Today’s episode of Best of Both Worlds covers the idea of moving toward a 50-50 split on the home front. A lot of housework can be outsourced, but someone still needs to manage it, and do the tasks that are not easily outsourced. Parents want to be deeply involved in their children’s lives; they just also want their partners to be equally involved, since kids take a lot of work.
While Sarah and I recorded this episode a few weeks ago, based on a listener question, its release today allows me to rope in an article that’s been making the rounds. Numerous readers sent me Gemma Hartley’s piece for Harper’s Bazaar on “emotional labor.” Her opening anecdote is about asking her husband to arrange a cleaning service as a present to her. It wasn’t so much about the clean floors as it was about having someone else ask for recommendations, call companies to get bids, choose one, do any paperwork, and book them to come. She didn’t want this all on her plate, because she felt it would be exhausting. So she requested it as a gift. Her husband called one company, balked at the price, and then cleaned the bathrooms himself, which she felt misread the whole situation, since she suspected she’d have to ask him to clean the bathrooms again the next time. She wrote about feeling like a nag when trying to get her husband to do stuff around the house. He was willing to do whatever she asked, but she resented having to ask. Or as we put it in the podcast, “Having to ask for things is hard,” particularly for women who are not socialized to ask for things. Shouldn’t he feel equally motivated? If he did, wouldn’t it ease her burden?
I love Gemma’s writing (and have been thrilled to be cited by her in the past! See this and this ). I would say I have mixed feelings on this article, which is more about household management than what I tend to think of as emotional labor. I’d define emotional labor more as the relationship maintenance that women often do: remembering their mother-in-law’s birthday, for instance, and reminding their husband to do something about it. Or being the parent who’s home in the afternoon and gets dumped on when a kid had a bad day at school. By the time Dad shows up at dinner the kid has worked through it. I think there is something else to be written on that, but whether the topic is household management or emotional labor, Sarah and I hear over and over again that it’s easy to fall into gender roles, and that women who feel like they married “woke” men still wind up fighting time-worn battles.
I do know in married, heterosexual couples, that women do the majority of household management. (A not unrelated point: In such couples, men also traditionally work longer hours for pay. Indeed, total hours worked — both market and non-market labor — is, over the population, shockingly similar, though obviously society does still tend to respect labor that earns wages more). Many men will “chip in” or “help out.” The issue Gemma is getting at is that household management takes brain space in a way that simply folding the laundry after being directed to do so does not. Using up this brain space can detract from other things. Time spent thinking about the kids’ activity schedule is time not spent coming up with your next article idea (except for Gemma and me…it is. Because we write about this stuff. But anyway).
As Gemma notes, her husband is not a bad guy. She notes that he always does the dishes. She mentions that she does the laundry. This struck me as a relatively fair split; both are tasks that need to be done constantly, so many couples might do well with splitting them. As for the opening anecdote, and her anger that her husband only called one company, it struck me that she might be a maximizer married to a satisficer. That’s not an inherently gender-based thing (though women may be socialized to have higher standards around the house). When my husband and I decided we wanted a cleaning service, I also only called one service. Are they the best? The most economical? I have no clue. But they do roughly what I want done for what I felt was a reasonable price. I failed to see how anyone’s life would be improved by my taking several more hours to meet with other services.
Anyway, one way to advance toward a 50-50 split is to lower your standards.
Another, which we talk about in the podcast, is to stop fretting about asking. It need not be a source of guilt or exhaustion. While women often feel they should do something if someone asks, which means they feel bad about asking, men might not feel the same way. If you believe the “men are from Mars” psychology, they will say no if they don’t want to do something, so you may as well ask. No harm, no foul. Or you could simply announce a fair split, and let them react as they will. “Saturday will be my morning to sleep in and Sunday will be yours.” Or “I will be staying at the office late on Tuesday to get through some important stuff. If there’s a night you would like me to cover for you, please let me know.”
The other is to realize you might be closer to 50-50 than you think. And one way to do that is to realize that there is always a danger in the sorts of personal essays that run in Harper’s Bazaar. We don’t get the other side. The other person can’t defend themselves. This is one reason I rarely complain about my husband in what I write, even though I feel like there may occasionally be legitimate things to complain about! Because I’m sure if he were given to writing personal essays, he could find legitimate things to complain about too.
