Emotional Labour

A couple of weeks ago I shared an article on my Facebook page about Emotional Labour.  I had heard the author of the article, Gemma Hartley, being interviewed on a podcast.  After listening to the episode I read her article (which I have linked to at the end of this post).  While I agree Emotional Labour exists, I think it’s one of those topics that women feel they have to be united on.  In doing so I believe we’ve turned a molehill into a mountain. And I fear we have started a war that men will never be able to win.

Gemma’s article is called ‘Women Aren’t Nags - We Are Just Fed Up’.  The concept of emotional labour is explained in reference to one person (usually the woman) being the manager of the household.  As managers of the household we are lumped with thankless tasks such as paying bills, grocery shopping, cleaning and making the kids lunches.  The tasks men never think of doing, or don’t do unless asked.  Sometimes a woman will delegate these tasks to the man, which translates to ‘asking him to do something he should have instinctively known to do’.  Women find this emotional labour exhausting and apparently something needs to change.

By something I mean women believe men should take on an equal proportion of this emotional labour.  This will make our lives easier, we won’t have mini breakdowns, we’ll stop being a nagging wife and peace will reign once more.  

Everyone is going to have strong (and maybe different) opinions about this topic, which is absolutely fine.  I completely understand why women are ready to pick up their signs and march down the street in the name of emotional labour equality.  However I won’t be joining them, and today I’m going to tell you why.

When we hear the words emotional labour we automatically think of the tasks we do.  Sometimes they are thankless, and they often become tiring.  There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t curse having to do the grocery shopping.  There's many a night when I don’t want to decide what we're having for dinner.  And I can’t think of any time where I was ecstatic to clean the house.  It’s easy to get frustrated by these tasks and wish someone would step in and do them for us. 

Because we think of emotional labour as those thankless tasks we do, it is easy to pass over what our partners think of as their own emotional labour tasks.  If I explained the concept of emotional labour to my fiancé I’m sure he would list tasks such as taking the rubbish to the tip, fixing fences, mowing lawns and chopping firewood.  These are the tasks I don’t think twice about, and I’m sure he finds thankless as well.  

It’s important to think of emotional labour outside of those tasks we do individually.  Emotional labour is everything that goes into ensuring a household runs smoothly.  And if we are going to ask men to take on 50% of the responsibility for our tasks, we better make sure we are willing to take on 50% of their tasks as well.

I think we also need to remember that men and women are created differently.  Research shows our brains work in different ways.  We simply do not think the same way.  In the podcast episode I mentioned above, one of the hosts tells the following story.  Her partner called her on his way home from work to ask if she’d like anything picked up.  She became frustrated as she felt he should have known they were out of mushrooms.  Why was it up to her to be the only one that knew this?  

This takes me back to the making mountains out of molehills.  To be honest I couldn’t quite see the problem.  He’d rung to see if there was anything they needed.  Just tell him you need mushrooms picked up.  He’d bring the mushrooms home and all would be well with the world.  That now brings me to how men think differently.  If her partner had gotten home and there were no mushrooms in the house, do you know what I think would have happened?  He would have either gone back out to get mushrooms, or made dinner without mushrooms.  I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have turned into a big issue.

As my fiancé likes to remind me … he survived perfectly well on his own before I came along.  Bills got paid; he cooked, cleaned, did the washing and even managed to remember the odd birthday.  He just did things his way and in his own time.  He also likes to remind me that he can’t help me with things around the house if I have already done them, or if I don’t leave him anything to do.  It’s not that he expects me to ‘do everything’, it’s that there’s nothing left to do!

Going back to the original article, and the fact men think differently to women, there are two stories I want to talk about.  The author of the article wanted one thing for her birthday, and that was to not have to clean the bathrooms.  In her head this meant her husband would organise for a cleaning company to come in, while he took the kids out to give her some much needed alone time.  She then became upset when he decided the best and cheapest option was for him to clean the bathrooms himself, but unfortunately this left her looking after the kids.  Firstly lets give the man some credit for giving her what she had originally asked for, which was not to have to clean the bathrooms.  Secondly, be specific!  If Gemma had explained right from the beginning exactly what she wanted and why, her husband wouldn’t have ended up feeling like he had failed in her expectations. 

The second story related to her having a mini breakdown over a box her husband had left on the floor in their wardrobe.  For two days she walked around that box, becoming more frustrated and upset.  I think she thought her husband was either being lazy, or thought that if it stayed there long enough she would put it away.  I think he was going to do it in his own time.  Again … guys think and operate differently to us.  Do you know what would have stopped all this emotional anguish?  If she’d said, ‘honey, could you put that box back on the shelf please’.  Not exactly rocket science is it.  

Something else that gets talked about (a lot) in regard to this topic is that ‘emotional labour tasks’ automatically fall to women.  That due to our society and culture we were brought up thinking women do these tasks, while men don’t.  We watched our Mums run the household and have dinner on the table when Dad came home from work.  So again we hold up our picket signs and chant that this must change.  But before we get all worked up … 

The majority of our own household tasks have become my responsibility, not because I am a woman, but because I work less hours than my fiancé does.  I work 30 hours a week.  He works 60.  That doesn’t leave him a lot of time to look in the fridge to see if we are out of mushrooms.  Then there is the stay-at-home Dads.  They are the ones doing the thankless tasks while their wife is at work.  So I’m not so sure it’s a gender issue.  I think it’s more of a ‘who has time to fit this into their day’ scenario. 

Before I finish up there is one last thing I want to say.  If you are organised, haven’t put too much on your plate and have established routines, emotional labour isn’t that emotional.  I think it becomes emotional when our lives seem overwhelming.  When we feel so busy and stressed by all we've said ‘yes’ to, that suddenly not having any mushrooms in the fridge becomes a bigger deal than it should be.  

Every household is different, so I don’t believe as women we should be declaring that men MUST take on 50% of the responsibility of emotional labour.  I also think we need to be careful what we define as emotional labour, and look outside the square.  Those tasks our partners do, they count as well.  Yes there needs to be fairness in how much emotional labour each person in the relationship takes on, but it doesn’t have to be equal as such. I don’t believe it’s a one size fits all scenario.  It comes down to trial and error.  We’ve found what works well for us.  And there are always mushrooms in the fridge.

Mentioned Article:  Women Aren't Nags - We're Just Fed Up

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