They say the funniest jokes are the ones that resonate with reality. Here goes one of my favorites:
“If a man tells a woman he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. She doesn’t have to remind him every six months.”
If you’re a woman, you immediately get this one. Whether you are, or have been, in some sort of co-living relationship with a man, or if you’ve attentively observed what your own mother does for her husband/ sons/ father/ brothers, you get it.
If you’re a man, there’s a high chance you’ll be scratching your head well until the end of this article, but hang in there — this is important. Especially if the women in your life haven’t given up on you yet — it means they still have some hope that one day you’ll wrap your mind around at least some of this.
That joke refers, of course, to emotional labor
The usual reaction upon learning what consists emotional labour is as gender divided as the demographics that actually perform it. While women go “aahh!”, men go “eh?”. While women don’t need more than two or three lines to grasp the concept, men need to be gingerly guided through it multiple times (and most will still never get it).
What is emotional labor?
The expression “emotional labor” has been around at least since the 1980’s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that the term exploded as the definition for a lot of the thankless work women have been doing for centuries — for free. In a way, it’s funny that we finally have a definition for something that virtually every woman has instinctively understood since always.
The term was originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild to explain the work of managing emotions in a professional setting. It described how many workers, most of them women, were required to suppress their own emotions while doing everything in their power to accommodate and not aggravate the feelings of others; and how that work went largely taken for granted and not properly compensated.
Now, emotional labor has come to comprise a lot more. As Tracy Moore puts it:
Today’s woman has adopted the term to describe the “invisible work of caring” required of women in nearly every setting to make everything feel nice, pleasant and cared for in the domestic, office and social realms.
In essence, emotional labor is the work involved into thinking of others before you think of yourself. It’s thinking about how you can create a better office/home environment for everyone before you think about your own well-being or productivity.
It’s when a woman wakes up, and before she’s even out of bed, she’s already debated with herself if she should run to the cleaners during her lunch break, or if she should gobble her food at her desk so she can leave 15 minutes earlier and swing by the florist on her way to pick up his suit for the benefit they’re attending tonight.
She realizes it’s the third time this month she’s dropping the kids at her in-laws, so it’d be nice to give his mother some flowers along with the batch of sticky grandkids. She gets out of bed with the dinner menu for the entire week, along with a complete grocery list, already on her mind. As she enters the bathroom, she decides she’s definitely giving it a good cleaning on Saturday. Or better yet, why wait? As she brushes her teeth with her right hand, she grabs a Clorox wipe with her left to at least get the sink on a more acceptable state.
Meanwhile, her partner is mindlessly scrolling through Facebook on his phone. When he gets up, he opens his closet and yells from the bedroom, “babe, do you think I should wear a suit tonight?” In the kitchen, standing before the breakfast she has just set for the whole family, she rolls her eyes.
“My fantasy of what it’s like to be a guy is you wake up in the morning, and your eyes open, and you’re like ‘I’m awesome’.”
Chelsea Peretti — One of the Greats
Chelsea Peretti’s joke is, at first level, about masculine confidence. About how men have a much easier time believing they’re awesome than women do, since women are the ones who have largely been brought up to worry about other people’s feelings to the point of letting that chip away at their self-esteem. But it’s not hard to see that joke working on a second level as it also implies that men’s first thought upon waking up is of themselves.
Is the picture getting any clearer?
Emotional labor is when women sacrifice their own schedule for the schedules of others. It’s when she plans her whole day around getting dinner for her family or significant other on the table at a decent time, instead of engrossing herself in her own activities and forgetting to cook until her own belly grumbles, no thought spared to whomever else might be counting on that meal. (I’ve seen men do that. Repeatedly. — True story).
Emotional labor is when she knows it takes her two-and-a-half hours to do the laundry, so she better put her laptop aside and start right effing now if she wants to still have time to get some groceries before she has to pick up Junior from soccer practice. That presentation she’s been working on will just have to wait until the kids are asleep.