In fact, I’ve taken the liberty of writing the essay he could write if he wanted to complain about my skimping on household management/emotional labor. If he wants to submit to Harper’s Bazaar, it’s ready to go!
“First, let’s talk about the dry cleaning. I do not wear 100 percent of the dry-clean-only clothes in this house, but I am definitely the only person visiting the cleaners. Laura acts like she doesn’t even know where the dry cleaner is. She actually threw a fit when she needed an outfit for a speech and it was still at the cleaners, as though she were not an adult capable of driving herself over to the cleaners and paying to pick up her clothes, as people do at a commercial business. It isn’t a private club that only I am capable of accessing.
“I read Gemma’s article in which she mentions her husband leaving the gift wrap in the center of the room for two days. Only two days? Items appear in places in our house and then sit there for months. Years. Right now there is a broken office chair sitting in the master bedroom. Laura said something about getting a new chair for her office, and then she put the old one up there where I trip on it on the way to the bathroom every morning. I think she thinks she’ll try to re-cover it like she’s the Pioneer Woman. She will not actually succeed in this project. But will it be moved? I’m guessing it will still be there at Christmas. Also, her sink will still be broken then. Instead of buying a new pair of faucets and calling a plumber to install them, she just started using my sink. And leaving stuff by my sink. I finally asked, very nicely, what the cardboard box sitting next to the sink was. It turned out it was the contact lenses she had ordered a month ago, and never opened and put away. When I asked, she opened it. But it’s still on the counter. I’m guessing it will be there at Christmas too.
“Speaking of Christmas, lots of kid movies come out around then. And you know who will take the children to all of them? Me. Laura refuses to set foot in a movie theater. I don’t mind taking the kids to see Wonder Woman, but The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature? Captain Underpants?
“Another place Laura has never set foot: a liquor store in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s like she thinks the Blue Moon fairies simply appear with beer and wine, including a variety of bottles at different price points, so we can bring appropriate bottles to parties as gifts. I would also add that she has never cleaned the pool filter, changed a lightbulb in our house, put air in a kid’s bike tire, or charged the batteries in those car-toys the kids drive around the backyard. She expects me to handle all things electronic, like figuring out how to download the kids’ games or tape TV shows the kids want to watch. It’s not even safe to assume basic competence. The other day she came hunting for me while I was in the bathroom because the home computer had one of those standard warning messages about a download that Windows puts up all the time. She didn’t dare touch the computer until I figured it out. She will say things such as ‘we should have mums in our yard’ or ‘we should tape Caillou’ but we both know she means that I should do it.
“I do almost all the bill-paying around here. I make sure our assets are in a properly balanced portfolio. She’ll make a big deal about the fact that she puts money in the kids’ school lunch accounts, but she doesn’t even think about plenty of other kid stuff, like that our water doesn’t have fluoride in it here. So the kids need updated prescriptions for ‘tooth vitamins,’ which I get from the dentist (when I bring the children to the dentist, I might add), and I make sure the prescriptions get to the pharmacy, and I’m almost always the one picking them up. I am also the one distributing the vitamins to the kids in the morning. I am 100 percent sure that on the mornings I am not home, no one gets a tooth vitamin. Does she not care about their teeth???”
And so on it could go. In any given couple, it might be worth trying to write such a personal essay in the voice of your partner some time. It might be enlightening.
I am not saying that household managerial work is evenly split in many two-parent families, but it’s probably not 99-1. And as for emotional labor, I’d ask women to consider that there is emotional labor in growing up being socialized to feel like you need to provide for your family financially whatever your partner winds up doing. There is emotional labor in reporting daily to a career you don’t love, but that you do because people have been telling you since birth that people will judge you on your income. There is emotional labor in knowing that any requests for flexibility or a reduced workload for family reasons will be perceived far more negatively than they will for your female colleagues. Not all men face this labor, but many still do. In a 50-50 world, we need to see and respect all kinds of work.