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.
46 thoughts on “Podcast: Fed Up author Gemma Hartley and emotional labor”
This was really interesting to me because I always feel like the exception in all these conversations in that I feel that my husband does his fair share of emotional labor. Like today he’s at my son’s well child visit, which he also scheduled himself. He does a lot of planning – booking vacations, all the paperwork for various applications we had to submit, the taxes. He takes care of scheduling the cleaners, the taxes and payments for our nanny, the contracts – he does all of that. On the other hand, I do all the meal planning and take care of what we feed our child etc. I actually took issue with Gemma saying that 50:50 is a pipe dream – I really don’t think there’s any reason why it should be.
As to why it’s this way for us – I think part of it is just my husband’s nature – he’s a planner and I’m by nature not. I also grew up with a lot of household help so to some extent I just wasn’t trained to see chores and immediately leap to doing them. (But I have gotten a LOT better.) I will say the one area where I tend to do a lot more emotional labor is when it’s something related to how the larger world will perceive us. Like I’m the one having palpitations because our guest bathroom shower curtain is stained or our son’s clothes are completely mismatched, while he couldn’t care less. But on all the essential stuff, he’s really got my back.
@Anu- I agree that 50-50 isn’t a pipe dream, particularly in families where there is close to a 50-50 split of hours worked for pay. I also think, given a lot of the notes I’ve gotten on this, that a lot of our listeners/readers’ families are in something approaching that.
I really don’t think 50:50 is so out there. I feel like we are pretty close. My husband is at home before school with our kids and I am at work. He deals with breakfast, lunches and getting everyone out the door. He books vacations, does the taxes and finances, maintains the budget. He goes to the farmers market, costco and grocery store on weekends. He coaches my son’s soccer team. He is often the one to remember to sign up our kids for after school activities. He is always the one to research gifts for our kids. I do the late afternoon/evening, mostly deal with teachers, meal plan and do our online grocery order, amazon orders (mostly), kids clothes and some after school driving. I schedule our au pair, but he pays her. I plan 1 kindergarten snack week, he plans the other.
I think this pretty even distribution of labor stems from a time when he was the primary parent. During the recession he as under-employed and I was a medical intern working 80 hours per week. Our second child was born during this time and he really was the one who did the great bulk of the emotional labor. Things naturally evened out as I progressed through training and worked less and he ramped back up as the economy improved. It wasn’t planned but I think our family benefited from that.
Gillian – this is so fascinating. I have a very different experience than you. My husband and I are both professionals with busy career, earn a similar income, but I carry far more than 50% of the mental load. For a long time now, I’ve thought that where things went wrong for us is during my maternity leaves. I got used to doing things for the kid(s) and home, and then he never really took back his fair share when I went back to full-time work. I a way, I feel that you were “lucky” that he was under-employed at the time.
Rinna – there is actually lots of data to support your experience. This is one of the biggest benefits of paternity leave. Men who take paternity leave are much more likely to carry more of the domestic burden years later. I completely agree that my husband’s underemployment in 2008 was one of the best things that happened to us as a family. I don’t mean to be flip because financially it was a real hardship, but as far as how it helped shape our family and marital dynamics it was critical.
Rhina – I had the exact same response to Gillian’s post. We were a lot more “even” before I was off on maternity leave, unpaid the first time around and lucky to be paid the second time. I started doing more “since I was home” that I continue to do 8 years later. I know there has been progress, and I hope to continue to see more companies not only offer but encourage paternity leave, especially when there is flexibility to take it after another parent has taken their parental leave. I recognize that doesn’t help everyone – the self-employed, for example – but it’s a start!
Ooh, I wonder if there’s something to this idea re: 50-50 split and the husband being off for a time period. I’m definitely more of a worrier, so I do a lot of “stress research” but I know my husband is also thinking about the things that worry me. We’re also pretty close to 50-50, and I wonder if it’s because he was the primary caregiver for our daughter for 2-3 days a week when I went back to work after mat leave. We did this horrible flexible work shared schedule thing where he worked Wed-Sat, 10 hours/day or more, and I worked Mon/Tue, so we were only all home together on Sundays. We made it work but I wouldn’t do that again. However, he is much more “in the weeds” with kid and house stuff than a lot of people I see, and I wonder if it’s because of that time. BUT, he also works from home (like me) so maybe he’s also reminded of all that “stuff” all day because he’s right there.
