If I hear the words ‘oh I’d have done that’ or ‘why didn’t you ask me to do that’ again in my entire lifetime, I might scream. Yes readers, emotional labour is alive and flourishing in my house! To begin with, what is emotional labour? It is (and you lady readers will know this even if you haven’t recognised the actual term) quite simply put, the work of caring. But not perhaps in the context in which we know it – it’s the kind of caring that says “tell me what to clean and I’ll clean it for you because I don’t want to do the mental work of getting to grips with what is wanted and I realise by the time you’ve explained it you’ll have come to the conclusion that it’s quicker for you to do it yourself thus getting me off the hook”. It’s also about caring about what’s required to feed the occupants of your home at dinnertime, caring about social management (yes it’s up to you to remember every obscure relative and friend’s birthday, anniversary, funeral and buying Christmas presents for same). Or just caring about noticing that something has been broken, needs mending, is missing, has left home. Caring takes an awful lot of thought and effort. It should, of course, be a shared burden, but is it?
I will cite some examples, told to me by female friends:
Lady 1 is going out to book club, something she does on the first Thursday of every month. She arrives home from a long day at work to be confronted by husband who is in a flap as to what oldest son (17) should have for his tea. It has not occurred to husband or son (17) to open the fridge and cook something. They needed to be told what was available (we’ll do a separate feature on man blindness) and what to cook. I should report that expletives were said and an amount of stomping out of the house done.
Lady 2 always does the cleaning. Husband will clean if asked and given a specific task and pointed in the direction of the cleaning accoutrements in the cupboard which he finds difficult to locate. As an experiment she leaves the bathroom wastepaper bin unemptied to see just how long it will be before a. he empties it or b. she caves and does it. I can report that it remained unemptied for more than two weeks attracting more rubbish and a quantity of dog hair before she caved.
Lady 3 has deliberately not hoovered the house for over three weeks. She has several jobs, a holiday let to clean and various other responsibilities with family. Husband has retired and plays an inordinate amount of golf. She has mentioned the hoover languishing in the utility room several times but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Eventually she loses her temper and expletives are said. The hoovering is duly done and a medal is therefore expected. Because the work she normally does must be lauded when transferred to her husband.
Man 1 has taken a box from a high shelf and has neglected to replace said box and has instead left it on the floor. Lady 4 has stepped round it now for three days. On getting a chair to assist her in the replacement of the box, Man says ‘I’d have done that if you’d asked’.
You see where I’m going with this don’t you?
So, what’s the answer. Apart from crying into a large glass of wine, you could try to explain your frustrations. I have done this on more occasions than I’ve had glasses of wine and the pattern is the same. We begin with the back going up because criticism is sensed. I then explain my frustrations with the lack of help with the cleaning / laundry / generally taking responsibility for anything and am told that a. I’m a control freak who likes everything my own way therefore there’s no point in him trying or b. ‘Fine I’ll do my own cleaning / laundry / taking responsibility for myself thus missing the point entirely. We then move on to ‘but you only have to ask me for help’ thus also again missing the point that I don’t want to have to micromanage cleaning / laundry / taking responsibility.
It appears that there is no good way to change emotional labour without a major confrontation, because men see our frustrations as nagging and therefore react in a completely patriarchal way by feeling that they’re being attacked and therefore coming out fighting. According to Dr. Michele Ramsey, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State Berks, emotional labour is often combined with problem solving. “The gendered assumption is that ‘men are the problem solvers because women are too emotional,’” she explains. “But who is really solving the bulk of the world’s problems at home and in the office?”
I don’t know what the answer is I’m afraid. You could do what I do and grit your teeth as you prepare for yet another confrontation over the hoover or you could also do what I do and let it slide and empty the stinky bin. I’m not saying that men should be responsible for all tasks but they should share the burden WITHOUT HAVING TO BE ASKED.
And men, if any of you have made it this far – please, replace the used toilet roll, remember to buy milk (other household commodity) if you’ve used the last of it, don’t drop the fluff from the dryer in the corner behind the door – it won’t disappear, take your bloody shoes off when you come into the house (the floor doesn’t clean itself) and please, please, please return to the drawer the item which you have taken from it. Hoover, do the dishes, clean the toilet, pull your weight – because there are no elves available, you aren’t children and we’re not living in the fifties. I’m off now to have a lie down after all that…
If anyone out there has solved the emotional labour problem then please do let us know. A wine token for the best answer. firstname.lastname@example.org
Words: Amber Beard
Pictures: The Mental Load