As we prepare for barbecues, pool parties, or Hurricane Dorian, many mothers are finishing up the potato salad, getting the kids dressed, checking flashlight batteries, or doing laundry before the power goes out. Their lists of domestic tasks have doubled or even tripled in the face of a holiday–hurricane twofer.
Although Labor Day is ostensibly about “real” labor and “real” jobs, it’s also a day forged through other types of labor: domestic and emotional. Every holiday requires event planning, homemaking, and getting people together. And unfortunately, the burden of this labor tends to fall on women.
Before the men chime in with wails that they do in fact do housework, let me explain: it’s not that you don’t do it. It’s that women do it more often.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, men in the United States spend 150.2 minutes a day — about 17.5 hours a week — doing unpaid labor. Women spend 243.2 minutes doing unpaid labor each day — about 28.4 hours a week. (Source)
If that’s not true in your household, great! But in many households, it falls to the women to manage the bills, plan the parties, and take care of the house. And there’s another component: emotional labor, which is akin to project management in a workplace. Except you usually don’t get paid for it.
How Emotional Labor Supports Domestic Work
- Even if you do chores, who makes the chore wheel in your house?
- Even if you pick up the kids, who posts the weekly schedule on the fridge?
- Even if you sign it, who buys the holiday cards?
- Even if you buy groceries, who writes the grocery list?
If you live alone, you probably do both. But in households with men and women, the latter usually end up doing the planning and organization that enables the domestic labor.
None of this work is paid; this is the emotional labor that goes hand-in-hand with domestic labor.
It isn’t necessarily that women are “better at the little things,” as I’ve been told — it’s that women are socialized from a young age to think about these things, and being constantly instructed to “take care” does tend to encourage you to get good at it.
I’ve done the bulk of emotional labor in my relationship, and it’s exhausting. My husband constantly asks me to remind him to call the doctor or pharmacy, and my attempts to get him to use a planner or bullet journal have been in vain. It falls to me to keep track of our pantry, to schedule and pay our bills, to assign who does which chore. When it comes to setting up his insurance plan or checking his credit score, I have to hold his hand through it. This is an improvement from when we first started dating, when he never went to the doctor at all and had no idea what his credit score was, but I can’t help but wonder how I managed to learn how to take care of a house, balance my checkbook, and do laundry without shrinking my clothes, while a man several years older than me learned none of this.
It isn’t necessarily that women are “better at the little things.”
My husband is a feminist and is certainly not lazy, so I had to ask him why he felt so comfortable with letting his wife do so many things for him. “You make me responsible for everything,” I said once during an argument. We ended up talking about emotional labor, and he revealed that when he was young, his mother simply did everything for him and his brother. She picked up their toys, she did their laundry, she cooked for them, and she managed their entire lives. The reason why he, as an adult, felt helpless when it came to managing his finances, housework, and diet became clear: he simply wasn’t equipped to do so. He’d spent 18 years having it all done for him, and as an adult, he continued to have girlfriends who’d simply take it upon themselves to “take care” of him. Unfortunately, many women feel like that is their role.
Millennials and the Gendered Nature of Adulting
I was handed chores at a young age (yes, it’s true, millennials were handed more than participation trophies). I grew up with a strong sense of personal responsibility, and I knew how to sew, cook, weed, and do laundry by the time I was seven. As I learned later in life, many boys my age were not given this instruction. I suspect that the stereotype of the lazy millennial who can’t “adult” stems from boomers’ neglect in teaching their sons how to perform basic life skills.
I dated a man in his late twenties who rarely did laundry, and when he did, he overstuffed the washer to the point that nothing got clean. His excuse was that “mom always did it for me.” I had a male friend who drove three hours home every weekend to have his mother do his laundry. I dated another man who ate primarily ramen and didn’t know that you had to keep opened condiments in the fridge. I had a male roommate who was blessed with a huge, gorgeous house left to him by his father. He quickly trashed it because “I just don’t have time to clean.”
Many men don’t even think about what goes into “adulting.” They have a vague sense of how to get by, but they rely upon their female partners to handle a lot of the workload. It’s not that they’re sexist — they’re just used to having mothers or sisters who did the bulk of the work. They assume it will get done somehow, and indeed, their girlfriends or wives end up doing it. You can lead a husband to the laundry room, but you can’t make him do the laundry.
Emotional Labor in the Workplace
I don’t mean to imply that you’re never paid for emotional labor. Indeed, you are paid for it (or underpaid, as it were) if you work in customer service. You may have noticed that a lot of cashiers, baristas, and other people at the forefront of customer service are women. It’s no accident: they’re there because women are disproportionately expected to be so pleasant that they can make every customer feel good, while male employees are given “manly” jobs such as stocking.
Emotional labor is primarily the bearing of responsibility for social–emotional activity. In the workplace, that can mean anticipating a customer’s desires and working to cultivate a situation in which they’ll spend more (or working to curtail their anger that their coupon wasn’t accepted). It can mean anticipating roadblocks in a project and spending extra time organizing your team’s resources. In the domestic sphere, that can mean anticipating household expenses and working to keep your family within their budget. It can mean tracking when someone needs to take their medicine and setting reminders. And in all these situations, women disproportionately pick up these tasks. They have to do the impossible: predict the future while picking up all the pieces of the present.
With rare exception, throughout my grade school and college years, every group project I had was led by a female student. Most of the event organizers I encountered as an adult were women. I’ve met countless women who organized volunteer groups, bake sales, food drives, you name it. It’s a lot of work to call people, make assignments, gather resources… this is the emotional labor that becomes coded as “women’s work.”
Yet this work is disregarded or even mocked by men who characterize this “women’s work” as frivolous. You never hear anyone extolling the labor that goes into organizing a bake sale.
Women have to do the impossible: predict the future while picking up all the pieces of the present.
As the gendered division of labor becomes more equitable, I expect that emotional labor will follow suit. For now, I recommend the following to anyone who feels like they bear an undue burden:
- Communicate with your partner or boss. If you’ve unwittingly become the “office mom” or your partner expects you to plan out all the housework, express to them that you need to share the responsibility. Don’t be a martyr and take it all on — even if you can!
- Make a plan of action and let it fly. If you really want your husband to perform more of the emotional labor, you can’t simply ask them to do so. Many of them don’t know how. Provide a basic guide and then leave it to them to execute. Don’t micromanage.
- Establish boundaries. If you have to smile all day at your job, so be it. But you should never accept abuse from customers, and if your boss insists that you do, it’s time to find another job. Take every break you’re given and decompress with cathartic sites like NotAlwaysRight.com.
Domestic and emotional labor are valid forms of work and deserve respect. This Labor Day, thank the woman who’s busting her ass to make sure you have a nice holiday — even if it’s yourself.