My Mother’s Day was defined by a blue Rubbermaid storage tub sitting ominously in the middle of my closet. It had been there for days. My husband had brought it down because it contained the gift bags and tissue paper necessary to wrap his mother’s gift and mine.
The gift he needed to wrap for me? A necklace I hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. For Mother’s Day, I had requested just one thing: a housecleaning service. The gift, for me, was not so much the cleaning itself but the fact that, for once, I would not be in charge of the household office work. I would not have to make calls, get multiple quotes, research and vet each service, arrange payment, and schedule the appointment. The real gift I wanted was to be relieved of the emotional labor of a single task that had been nagging at the back of my mind.
The day before Mother’s Day, my husband called a single service, decided it was too expensive, and vowed to clean the bathrooms himself. What I had really wanted was for him to ask friends on Facebook for a recommendation or call four or five more services — do the emotional labor I would have done if the job had fallen to me.
Instead, after presenting me with the necklace, he stole away to deep-clean the bathrooms, leaving me to care for our children as the rest of the house fell into total disarray. In his mind, he was doing what I had most wanted — giving me sparkling bathrooms without me having to do it myself. Which is why he was frustrated when I ungratefully passed by, not looking at his handiwork as I put away his shoes, shirt, and socks that had been left on the floor. That was when I stumbled, again, over the Rubbermaid storage tub and reached my breaking point.
It was time for the pendulum to swing into his corner, and I told him so in no uncertain terms.
For days, it had impeded me every time I needed to toss clothes in the hamper or pick out something to wear. It was shoved, kicked, rolled onto its side, but it wasn’t put away. I couldn’t return it to the high shelf where it belonged without enormous effort and the aid of a kitchen chair, but that wasn’t the real problem. It was obvious that the box was in the way and needed to be put back. It would have been easy for him to just reach up and put it away, but instead he had stepped around it, willfully ignoring it for two days. It was up to me to tell him that he should put away something he had taken out in the first place. If I wanted it put away, I could simply ask my husband to do so. He was easily strong enough and tall enough to do it in mere seconds. And therein was the real problem. It was a simple and obvious task that required minimal effort for him. So why hadn’t he done it? Why did I always have to ask?
It was a question that led to a tear-filled fight as I tried to get my husband to grasp why being the household manager who notices problems, delegates solutions, and has to ask in a singsong voice to get anyone to comply is exhausting. I was angry and completely spent. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around all the things I was upset about in the heat of the moment, and certainly not in a way that would make sense. I didn’t have the energy left to explain the mental load or emotional labor to him in a way he would understand or accept. I didn’t want to walk that fine line of protecting his feelings in order to get my point across. So instead, I wrote it down — all the struggles and frustrations that had led to that mess of a moment — and published it as a feature article in Harper’s Bazaar.
The essay quickly went viral. Apparently, many women could relate to the imbalance of emotional labor. Men are pitching in with household chores more than ever —fathers reported spending 10 hours a week on household chores in 2016, compared with four hours in 1965. But the fact remains that in heterosexual couples, the woman is usually the one doing the emotional labor of planning playdates, reading the school handbook, noticing which pantry items are running low and putting them on the grocery list, choosing what to bring to the neighborhood potluck… the list goes on.
When I wrote the article and shared it with Rob, I was essentially drawing a line in the sand. I was saying, as clearly as I knew how, that we couldn’t go on without him taking his share of responsibility in our life together. It was uncomfortable, difficult, and, quite frankly, even harder than having a blow-up fight about emotional labor every few months. Implementing a shared standard that worked for both of us meant that both of us had to show up and struggle through our individual hangups together. I had to face my perfectionism, my desire for control, the social conditioning that tied my worth to my ability to perform emotional labor. He had to learn these skills for the first time. He had to face the ways he had unintentionally hurt me by ignoring emotional labor for so long. He had to confront the social conditioning telling him that emotional labor — anything that fosters connection to his whole life — is not for him. It was a whole lot of unpacking to do to figure out things like how to best handle laundry and toddler meltdowns as a team.
I was commissioned to write a book about the topic, which quickly changed my life from that of a part-time freelancer to a full-time writer. Around the same time, my husband became unemployed. As my work with the book picked up, his job search hit a wall. He had spent hours upon hours applying for jobs, almost none of which were panning out, as we headed into the holidays. It was time for the pendulum to swing into his corner, and I told him so in no uncertain terms. I was ready for a trading-places scenario — for once, I was going to be the one who filled the role of ideal worker while he shouldered the emotional labor. I explained that having the house be a total disaster when I was working wasn’t something that I could overlook or put out of my mind for a few hours. I couldn’t write with a clear head if I knew a pile of unknown horrors was waiting for me on the kitchen table. It stressed me out knowing that once one shift ended, another was waiting for me. I also couldn’t have him come talk over meal plans with me while I was in the middle of work, or ask any other questions about what to do next while I was on the clock. I needed him to do some real emotional labor — and that meant figuring it out without my guidance and delegation. It was a steep learning curve, but one we both knew he was prepared to master.
He did exceptionally well taking on the brunt of emotional labor. Without my constant micromanaging, he was able to find his confidence and start feeling competent in this new role. I still asked if he had checked this or done that, but after a few weeks of realizing the answer was always yes, I stopped worrying that he needed my guidance and focused on my work like I said I would. Rob became the only one checking homework and making sure school lunches got packed and meal plans were made and the kids were picking up their belongings (and he was picking up his own). He wrote all 40 of our Christmas cards when I was too burned out to do them. He was the only one calling and texting his parents for most of the month. He reminded me of things that were on the calendar, even when it was on the wall a few feet from my desk. I hadn’t planned on off-loading so much to him; it simply happened. I would end my work hours and fall onto the couch to read more research books while Rob was the one making dinner and then cleaning up afterward.
