Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book review: "Fed Up--Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward," by Gemma Hartley

"Emotional labor, as I define it, is emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. It envelops many other terms associated with the type of care-based labor I described in my article: emotion work, the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labor, invisible labor. These terms, when separated, don't acknowledge the very specific way these types of emotional labor intersect, compound, and, ultimately, frustrate. It is work that is mentally absorbing and exhausting . . . " [Page 13.]

. . .

"I tried to explain the mental load and why delegating was such a big deal.  I tried to explain how the mental and physical work of running our home and our lives compounded in such an exhausting manner.  I wanted a partner with equal initiative. I couldn't continue to delegate and pretend that we were maintaining an egalitarian, progressive relationship. Divvying up the household chores when I still had to remind him to do his share was not enough.  That still left all of the emotional labor as my responsibility, and that, I told him, was what needed to change . . ."

In the end, the author concluded that learned gender-based roles had created a situation in which woman had been trained not only to do it all, but to be perfect in doing it all, while men had been trained to believe that this simply wasn't their job, meaning that they were "helping," rather than doing their share. Women have to give up wanting everything to be done "our way" so that men have a chance to learn how to assume their share of the responsibilities of maintaining daily life. And when men assume their share, they find that they are closer to their kids now that they're packing the kids' lunches, and closer to their wives now that they're sharing the responsibility of buying gifts for the family. 
For a more thorough review, see here.

Here's a personal illustration of the Emotional Labor imbalance:  As Ms. Hartley stated, because "family-maintenance" work is considered women's work, men tend to be praised for "helping," while women doing similar work tend to be ignored--our work is invisible.  My husband frequently cooks dinner, and I try to remember to thank him for that.  But when I wipe off the stove-top and scrub the sink, all I usually hear is "crickets" (silence).  Either we should both thank one another, or we should just assume that this is the way things should be done, but for one to be praised while the other is ignored when we're doing related jobs makes no sense.  We're working on this.

Another example is what I describe as the Peter Pan problem.  Decades ago, when we were both employed full-time and my husband frequently worked overtime, I used to spend hours on Sunday cleaning the toilet, sink, tub, floor, kitchen counters, stove-top, kitchen sink and floor, and vacuuming the entire apartment.  By the time my husband was ready to go folk-dancing, I was almost always too tired to go with him.  Finally, I went on strike--I handed off the vacuuming responsibilities to my husband, and decided that the bathtub would be cleaned about once a month.  Now, I describe our apartment as "sanitary, but not necessarily clean"--but I'm free to go folk-dancing with my husband almost every Sunday.  I have a life, and he has someone to join him on the dance floor.  That works much better for both of us.  Wherein is it written that Peter Pan and the Lost Boys get to have all the adventures while Wendy gets stuck at home mending their clothes?

Finally, there's a Peter-Pan-related problem, namely, the infantilization of men, which Ms. Hartley described in her book--males are often raised to be perpetual children, dependent on women to take care of them, while women are often raised to mother not only their children, but their husbands, as well.  Why should I have to remind a 77-year-old to take his cell phone and at least one packet of tissues?  Does anyone remind me?  Yet I can't remember the last time I got all the way to the subway station without realizing that I'd left my cell phone at home.  We're working on that, too.

For the record, not every woman is a wiz at emotional labor, learned gender-based roles notwithstanding--while certain types of emotional labor have been, until now, "my department," there are other types that have never been my strong suit any more than they have been my husband's.


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