Christmas is the Perfect Time to Talk About Emotional Labor.
Updated: Dec 21, 2019
I'm on a ten-hour countdown over here. Ten hours until my children are out of school for Christmas break. In the last two weeks, I have sat through six dance performances and three school concerts. I have take my children to three events at nursing homes. I have procured last-minute gifts for three gift exchanges my children joined. Last night, I drove to the store at 10:30 pm for "Oops, I forgot to tell you I need to bring..." cupcakes. (For a Christmas party, of course.) On top of all of this, my son organized a fundraiser and has asked me to drive all over town this past week so he can pick up the donations he has procured.
Individually, I love all of these things. But, put together, they amount to a never-ending list that runs through my mind. I suspect almost every woman reading this has a similar, un-relenting list. If you're skilled in organization, you may even write it down somewhere, but my guess is your written list doesn't completely stop your mental list from dominating your thoughts.
Every night for the past couple of weeks, our family has had two and sometimes three places we needed to be. A handful of times, we had to be at these different places at the same time. To make this happen, I tell my husband who he has to take where and at what time so that I can take other children somewhere else. And he graciously accommodates me, but that's not the same thing as having the list of obligations running through his mind, making the arrangements, and working out the schedules.
For the most part, the world stopped believing in "women's work" quite some time ago. Every man I know is willing to change a diaper, do the dishes, help with laundry, and cook a meal or two. However, the one family task that is still dictated almost entirely to women without us batting an eye is "emotional labor." Emotional labor is scheduling of family life, including of course the management of all school assignments, remembering and acknowledging all birthdays for the immediate family, extended families and friends, establishing routine and organization, planning meals, and just generally knowing what goes on and what is supposed to be happening including any commitments that have been made by any members of the family. If gargantuan efforts must be made to honor a commitment, you can almost guarantee that a woman is the one juggling all the moving pieces to make it work.
Now don't get me wrong, almost all men I know are perfectly willing to help if the woman in their life tells them what needs to be done and how to do it. And I'm grateful that my husband helps without complaining. I often tell him what I need, and he usually does it. But it's hard to tell him that what I need most is for him to notice what needs to be done - to pay enough attention to our lives to anticipate and make plans. I'm tired of feeling alone in making our lives work on a day-to-day basis, I want someone who is in it with me because emotional labor is exhausting. The constant awareness of everything that is happening and the pressure not to mess any of it up is the number one source of stress in my life.
When my husband shows up ten minutes late, and I lose my ever-loving mind, my loudly voiced frustration is usually not about him being late. It's usually because his lateness shows his total lack of awareness about the emotional labor I've done to keep all the trains running. Ten minutes late to the first obligation of the evening can often derail three or four different plans, after I've rearranged my life to fit too many things into the hours I have so that no one ends up disappointed.
And I'm lucky. My husband and I chat about emotional labor. He understands the concept. He acknowledges and appreciates the emotional labor I do, which is leaps and bounds beyond where we were five years ago when he just cluelessly wondered why the fun-loving, laid back girl he married seemed so stressed out all the time. Emotional labor is often invisible, especially when it's done well. And it's not his fault he was unaware of it, in many ways I was too. I felt frustrated that everything was "on me," and he was simply "helping out," but I didn't have words to express it. I complained about it once in marriage counseling, years ago before this conversation was happening in the public square, and our counselor told me, "That's just the way it is. In almost every marriage I'm aware of, the woman is the one who manages the calendar and makes sure things happen." The answer annoyed me but also pacified me. It's systemic. And what can we do about an entire system?
Systems change slowly. When I first learned the term "emotional labor" it gave me a way to think about the stress I felt, to categorize and understand it. When I forced my husband to read the article that introduced me to the term, it gave me a way to talk about the hidden stresses in my life, releasing some of the pressure and diffusing many of the arguments we had. His general appreciation for the work I do every day has helped me tremendously.
But, that's about as far as we've gotten. Because like I said, how do I tell him that I need him to notice and care and share the pressure of our obligations? My friend sent me a text a couple of days ago with the dangerous answer: let him fail.
And it's almost unconscionable. If I leave it up to him to buy gifts for his family and he doesn't do it, we'd show up empty-handed, and the people we love would feel like they were unimportant to us. If he forgets to return calls and doesn't remember the children's school assignments, there could be long-term consequences not just for him but for the people who depend on him, for me, for our kids, for his friends and co-workers. I've lived 38 years of my life afraid of dropping these balls I juggle, and so, what, I hand them to him and walk away, listening to the thud of failure?
I can't. I really can't. But that's how men got out of physical household labor for decades. We weren't convinced they could iron a shirt properly, or make a bed the right way, or get the dishes really clean. We thought they'd mess it up because they had never been taught to do it. But somewhere along the line, some woman decided she'd rather have a few imperfectly done tasks while the man in her life learned the ropes than to continue doing all the work herself.