Then I noticed one afternoon, when I took my lunch break, that he seemed really far off. He was there but not really there. I figured I knew what was wrong — that the job hunt was getting to him or he was suffering an identity crisis, but that wasn’t at all what he described when I asked him what was wrong.
“I feel like there’s something I need to be doing, something I’ve forgotten, and I can’t figure out what it is.”
He had sent our daughter to school with freshly laundered bedding for her cot, packed a lunch and snack for our son, done the laundry, and cleaned the house, and he had reached a lull in his day. There wasn’t anything, at least not anything important, that he was forgetting. He was bogged down by the mental load, though, and couldn’t seem to think straight. It was a feeling I knew well: the nagging sense that I couldn’t sit down or relax for a moment because there was always something that needed to be done. It’s the creeping anxiety that gnaws at you when you’re the only one carrying the mental load for the family. You’re afraid of something falling through the cracks because you’re so tapped out from trying to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. The anxiety wasn’t a revelation to me, but the fact that it was happening to Rob and not me was eye-opening. This wasn’t what I wanted for either of us. When I examined where we were at the moment, with me devoted to my work and nothing else, I also found myself feeling untethered to my life. When I was solely focused on working, letting everything else fall away, I was irritable and unhappy much of the time. There was a distinct emptiness when I wasn’t tending to any emotional labor at all. My life no longer felt rounded and whole. Neither of us was living in a way that made us feel fulfilled.
“It takes trial and error,” writes Betty Friedan in The Second Stage, “to work out the practicalities and the real tradeoffs, with men and women now sharing work and home responsibilities, instead of replacing the dreary realities of one with fantasies of the other.” In other words, it takes a lot of conscious effort to get past the fantasy that the grass is always greener on the other side and start tending the soil where we are. We have to figure out how to balance emotional labor through trial and error. We have to accept that we aren’t going to get it right the first time no matter how clear we are in our intentions. I understood the lesson in theory but was still learning it firsthand.
Trial. Error. Back to the drawing board.
There is a big camp of people (let’s be real, men) who don’t think shared standards should exist. I have my standards; you have yours. If my standards bother you, you can go the extra mile to bring it up to your standard or you can learn to live with it. It’s not my fault that you can’t handle the mess. It’s not hurting anyone; it’s just your personal preference. Why should I have to adopt your standard? Why should I have to change? I’ve heard this argument over and over again. It’s not a problem of my initiative. It’s a problem with your standard.
He was giving me what I genuinely wanted — not perfectly folded towels or clean countertops like I thought I wanted, but a partner who truly saw me.
It’s a pretty cruel argument. It argues that one person should either have to suffer or put in a disproportionate amount of work because the other person is too lazy to compromise. It implies that the work we have put into creating a life that keeps everyone comfortable and happy has no value — that we create our standards without purpose or meaning. It’s an argument which states that our standards don’t matter, that our feelings don’t matter, that our work doesn’t matter. When our identity is so wrapped up in emotional labor, it’s an argument that says you don’t matter.
This is why emotional labor is such a minefield of hurt and resentment. One person’s arbitrary standard is another person’s lifeline. There’s a huge disconnect when our partners do not understand why we do what we do in regard to emotional labor. It’s not only how we keep our lives running smoothly; it’s how we strive to find happiness. What women seek through their high standards isn’t merely perfectionism — it’s the idea of freedom. When we are drawn into the comparison game, when we feel the pressure to “have it all,” when we try every organizational hack in the book, it’s because we’ve been led to believe that, just around the bend, we will find peace. We will find happiness. We will find the life hack that will finally ease our exhaustion, because we don’t believe we can find that relief in our partnerships.
Yet after talking with hundreds of women and seeing the dynamic shift in my own relationship, I can see the lie that perfectionism is selling. There is no plateau of perfection I can reach that will help me care for everyone around me, keeping them comfortable and happy, without becoming utterly depleted. I can’t do it all. No one can. Instead, we can evaluate what parts of our emotional labor are intrinsically important to us. We can soul-search for our real priorities — not the ones that have been predetermined for us, but the ones that stem from us. Then we can do what we do best and rearrange our lives accordingly, with care and attention to detail, not for the benefit of others but for ourselves. We can find the relief we’re searching for by setting boundaries, taking responsibility for ourselves, and surrounding ourselves with people, and especially partners, who do the same.
When Rob took on more emotional labor, I became happier and more satisfied with our relationship, which made him more apt to keep doing it. When we were both happy and sharing the responsibility of our life together, emotional labor wasn’t such a drag anymore. In fact, we both enjoyed it, because doing emotional labor together made us feel more in tune with each other. More understood. We were no longer shying away from conversations about what was and was not working, because we were past the point of keeping score or trying to win when it came to emotional labor. We were able to trust each other to do our fair share and learn from each other as we aimed to find what shared responsibility and standards would look like for us.
What truly brought us to a balance where we both felt comfortable was the fact that both of us were finally doing the necessary work to understand each other. We were actively working our empathy muscles as we looked at each other’s life experiences. Rob was listening to and processing my lived experiences as I laid them out for him. He was no longer responding with defensiveness, but showing an understanding that led naturally to action. He was giving me what I genuinely wanted — not perfectly folded towels or clean countertops like I thought I wanted, but a partner who truly saw me.