In the world of traditional gender norms, paid work is the domain of men while women’s domain is the home.
It’s knowing which child likes pizza and which one hates pumpkin. It’s memorising the schedule of everyone in the household. It’s managing doctor appointments and haircuts and birthday parties, it’s leaving food in the freezer and a written list of instructions when you go away for the weekend.
This type of work is, by its nature, invisible. “It largely takes place in our minds, it’s constant, and no one else seems to understand that we are doing it,” writes journalist Gemma Hartley in her book, Fed Up: Emotional Labour, Women, and the Way Forward.
But what if, by some miracle, men and women shared this work equally? (As tends to happen in same-sex relationships). What would change – in our relationships, our domestic life and society more broadly?
First, it’s important to acknowledge the importance of emotional labour. Just because it is under-valued, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. “Emotional labour is essential,” Hartley writes. “It strengthens bonds and creates care-centred structures of order within our lives.”
“Emotional labour is essential...It strengthens bonds and creates care-centred structures of order within our lives.”
The idea that women are inherently more suited to caring than men is false, says Hartley via phone from her home in Reno, Nevada. “Everyone has a very similar aptitude for emotional labour. It's just that men haven't been trained to do it as in the same capacity that women have.”
According to the 2016 Census, nearly 60 per cent of employed men in Australia performs five hours or less of unpaid domestic work a week, compared to 35 per cent of working women. At the other end of the spectrum, 27 per cent of women perform 15 hours or more of unpaid domestic work a week compared to 8 per cent of men.
Redistributing emotional labour is not just about men doing more work. Hartley argues that balancing the load of emotional labour - a topic she first wrote about in an article published at Harper’s Bazaar in 2017 titled ‘Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up’ - gives us all the chance to live fuller and more authentic lives.
She believes that relationships benefit when men flex their emotional labour skills – something she has witnessed in her own marriage. “The one thing that I have loved most about this process as I've gone through it with my husband is that he really understands my life in this deeper way, and I feel much more connected to him,” she says.
Allowing men to engage in emotional labour and step into new domestic roles is a circuit breaker to toxic masculinity, giving them the opportunity to be deeply involved partners, fathers, sons and friends. “Men can lean into their humanity in new ways,” she writes.
Changing the conversation
Dividing the burden of emotional labour equally isn’t about delegation. Asking for help – sometimes branded ‘nagging’ – is “an additional layer of labour,” writes Hartley. When men “pitch in” and “help out”, they reinforce the notion that domestic chores are women’s work. Rather, it’s about “noticing what needs to be done, rather than waiting to be told what to do,” she says.
Sharing the mental load in a previously inequitable relationship requires one party to relinquish control, which for some women can be a challenge. Sociologists refer to ‘maternal gatekeeping’ – where women “actively discourage men from becoming full partners at home, because we truly believe that we can do everything better, faster, more efficiently than everyone else,” Hartley writes. “We become convinced that our way is the only way.”
It's a belief often grounded in experience . For mothers, maternity leave is a crash course in baby-care that most fathers just don’t get. We become expert at changing nappies and managing sleep routines. When they see less-expert fathers do these tasks less effectively, their instinct is just to do it themselves – but this perpetuates the gender divide. Dads will only get better if they do these tasks too.
“It's really allowed me to step more fully into my career, in the same way that it's allowed my husband to step into his role at home."
Hartley’s quick to note that giving up control does not mean letting your standards slide. “Often women are told to let it all go, and to give up control and let everything go to hell. I don't think that is a solution,” she says. “That's really putting the pressure on women to do all of the change and do all of the inner work that goes with that. It really is about meeting halfway, and having men take on more of that load, in a way that works for both partners.”
Navigating a new division of emotional labour will inevitably lead to difficult conversations – and arguments. Discussions of emotional labour can be seen as a personal attack and a lack of appreciation for everything men do to contribute to the household.
For Hartley, acknowledging the broader cultural forces that contributed to the gender roles in her marriage helped take the heat out of the debate. “When we started talking about the different ways that we were raised and socialised, it took the blame away from the conversation. We were able to have a really honest discussion of why our dynamic had ended up like this, without placing the blame on me or placing the blame on him. That was really useful.”
Hartley and her husband, who have two sons and a daughter, are doing their best to bring their equitable approach to emotional labour to their parenting. “We're really trying to raise them with a sense of shared responsibility within our household, so they understand that they need to be responsible for their own belongings and…to be emotionally responsive to other people.”
These days, Hartley feels like her marriage is an equal partnership where each person can support the other at home and at work. “It's really allowed me to step more fully into my career, in the same way that it's allowed my husband to step into his role at home."
Gemma Hartley will appear at All About Women at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday March 10.