Meanwhile, a man ends up running to and from the washing machine at 11pm on a Sunday because he has just noticed he ran out of clean underwear. And if he uses the shared laundry room of an apartment complex, well, the neighbors be dammed. That’s when he has time to do this kind of thing after all.
Emotional labor is a very real thing women end up burdened with at work as well. Whether is keeping tabs on kitchen and toilet supplies (despite not being paid for this specific task), remembering people’s birthdays, taking care of office plants, among other things.
“You can just ask me”
Men say that, but the reality is that women know from experience that nothing is as simple as “just ask me.”
Women know from experience that “just asking” hardly ever involves asking just once. And when she has to ask again, and again, and again, she goes from an equal partner just trying to share the housework to a nag faster than he can say: “yes, honey, I’ll take out the trash after the game.”
Spoiler alert: the trash will still be there the next morning.
Men assure women that they can just ask, but when they do, “nagging”, “having impossibly high standards”, “being too demanding”, and “wanting him to ‘read her mind’” are just a few things women end up accused of when men don’t deliver on their own promises.
It’s not about getting things done — it’s about noticing what needs to be done and then taking initiative
The point is, as Gemma Hartley puts it in her Harper’s Bazaar piece, that women are tired of “having to ask” in the first place.
Women look around and notice what needs to be done. They notice when the house is dirty, when the laundry basket is about half full, when a lightbulb went out on the front porch and needs to be replaced.
Men think that doing the dishes when they’re asked to is a huge deal. They’ll volunteer to do the groceries, but won’t leave the house before they’ve been provided with an extensive list of what to get, as if they’re not part of a household which consumes roughly the same items every week, or as if they can’t open the fridge and figure out for themselves what’s missing.
Ultimately, women are tired of coming home from work just to clock in at their second job: house manager.
Sure, the task is a lot easier when some of the mechanical labor is shared, but the mental labor cannot be ignored. It’s exhausting. It can lead to burnout.
Borrowing from Chelsea Peretti: my fantasy of what’s like to be a guy is, you come home at the end of the day, you turn off your brain, turn on the TV, and you JUST. DON’T. CARE.
Women should care less
The world would stop.
I mean it, it would.
Homes would be filthy. Hallways would remain in the dark for years, their burned lightbulbs forever left untouched. There would be no more birthday cards, no more elaborate social gatherings, no more dinner on the table at a reasonable hour.
Men pretend they wouldn’t mind if their female partners let go of their “high standards” and relaxed a little, but the reality is that no one really wants to have the living standards of a broke college kid for the rest of their lives.
It’s women’s nature to care
To a degree.
I do believe there are natural qualities in women that make them more attuned to other people’s needs, but that doesn’t even come close to explaining the large gender imbalance when it comes to emotional labor.
Most women are trained to perform emotional labor from a very young age.
Go help your mother in the kitchen; go along as she gets all the Christmas’ shopping done, and watch how she doesn’t forget anyone; go out, honey, and see who wants more soda, another slice of pie, check if grandpa is comfortable enough or if the baby needs a blanket.
It’s all taught, It’s all learned.
But that’s actually the good news, the fact that it can be taught. So there’s still hope for you, fellas. And the sooner you start, the better.
It’s easy. Just take your eyes out of your own bellybutton for five minutes a day, look around, and search for what might be missing. Do the shelves need dusting? Are there dishes in the sink? Has the dog been walked? Then think, “what can I do to make my significant other / family / coworker’s life a little better/ easier?”
Avoid asking, if you can. Spare somebody else the mental work for a minute. If you’re a big boy, chances are you know what it takes to keep a house running. Get a little Nike on your system, just do it.
It will be hard at first. You’ve just discovered a new muscle, working it out might leave you a bit sore. Just don’t give up.
(And for an even clearer vision of what women face when it comes to emotional labour, read this.)