One day early in our marriage, when my wife and I were living off of Allen Parkway in Houston, some relatives were coming over for dinner and we were trying to get the apartment clean. I thought maybe she was overdoing it. I was 22 or so, not far removed from the days when I’d entertain my parents in a dorm room with an unmade bed. Even though I was growing up quickly (if it had been just me, I definitely would have straightened up some) I couldn’t believe how stressed she was getting.
I tried to make my case: “They’re family, H. They’re not going to be judging us.”
“No, they won’t be judging us,” she replied. “They’ll be judging me.”
We’ve always had what I think of as an egalitarian relationship. We value and support each other’s careers, and I try to make sure that I do as much of the housework as she does. But that moment showed that even when I do the work that goes into keeping up our home, there’s another level of work, of taking on responsibility, that tends to fall to her, and not to me.
If you’re a heterosexual man, single or in a relationship, and you’re still looking for a resolution for 2016, please read and bookmark this document. It’s a compilation (more than 70 pages) of an incredibly rich discussion thread at the website MetaFilter on the phenomenon of “emotional labor.” If you’re not familiar with the term, “emotional labor” originally referred to paid work, coded as feminine, that was thought to depend on nurturing or supporting others. Jobs like teaching, nursing, working as a secretary. But the phrase can also refer to a sort of unpaid and invisible labor that, in families, is almost always performed by women. The thread catalogues an exhausting variety of this type labor, it responds to major objections to the idea that emotional labor exists or unduly falls on women, and it explores the reasons that men—even progressive men—think they can or should avoid such work.
Basically, emotional labor is care. Caring for, caring about, taking care of others. As commenter Lyn Never puts it in the opening to the document:
“I often talk about emotional labor as being the work of caring. And it’s not just being caring, it’s that thing where someone says, ‘I’ll clean if you just tell me what to clean!’ because they don’t want to do the mental work of figuring it out. Caring about all the moving parts required to feed the occupants at dinnertime, caring about social management. Caring about noticing that something has changed—like, it’s not there anymore, or it’s on fire, or it’s broken.
It’s a substantial amount of overhead, having to care about everything. It ought to be a shared burden, but half the population is socialized to trick other people into doing more of the work.”
I admit it: I’ve said, “I’ll clean if you just tell me what to clean.” And though I said that so I could feel like I was doing my part at home, I was really just off-loading the responsibility for thinking about keeping house onto my wife. And that’s a form of laziness. Or maybe it’s better to call it a form of immaturity, because it’s the thinking of a dependent, a child. It’s the type of thinking that gives life to the common wives’ lament that having husband is like having another child in the house.
Another illustration: three or four of my female relatives are Facebook friends with my wife, but not with me. Why? Because, for them, Facebook is a means of family communication, and family communication is a thing women do.
Those “manliness” websites (secular and religious) that teach you how to, I don’t know, shoot a musket or escape to a scotchy man cave: why don’t they focus more on this stuff? Why don’t they teach how to care for aging parents, how to organize a family schedule, or how to plan a week of meals on a budget?* More to the point, why don’t they emphasize the importance of doing these things? These are the basics of being a grown-up in the 21stCentury and, whatever you think about the value of the idea of “manliness,” if you can’t be a grownup, you can’t be a man.
With that in mind, here are a few basic steps you can take to be a better man in 2016:
- Notice who’s doing the emotional labor in your life. Thank them. Read the MetaFilter thread and think about how it compares to your life. Is your sister the one who always organizes family gatherings? Is your wife the one who makes sure you’re occasionally calling to check in on your parents? Let them know you’ve noticed. As several commenters on the thread point out, part of what makes emotional labor so burdensome is that it often goes unremarked. Correct that.
- Try to carry your own emotional weight. We’re humans, and we’re interconnected, and we all need help with certain things. But the point is that you try to do what you can for yourself. You can keep on top of your own social appointments; you can help your kids write thank you notes for their Christmas gifts, even if your handwriting isn’t as good as your wife’s.
- Try to return the favors you’ve been given. Again, we all need help with certain things, so make a habit of noticing and tending to the daily needs of the people you’re connected to. And then take it another step, and try to give the gifts of time and leisure to the people that have supported you.
Doing this doesn’t make you Feminist of the Year. It’s just being a grown up, and balancing out an unsupportable and unjustifiable imbalance. The bad news is that emotional labor is work and, like all work, it can be frustrating and tedious. The good news is that it’s meaningful work. And, as any manliness website will tell you, meaningful work, done well, brings joy.
*I should point out here that one manliness website, the Art of Manliness, does occasionally post this sort of thing. On their website, you can learn how to write a thank you note, how to wrap a gift, and how to cook spaghetti carbonara. But the point is that this sort of work should be something men do everyday, not just on special occasions or when trying to impress a new girlfriend. As one commenter puts it in the MetaFilter thread, it’s actually more frustrating to women that men do emotional labor at the start of relationships and on special occasions, because it makes it seem that “for a lot of men, these are the means to an end, where the end is a relationship where they never have to do these sorts of things again.”