Forgot to mention, when I was pregnant with kid #2, he was taking a year off work , so he handled most of the kid stuff while I was working/going to a million drs appointments/exhausted. It was really great to have him around once I was on mat leave so we could really divide and conquer.
I especially enjoyed this episode. Not only is emotional labor a topic that resonates so deeply with your reader base– it was also very enjoyable to listen to a bit of debate on time management topics. Bringing differing viewpoints onto the show (when discussed amicably, of course) adds a nice dimension and makes for a more nuanced examination of the subject at hand. Would love to see a few more debate-like discussions worked into future podcast episodes to keep things interesting. Thanks for all you are sharing, and keep up the great work!
Gosh – I really HATE the narrative that outsourcing “women’s work” usually results in abusing low-income women (of any colour). It’s so untrue and unfair. I mean, when guys outsource typical “men’s work” like mowing the lawn, is anybody worried about a man of colour having to do it for them? In a free society, all of these women and men have a choice as to whether to take a job or not. While there are definitely cases where employees treat their outsourced workers poorly or unfairly, it is the exception, not the rule. I very much agree that there is an emotional load that many women carry (I definitely do in my family), I’m so turned off by this part of the argument that I can’t even be bothered to read her book.
I totally agree. I’ve heard Hartley on another podcast & really disagree with how she characterizes outsourcing, particularly as it relates to childcare.
I also find there is a distinction between mental load and emotional labor. I deal much more w mental load – schedules, appointments and lessons than trying to regulate everyone’s emotions and keep everyone in my family happy (there is more in the book about this than covered in the interview).
The book will be a pass for me too. I really wish this would be treated in a more rigorous way (hint hint Laura) than done here, which is focused on personal anecdotes of the author.
Wait, what? If I need help, and someone out there is offering it for a fee, and I pay a fair price for it, I’m abusing them?
Would my cleaning person, who is a woman of color managing a small business with several employees, be better off without a job? Or maybe working in cleaning at an office?
Again, assuming everyone is paid a fair and livable wage, this seems like some odd logic to me.
@Rinna especially since we ALL outsource something. Not many of us is growing our all own food, making out own clothes, homeschooling our children. It is all a matter of degree.
A lot of that other outsourcing, however – including teaching (see teachers strikes across the US over the last few year), growing and harvesting food (see the conditions that migrant farmworkers deal with), and making clothing (see sweatshops all around the world, see the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh killing 1000+ factory workers making clothing for mainstream US brands) – is being done by low-income people, often people of color, and often with poor work conditions. Hadley isn’t wrong here just because everyone outsources many aspects of our lives.
You can always find examples of self-employed people who set their own (fair) terms of employment, or the benevolent employers who treat their very employees well, but you all are deluding yourself if you think poor pay and poor working conditions are the exception rather than the norm.
(And yes, I say this as someone who outsources all the same basic living essentials as everyone else, and where my top choice daycare would cost us the equivalent of $5/hour given the hours of care available to us, even though I have no idea how such low pay can actually work given the number of people employed there. And even though the staff seems super happy to be there (one of the things I love about the place!), I can’t ignore the fact that they are entirely women of color who are surely making an amount of money I would struggle to live on. So yes, I feel uncomfortable with these realities as I go to my job where I make $60+/hour, receive generous benefits, and am expected to work fewer hours. But I don’t dare deny the truth of what Hadley’s saying here so that I don’t have to feel qualms about the realities of income inequality in America.)
I love BOBW and recommend it frequently. However, I thought on this week’s episode a lot of what Laura and Sarah brought up in a “devil’s advocate” spirit (which I’m not a fan of anyway) was anecdata when the guest’s work describes fairly broad trends in the U.S. around gender socialization. I think it’s certainly possible that you two are both exceptions to the rule that she is describing; that doesn’t mean the rule is inaccurate in describing the majority of two-parent households. It seemed at times that the guest’s work was minimized or refuted because it didn’t fit the narrative of your lives. Re: outsourcing, like I said, I love BOBW. I have a thriving career, so does my husband. However, our thriving careers are not in high-paying sectors and there are other benefits rather than strictly salary that we are fortunate to have. The fairly regular refrain to outsource often feels financially untenable to me (and I am very comfortable compared to the vast majority of working families) so there may be some class privilege here that allows for more equitable division of emotional labor.
