Last fall, journalist Gemma Hartley wrote a piece for Harper’s Bazaar called “Women aren’t nags, we’re just fed up.” Calling attention to “emotional labor” — the hidden mental work that women do to manage households and keep everyone else happy — the piece hit a nerve and has now been viewed something like a billion times.
Her follow-up book on the topic, Fed Up, is on sale today. Sarah and I were thrilled that she took some time from her busy schedule to talk with us about what she’s learned. Among the highlights of today’s Best of Both Worlds:
A proper definition of emotional labor. Originally, the phrase “emotional labor” was used to describe the work that (predominantly female) service workers did to keep their clients happy. Think flight attendants putting up with drunk comments from first class passengers because clients believed that the attendants’ jobs required being cheerfully attentive. Hartley has expanded on this to rope in the relationship work that women often do (extended family management, for instance, like remembering birthdays and picking out presents) plus the mental load of managing a household. Couples might split calling babysitters, but who knows that sitters need to be called? Who asks the other partner to call, making sure to ask in a way that seems nice and not nagging? Hartley’s definition includes all of this mental work which, she argues, can be exhausting. It consumes mental energy that could go to other things (professional advancement, community organizing, self care…)
Her husband is not a jerk. Readers of the original article could be forgiven for wondering. I suspected he wasn’t; it’s hard to picture a smart and wonderful woman like Hartley marrying someone who was. So…I was very curious what her husband thought of the whole Harper’s phenomenon. Hartley stated that he is supportive of her career and has a thick skin. Nonetheless, he was a bit concerned. Hartley says they had a discussion and realized that most women wouldn’t read the article and think about his faults, they’d think about their own lives. In any case, the Hartley family has never had regular outside childcare for their young kids; the whole reason Gemma was able to write this book is that her husband stayed home with their kids for four months while she cranked out the manuscript. (During this time, he shouldered some emotional labor!)
Hartley doesn’t think that “do less” is the answer. Hartley believes that emotional labor is valuable. It’s what keeps the world humming along. The key to equality is recognizing that it is work, and that women alone don’t have to take it on. She advocates for constant communication about these issues in couples. Of course…
Gatekeeping is a phenomenon. Sometimes women (and perhaps some men!) walk around with narratives about what “has” to happen; sometimes these requirements are debatable. As one example, the house does not, by law, have to be picked up before you go to bed at night. There is no 11 p.m. home inspection. Hartley talked about some of the stories she had to learn to let go of, such as that the towels had to be folded a certain way, or the dishwasher loaded in a particular fashion. Some standards are about hard-won knowledge of effectiveness; sometimes it’s just about control.
It’s human nature to discount the work our partners do. I know I’ve done this. I talk about the example of my husband managing multiple fantasy football teams for our kids, since they wanted to sign up for an extended family league…but haven’t been paying close attention (much akin to what would happen, I suspect, if we got a pet). So he’s looking at player stats, even though he has very limited interest in pro football, and making trades, because our daughter finds it exciting that her team beat Grandma’s. I don’t exactly sit around fretting that I should be doing half of this, because I don’t put a high value on it, but it is definitely emotional labor. I would note that there is also emotional labor involved in doing things to keep your job, and advance at your job, when you are providing the majority of household income, or the household’s benefits, which in heterosexual couples is more likely to fall on the male half vs. the female half (though this is definitely evolving).
We took issue with the characterization of outsourcing. In Fed Up, Hartley writes that when mothers work, “their emotional labor shifts to hired help…this work is poorly paid and falls almost entirely to women, specifically women of color…” Longtime readers of this blog know that I think this talking point often just serves to keep women from advancing professionally. It is quite possible to be a good employer of household employees. Someone who follows all labor laws, pays well, and manages with the same professionalism they use in the traditional workplace has nothing to feel guilty about. I should also add that paying well is a great way to get people who excel at household management. That said…
This is definitely a new front in the pursuit of equality. Though Sarah and I argued at points with Hartley (actually, the recording sounds less combative than I remember it…), I know we do both spend a lot of time thinking about how to keep the mental load of household management from undermining our careers. Part of our obsession with planning (and planners!) is about keeping some things out of constant mental repetition. Figuring out what we can outsource is also about making sure our (limited) attention remains focused on the things we do best.
Anyway, much food for thought! Let us know what you think, and how emotional labor winds up shaking out in your house.