course he agreed to all of that willingly, but in truth, I had doubts. Why is it that this issues remains one of gender and that women generally end up shouldering the lion’s share of emotional labour in in this day and age?
Emotional Labour , as a term, was first coined by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart published in 1983. Arlie described emotional labour as having to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. In more recent times the term ’emotional labour’ has been adopted in feminist conversations. In 2017 writer Gemma Hartely wrote a piece for Harper’s Bizarre entitled Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up. This article about her breaking point with carrying the emotional load for her husband and kids subsequently went viral, and for good reason.
Gemma Hartley’s story resonated with women worldwide.
So, what the hell is emotional labour?
While there have been different interpretations, one thing has become clear. It’s not just about housework and the division of cleaning duties on the home front. Emotional Labour refers to carrying the emotional responsibility of thinking about the needs of all members of your household, often above your own needs. All the thankless tasks that women tend to do. Yes, things like juggling work with childcare responsibilities, grocery shopping and housework, but it’s more than this.
It’s about all the tasks you perform above and beyond the endless routine of housework. Being responsible for remembering everyone’s birthdays, including your partner’s family, as well as buying gifts. Or being the one to organise family parties, catch ups with friends, checking dates and booking venues. It might be feeding pets so they stay alive, and picking up after the dog; being responsible for everyone’s doctor, dentist or psychology appointments. Remembering parent teacher interviews, and dropping kids at school or part time jobs on time. Remembering which bills need to be paid and when so everyone can enjoy the privelage of electricity and phone credit.
Many people reading this will be part of the sandwich generation, shouldering the responsibility of taking care of children as well as ageing parents, which adds an additional layer of stress to the mix. During this global pandemic, even more responsibility is added if you are needing to be mindful of the mental wellbeing of everyone else in the house, helping children with remote learning, and teaching your elderly parents how to navigate video chats. All while trying to negotiate intimate relationships, nurture friendships and juggle paid work outside of the family.
Simply put, the incredible pressure of thinking about everyone all of the time can be mentally exhausting.
In 2018, SBS and Macquarie University joined forces to create a landmark Australian survey looking at Gender Equality. Within households, they found that 86% of women said they still did the majority of the housework, while 73% of the men surveyed said they were the primary breadwinner. 72% of Australians believe gender discrimination exists in Australia today and 65% agreed that more needs to be done to address gender inequality.
So, on top of all of the mental load we carry, it should be noted that women still do more housework than their male partners even when they are working comparable hours outside of the home. Emotional labour includes women having to ask their partners or children to do tasks around the house, rather than them using their own initiative. Clearly there is still a huge imbalance that in 2020, we are still needing to ask men to do chores?
Many women are feeling wrung out. We’re tired.
The ways in which men can change this dynamic seems so simple. If you see a bin that is overflowing, empty it. Does the pet’s water bowl needs filling? You know where the tap is. If you need something from the supermarket, go and buy it or at the very list write it on a shopping list so the burden isn’t always on one person. Add your family’s birthdays to your work calendar and you figure out what to buy, where to buy it and then get it gift wrapped. Are you side stepping the kid’s runners left at the front door? Perhaps you could pick them up and put them away or heard the kids to do it. You’ve stepped mud on the floor? You know where the vacuum is! Pay more attention to the family dynamic and think about how you can help shoulder the emotional burden of the needs of children or parents.
To buy into the narrative that men are incapable of sharing the emotional load is to do half of the human race a disservice. They are as capable as women, regardless of our hard wiring to shoulder some emotional responsibility. There are plenty of men who carry the load, but it is overwhelmingly gender biased. For example, single fathers are more likely to receive offers of help from family and friends than single mothers where it is assumed women can just carry the load without consequence to mental and physical health.
Gemma Hartley has since turned her viral essay into a landmark and aptly named book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward and has subsequently written a follow up article for Harper’s Bizarre, Men Everywhere Finally Understand Emotional Labour.
I don’t believe that every man is understanding it at all.
In recent conversations I’ve had with friends, many men seem to expect praise and thanks for doing any housework, or activities they do with their kids. How often do women get praised for the thankless and endless hours of unpaid labour and for carrying the mental load of the family? I do believe praising others is something women tend do on autopilot. I catch myself occassionally doing this too.
The opposing argument of course is that men are doing more now than in previous generations, and as true as this may be, we are still far from living with equality, both on the housework front but more importantly on the emotional labour front. We don’t want to be told we’re asking too much, or be told we’re too fussy because we want equal help on both fronts.
It isn’t lost on me that I was raised by a left wing feminist who ironically was a stay at home parent who chose to cook my father breakfast most days, nor that I learnt to clean on auto pilot from her. I have started to notice that my young adult children who live at home have become accustomed to me simply doing things. They can all clean, and they can do it well, but I am still needing to ask them. This of course is learnt behaviour, and I concede that I’ve contributed to that learning. If they leave it, I will no doubt do it.
The conversation around emotional labour will continue to rage on, on the basis that it hasn’t ever been solved. Giving a name to it was a start, but since 1983 not much has evolved on this front. As women, we need to keep checking ourselves when we allow this behaviour from partners and children, and to encourage them to use their own initiative.
Surely in an age of woke, feminist allied men, blokes can understand the simple premise that one person thinking for all is exhausting. Being taken for granted isn’t actually a sexy concept for anyone. I guess time will tell.