I really appreciate this.
I have to agree with this comment as well. It did come across that you were predisposed to disagree with the author’s thesis. And saying, but don’t both spouses tend to discount the other spouse’s labor doesn’t really refute the statistics which again and again show that women do more of the emotional labor and get little credit for it. Sometimes it really is on the men to do better.
@Ariel – thanks for your comment. Definitely one of the practical benefits of outsourcing is that it might lower the total quantity of work to a level where it can be practically split without a fuss. Families are all within a range of this — we don’t churn our own butter or sew our own clothes, things that were often women’s work in the past. So everyone’s outsourcing something, it’s just a matter of where the line gets drawn.
Really glad you wrote this! Laura has written openly (and they’ve discussed on the podcast prior to this) that she disagrees with the author’s thesis because it isn’t consistent with her own experience. But as Hartley points out, that isn’t the case for many women. Sometimes it comes across like Laura thinks all women are being martyrs and she doesn’t acknowledge the real social pressures, expectations, and social punishments for not conforming to those expectations that women face.
I do agree that outsourcing is only one solution to how to deal with tasks, and there need to be other solutions when it’s not affordable for some families. It also takes work to outsource, which another guest on a previous show pointed out; for example, I’m super picky about who babysits my kids, so it takes me a long time to find people that I trust. So there’s an up-front time investment which is sometimes insurmountable when times get particularly busy. I would love to see more discussions on alternatives to outsourcing in managing all the “stuff” to do.
While emotional labor is an issue in my marriage as well, I was cringing a lot at the things the guest was saying. Especially about how “doing less” is not a solution becuase things just need to be done. If you want a spouse who’s 50:50 on the doing, he also has to be 50:50 on the picking of what needs to be done. And yes, you have to count the things he does that you don’t consider important if you expect him to appreciate the things you do that he thinks nothing of.
All around me I see women choosing to do things (making hand made everything, packing bento boxes, taking children to 3 different activities per weak) and then complaining about having to do them. The next step from that is getting overwhelmed, tired, and finally frustrated that your spouse isn’t helping you enough.
Yeah, i think it is a matter of releasing some of those social expectations. Everyone is so busy worrying about their own lives to notice if your kid has handmade baby food or a pouch, if their nursery is perfectly decorated, if they do one activity or six.
I love BOBW but this episode fell a little flat for me. Hartley’s only example of her husband learning to pick up the emotional labor was making lunches when she had her wisdom teeth out? And couldn’t really provide more specific examples of the types of emotional labor he handles when pressed? And I was in disbelief where she said she spent her afternoons reading while her youngest plays outside?
I’ll be passing on this book – and I’m not even going to touch the outsourcing/low payment abuse topic. Whether you choose outsource or not is a personal decision with many factors to consider. I appreciate the truthful authenticity in which Sarah and Laura own their choice to do so, all the while acknowledging that it’s not always easy. IMO Hartley’s position was dismissive- especially given her audience.
Agree so munch. I felt sorry for the child who forget his stuff for electronics but not sure it’s dad fault if he can remember he can pack it in his bag. My sons kindergarten teacher won’t let the kids say mum or dad forgot the expectation is they remember. Goes across everything to the point I told him homework was his choice but he had to explain to his teacher and I would support what ever punishment.
I want to respond to the question about kids not wanting to come home to a babysitter because my kids have similar responses to my work schedule. I have a job that I love with an early-shifted version of the questioner’s schedule so I leave before my kids are up two mornings a week. They do not like this and complain about it regularly. However, my husband is not only with them in the morning, he stays home with them full time. They definitely do not lack time with their parents! I have concluded that kids can always find something to complain about, and can always want more from their parents, while parents can always find something to be guilty about.
@Sarah – so true that they can complain about anything! Yep, the kids are probably thinking hey, great we can get dad, maybe if we work at it we can get mom too! That pesky matter of earning a living to keep a roof over their heads just isn’t top of mind…
This reminds me of one of Laura’s older articles about her son wanting her to walk him to the bus stop every day, and the compromises she made with him in that area.
My daughter wants me to come to her class and volunteer for class parties. This is something that makes my skin crawl. Her class has 30 kids in it and it is barely controlled chaos. There’s a reason I have only 2 kids, and why I work from home in a job I mostly do alone 🙂 I’d need a whole day to “recover” from a 2 hour class party stint, so I just told her it’s not a thing I like to do. Instead I have volunteered to help her teacher sort books, or we buy the treats for the parties and she takes them to school. I think it’s ok to say no to your kids, even when it feels like a thing a “good mom should” do, and find a compromise.