So my friend's text, while complaining about her own never-ending mental list, (because all of our lists start screaming at us in December, and if you have children they scream equally as loud in May or June depending on when school ends) also explained to me that she has been intentionally giving her husband whole tasks, not just the piece meal, pre-planned parts of them. So instead of asking her husband to cook spaghetti for dinner one night with the ingredients that have already been procured, she says, "I've got a lot on my plate. Can you take on meal planning and preparation this week?" That's it. She doesn't remind him. She doesn't give him a list of good choices or reminders of what the kids won't eat. She hands the entire task over to him, one time, and lets him sink or swim. She asks him to make holiday arrangements with his family. And then, as inconceivable as this sounds, she doesn't follow up. She doesn't hound him for dates. She doesn't ask him every night if he talked to his parents. She moves on with her life, and if he doesn't put dates on the calendar, he will have to clean up the emotional mess that creates.
And as I read her words, which I will quote for you because they were that revelational to me, I felt stressed out. I couldn't imagine letting things go. I'm still not quite willing to, but I think it's probably the next plodding step in systemic change. It likely won't lead to my husband and I sharing emotional labor equally, but it might cause my sons to see an example of how this works, to feel capable and confident in their abilities to contribute to the emotional labor that is being done and to understand that there is some expectation that they contribute to their lives proactively with thoughtful consideration about what is happening around them.
Here's part of what she said, "When the tasks I've given to him pop into my head, I don't ask about them. I remind myself that they are his, not mine. And yes, he forgets stuff, but I just remind him that I took it off my plate because he was handling it. I feel like it's made him more aware of the onus of managing our life...and he hates when he lets things 'drop,' so next time he's better. The only way men will carry the emotional/mental burden of households is if we let them fail at it. I am not naturally good at emotional labor because of my gender. I'm good at it because society said I should be, so I worked at it until I didn't suck at it."
And normally, the maintaining of our lives is just manageable enough for me to keep taking it all on myself, putting up with the constant stress of walking a tightrope with no safety net, becoming unreasonably angry when things don't work out despite the tedious planning I've done, so that I seem kind of shrill and uptight even though that's not naturally a part of my personality. But at Christmas time, the most wonderful time of the year, the emotional labor ramps up so intensely that it really is too much for one person to handle, even if she's fairly willing. So, I'm considering letting my husband fail at a handful of things that perhaps I could have managed a little better. Because the truth is, I have a ten-hour countdown until my children are out of school for Christmas break, and right now, what I'm looking forward to the most is not my sister visiting, or the opening of presents, or fun parties. I'm looking forward to the two-week break in all school-related activities. Because in December, having even one full task taken off my plate makes a big difference. So, perhaps, in the New Year, I'll try to be a little more like my friend and a little more like the first woman who ever told her husband, "the washing machine is automatic, it's actually pretty hard to screw up."
And it occurs to me that I have a head start. I have completely handed over the task of getting our children off to school each morning. And early on, there were some days my kids went to school with shirts on backward or hair unbrushed, and I was embarrassed. But little by little, my husband has started to catch those things. He still sets his alarm half an hour later than I would and tolerates the stress of the kids having to rush out the door in a panic, but I remind myself that I'm still in bed at 6:30 am, and I'd rather have that luxury than chime in with the ways I think he could handle the morning a little more smoothly. Or at least, I'm learning to chime in less often, like he's learning to notice when the kids don't have coats.
My husband is both willing and capable. What's more, he has proven his ability to take on emotional labor at work, where I don't keep his schedule or ask how he's managing his relationships. Single dads have been mastering emotional labor without help for some time, albeit they get a lot of praise for it by women who had convinced themselves that men weren't quite capable of these tasks and so the specimen they saw before them must be some kind of unicorn. And who wouldn't applaud a unicorn?
The problem hasn't been that men are obtuse or unwilling. There are shining examples of men taking on emotional labor so effortlessly that the praise we have given them in the past for being so unusually capable is starting to feel a little odd. The problem is that women have been a little too controlling. I simply have to let him try and remind myself that anytime we learn new tasks, failure helps us learn. And what am I risking, really? Because I fail all the time. So we likely won't fail together any more often that I fail alone, I'll just have someone who can relate to me when it feels like the house of cards I've built has just been knocked down for the fourth time this week.
What's more, my husband will do things differently than I do them. He will create his own systems and find his own efficient methods of taking care of things, and I will have to be careful not to label his way as "the wrong way" simply because it is different than mine. I have as much work to do in shifting the systemic balance of emotional labor as he does. I will fail in my attempts to hand things off as frequently as he fails in his efforts to pick up the slack. Hopefully, we can learn to have grace for each other, remembering that we are both learning to do something that we were never taught to do before.
So, maybe next year for Christmas I can look forward to the sweet parts of the season and feel a little less worried that I might overlook some crucial task, because my husband will be my safety net, with eyes on our calendar and the general state of our lives, noticing anything that might slip through the cracks of my fractured attention. I mean, it's Christmas, so sometimes you simply have to believe that magic is possible.
Amy Noel Green is a conference and keynote speaker. She is a writer and game designer who has received international press attention for her work on the video game about her son Joel, That Dragon, Cancer. Follow her at Facebook.com/AmyNoelGreen