I thought many of Gemma’s examples were just examples of everyday childcare. I think there is a distinction to be made between mental load (kiddo needs a doctor appointment, should I be giving them vitamins, must remind nursery about this, does my kid have rain boots) and emotional labour as the emotional caring work. The only area of emotional labour I get salty with is in regards to in laws and have adopted a not my circus, not my monkeys approach. I like them a lot but it’s not my job to remember birthdays, Christmas shop, or remind my husband to call them.
I just finished simplicity parenting which was definitely a bit further on the woowoo spectrum than I am but the book has really stuck with me as it pertains to emotional labour. It advocates simplifying our schedules, our spaces, and the decisions available to is, arguing that children need that stability and simplicity, not an array of enrichment activities or toys. I wonder if simplicification would also contribute to a change in our feelings about emotional labour and mental load. If kids didn’t have so much stuff to manage or so many activities (and the resulting stuff), we would have less to do. I have a toddler so much of this is theoretical at this point but I’ve been trying to adopt some of the practices – fewer toys out which seems to help him play more independently, a streamlined wardrobe, and simplified meals.
The other thought I had about this that SHU did address very briefly and tangentially is where are the kids? Certainly no one would expect a child to schedule doctor or dentist appointments, but elementary school age kids SHOULD be able to keep track of dress-up days at school. Elementary aged kids SHOULD be able to make their own lunches. Some would argue that not only should they be able to, but that it is important to their development for them to take responsibility for this task. In our house that emotional labor falls squarely on the kids. I am less concerned about my children having a blissful, carefree childhood and more concerned about helping them grow over 18 years to someone who can navigate with world independently.
I was thinking the same thing! I do the same thing as SHU and hand over the ‘dress up day’ list to my kids and tell them to track it if they want. (They don’t care that much, it turns out.) They have both packed their lunches themselves since they were 5 (with supervision at first, obviously, and we’ll still slice fruit for them if asked.) We have a pretty long list of tasks for them each day around getting ready for the next day, feeding the dog, dishes, etc. They grumble about it occasionally, but they know we all need to do stuff we don’t like to keep the house running. The list has made it much easier for both my husband and I to offload the day to day nagging type stuff and “outsource” it to the kids themselves 🙂
The one thing I thought that was not addressed in the emotional labor episode was more of an exploration of why this type of work often falls to the mother. I think it is because the mothers do get judged when kids come to school without lunch or with outfits in disarray, etc. where as generally husbands get kudos for getting the kids dressed and an amused smile if their clothes don’t match. My husband and I talk about this a lot because he gets annoyed when he gets congratulated for normal things. For example, he took both kids out to dinner on his own and a few people stopped by to say “way to be an involved dad” and he was like, “really??” On the other hand, I take the kids out frequently by myself when he travels and have not once got a way to go Mom. I have gotten side eyes if my kids are being loud and I don’t think that type of judgement would ever be extended to a dad. I think if we want dads to care more about the day to day stuff, we need to hold dads to the same standards that moms are held to and not congratulate them when they are doing typical care for their children.
@Stacy – good point. A friend posted a photo on Instagram of a baby clothes display that had a onesie saying “future feminist” right next to one labeling the arm holes and head with a logo saying “daddy proof” — ugh. The cause of feminism is not advanced by treating dads as idiots or fathers of the year for eating out with the kids (the tyranny of low expectations, as it were).
The author lost me when she said she doesn’t believe in outsourcing childcare, because she thinks it hurts women of color and low income. There are many reasons this argument is counterproductive, and those have been mostly addressed here. What I haven’t seen is my own personal story. I’ve been able to build my own business in the last year and a half (a consultancy within the tech industry) that has employed other people, as well as myself. We’re providing high income, high level work for WOMEN in the tech industry, which is needed in this world. If I didn’t outsource some childcare, none of this work would have been created. This high income work also allows me to pay above market rate for childcare, by the way. We also employ college students and grad students for the most part to babysit. One of our former nannies is now a nurse and another one is working at a major household name company in a management position. So–yeah. Not buying her argument.
@Jjiraffe- economics! When we all devote energies to things that are our comparative advantages, jobs are created and the economy grows.
+10000 As an economist, I wholeheartedly agree with this argument.
I was also confused by the refusal to outsource childcare. In Hartley’s ideal world, couples split childcare 50/50 through part time work? Split shifts? I mean, realistically, without childcare, many more women would stay home. I wonder what would have happened in Hartley’s life if at the time she needed to write this book for her career, her husband had still been working full time? Without outsourcing childcare, how would this have been possible? Taking advantage of domestic workers is wrong – I think we can all agree. But outsourcing childcare does not equate to taking advantage of domestic workers. Even when Hartley described her day now, I was struck by how little time she spends working. This is her choice. But many people would find it tough to build a career on so few hours.
We tried the “split shift” thing by taking advantage of flexible schedules so our daughter wouldn’t “have” to go to daycare, and it ran us ragged. We had ONE day of the week together as a family, and the other 6 days, one of us was working 9-12 hour days. We did this for 8 months, and when we did put our daughter into daycare at 13 months, it was SUCH a better schedule for all of us.
@ARC – I’ve heard from a reasonable number of families who try some version of splitting time to avoid childcare, and I agree that it’s not ideal. Sometimes it’s done for financial reasons, and it may just be what has to happen in those cases, but if the thinking is that childcare is “bad”…well, exhausted parents who don’t see each other much aren’t particularly “good.”
There is so much to unpack here that I can’t address everything, so I’ll just tackle the one big thorny issue that came up through its relationship to the main topic of emotional labor: the narrative that outsourcing “women’s work” (or “men’s work” for that matter) is somehow abusing low-income people and people of color – Okay, I’m going to go there.
I think it’s wonderful that there are families able to pay their nannies very well and who believe that paying and treating household workers well is the right thing to do (I mean this sincerely – no sarcasm). Laura states in her post that those who compensate their household workers well have nothing to feel guilty about. She’s absolutely right.
Most families who don’t compensate their child care providers well aren’t doing so because they don’t want to. It’s because they CAN’T. Relatively few families are able to pay another human being a full-time living wage and still have enough money left to meet their own basic needs. Unlike house cleaning or gardening, which you can choose to outsource or not, in most cases paying for child care is not optional if both parents need to keep working for a living. So what ends up happening? If they can afford it, they put their children in a daycare center (where workers tend not be highly compensated) or find someone willing to work for near minimum wage or less, usually off the books. Even then, it is a huge struggle for the families to pay the child care bill.
And who is going to be willing to do the job for such poor compensation? People who, for myriad reasons, are not able to get better paying work (and who for historical reasons that go beyond the scope of my very long post, are disproportionately non-white).
I have a relative who twenty years ago got a job nannying for a toddler and infant twins for $7.00/hour (when the federal minimum wage was $5.15/hour). Why was she okay with taking care of three small children for about $14,000 a year? She was a recent immigrant in her late 50s who spoke no English. Despite her college degree, she could find no other work. Since $14,000 was more than $0, she took the job. Were her employers “abusing” her? No, but they certainly weren’t paying her a living wage either. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to. They simply couldn’t afford to pay her more without jeopardizing their own financial stability.
Hearing Hartley bring up the issue makes me want to read her book more, not less, as I’d like to see whether she has any hard data to back up her assertion. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 the median estimated annual compensation for a child care worker in the United States was $22,290. Someone in the 90th percentile would only be earning $32,780. A child care worker earning the median salary and supporting a three-or-more-person household would meet federal poverty guidelines. It’s unlikely these numbers are a true reflection of how much child care workers are paid, since so much of that industry is underground and thus would not impact the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data. The black market nature of much of the child care industry also makes the workers more vulnerable to potential abuse.
I wish I knew the solution to this systemic problem. For the three years my son was in a daycare center, we averaged $10,000 a year in tuition and paying it was a big sacrifice. His daycare teachers were wonderful and were providing me with a service that was worth far more than what I was able to pay. I would have gladly paid more if I had had the means to do so without putting my family in financial danger. I applaud employers like Laura and Sarah who truly value the service of their child care providers and who provide these workers with an opportunity for meaningful and well-compensated employment.
Regarding your last paragraph, I think it’s futile to think the solution to systemic injustices can come from individual actions. The solution would include for childcare workers to unionize, for better policies to be voted into existence, for childcare to be subsidized to make it both affordable for all families and provide a living wage, even a career, for care workers (and in some countries this is the way things work).
I listened to the Gemma Hartley episode with enough interest to follow up on her book, ‘Fed Up’. I think she makes some interesting points, but I also think that emotional labor comes in many different forms and that it can be easy to overlook the emotional labor that our spouses are doing. For example, in Hartley’s case, her husband was acting as primary breadwinner, which allowed Hartley the space to develop a career as a writer. As someone who acts as primary breadwinner in my own family, I know this can be a heavy emotional load.
I also thought she could have come up with more compelling examples of her husband’s failures at shouldering his share of the emotional load. Regarding the botched morning after the wisdom tooth extraction, I agree with Sarah that this wouldn’t have been that big a deal at my house!
I finally listened to the episode (with interest, given all of the commentary here)! When she started talking about her husband’s stint at home, I really expected the narrative to be something like, “He learned. I learned to let some things go. We met in the middle.” But instead it seemed to be more like, “Even when he was in charge he dropped the ball.”
Also, I desperately want to know what Gretchen Rubin thinks of this book, given her effort in The Happiness Project not to keep score in her family and marriage.
One thing that I feel Hartley really undervalues is her husband’s emotional load of being (I assume) the primary breadwinner. I don’t take on that role in my family, but I imagine that it must create a lot of stress for her husband.
I also found myself enraged by her comment about outsourcing. Distributing work based on comparative advantages is what allows our economy to grow and thrive! Plus, there is absolutely no way that she doesn’t outsource many of her daily tasks, even if she doesn’t recognize them as outsourcing.
@Courtney – I agree that being the breadwinner for the family, and being the source of benefits, can definitely be stressful. I also think there is “emotional labor” involved in doing what it takes to keep a job, and being concerned about job security and the like. It is always easy to undervalue the work other people in our lives do.
Re: the Q & A. What this question brings up for me is a general one when both parents work outside the home: How much do children need their parents to be home? Called me old-fashioned, but this is a question that runs through my mind through many of your podcasts.
Now, obviously, this is BOBW, so no one here is saying that a parent must stay home 100% of the time, and I don’t think anyone is advocating for the opposite extreme, to be away from home 100% of the time (barring something extreme, like deployment, hospitalization, etc). But what is the appropriate middle from the perspective of the children?
I don’t think quality childcare is equal to parental presence, and I think that is especially true for sensitive children, spirited children, children with behavioral/mental health issues, and children with medical issues. Some children might have a very easy time with a childcare provider, and some might not, for good reason. Some kids might be OK with it for a while, but then there could be a rough patch for them when they need extra attention from a parent.
I liked the solutions that you offered in the Q&A because they allowed the person asking the question to tease out different reasons why her children want her home in the afternoon – is it the particular babysitter, is it the lack of friends that makes it less fun, etc. If the mom can figure out how the kids can be happy AND she can be happy in her job, then great. All is well.
But sometimes all is not well, and how do we know when that’s the case? Or, how do we prevent that from being the case? I would love for you to have an episode on this and bring an expert to discuss the nuances. Yes, I know Laura says that there are no studies proving harm with childcare, and Sarah points out that you could never really know for sure what your children need…but I wouldn’t just leave it at that. Every situation is different, and I would love to hear a discussion of what variables parents should look out for and consider in making good choices for their children.
@Hilla- Thanks for your comment! I’m sure every situation is different. I do know that I’m constantly pushing back on the narrative that childcare (at least the paid variety) is “bad,” because I think a lot of people walk around with that as the back story that pushes some questionable decisions. So I think it’s quite relevant that the children in this question do appear to go to school without throwing fits every morning, screaming in class that life is terrible, and so forth. They go to school and are cared for and nurtured by competent, professional adults — who are not their parents — for many hours most days. This family also only had a sitter for 3 hours a week. So there’s something else going on, and given that they went through five sitters in a short period of time, it seems most likely that it was the lack of continuity, not non-parental care, that is the problem.
I do imagine that figuring out the “right” number for a family could be quite a process, and merits serious thought. However, I’d also say that the appropriate middle from the perspective of the children is not the only perspective that matters. Kids might want their parents around constantly, but they’d probably also like Santa to show up every morning. Everyone is working within the constraints of time, money, the career options available to a parent, the presence of other adults in the kids’ lives, etc.