On Friday I read a Harper’s Bazaar piece by Gemma Hartley about the burden of emotional labor, and it left me baffled. To be fair, living in Trump’s America, I find myself spending more and more of my time baffled, befuddled and downright confused. I often wonder if I’m drifting away from center or if it’s everyone else.
The impetus of Gemma’s article was a botched Mother’s Day gift. You see, Gemma asked for a housecleaning service for Mother’s Day. And by all means, ask for what you want, since it’s the best way I know to actually get what you want. Except she wanted her husband to go about hiring the service by first asking friends on Facebook for recommendations, then getting multiple quotes (at least four or five), researching and vetting each service, arranging the payment and finally scheduling the appointment.
Basically, she wanted him to do it exactly the way she’d do it. And wanting him to follow these exact steps may or may not be ridiculous, but again, I get it—you want what you want. But here’s where she lost me: She wanted him to do this intuitively.
If Gemma were my friend, it would have been at this point in her rant when I definitely would’ve said, “Hold up, what, now? Gemma, that’s ridiculous.” But Gemma isn’t my friend, so I said “Oh no” to myself and took a BuzzFeed quiz. Except something about Gemma’s piece and the “rah rah” comments behind it kept niggling at the back of my mind. There was this big, glaring thing everyone was missing. You see, Gemma’s piece is a feminist piece, but it’s so evident that Gemma isn’t a feminist.
And it’s right there, plain and out in the open.
Gemma didn’t get the Mother’s Day gift she wanted to her exact, unsaid specifications. Instead, she got a necklace, and her husband decided to clean the bathrooms himself. Because he thought that’s what she wanted when she said, “Hire a housecleaning service”; he thought she just wanted the house clean. So he decided to clean it, since the one service he called was too expensive. And since he was busy cleaning, it meant she had to look after the kids while he did so. Which isn’t much of a gift. And I kept wondering, why not use your words, Gemma?
Editor’s note: In my mind, “Hire a housecleaning service” would only be confusing if the husband were a professional cleaner, which I’m assuming he’s not, since he constantly leaves shit around the house like a small, confused child—in the end, he didn’t even meet the bare-minimum request because he lazily acted on what he decided she meant and ignored what she actually said she wanted, details of execution aside. He had one job. But then again, I was also irked at both parties in Gemma’s essay, even though I wanted to agree with her.
It’s not like Gemma was married to the idea of being surprised. Her gift wasn’t supposed to be a surprise at all. And this is all good because honestly, perfect surprises are something I’ve only seen in the movies and in heavily curated Instagram stories. In real life, in most cases, you’re going to be disappointed in the “gift” or “surprise” if you give up all control of the execution. And the only way to mitigate disappointment is not to overvalue the “surprise” aspect and to value the end result instead. So be a micromanager and have everything your way, or let go of some of the control and allow that everything won’t be exactly perfect. Sidenote: Being a micromanager is exhausting.
So since it wasn’t a surprise anyway, in the days and weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, why didn’t Gemma say to her husband, maybe at night, in bed, after the kids were asleep, “This is what I want for Mother’s Day”? And while she was describing in detail the steps she wanted him to take, why not let him know how important it was to her that he follow those exact steps? Why not just ask for what you want—in plain language? And then we could’ve all happily dragged him through the mud when he ignored Gemma’s plainly stated wishes.
But Gemma didn’t use her words because—and if you read her piece critically, you’ll see this is really the crux of her issue—she’s an “It’s cool” girl and she doesn’t even know it. In fact, she’s normalized her passiveness/passive aggression by saying it’s something all women face. She says, “Walking that fine line to keep the peace and not upset your partner is something women are taught to accept as their duty from an early age.”
Um, what? Is this really the standard 2017 dynamic—timid, passive peacemaker wife coddling the male ogre/ignoramus? Are all men infants? Or do we infantilize them?
Because you were freelancing and at home, did you take on more than you could handle and now you’re drowning? Gemma, tell him you’re drowning.
But she can’t.
Gemma was quick to let us know that her husband was a feminist ally (as opposed to a feminist?) and that “He does dishes every night habitually. He often makes dinner. He will handle bedtime for the kids when I am working. If I ask him to take on extra chores, he will, without complaint.”
So if your husband is so progressive and compliant, why are you continually sublimating your wants and desires? Why are you walking past stuff on the floor for two days instead of just telling him to “put that shit back” where he found it? Why are you “gingerly” explaining how you feel after you’ve broken down in tears because he didn’t just know to put that shit back on the top shelf? These are the fears, insecurities and tactics of an “It’s cool” girl—the anathema to the feminist woman.
Don’t get me wrong—I believe everything Gemma says regarding how thankless a job running a household can be. I believe her when she says there’s an added tax, an emotional burden to performing all of these tasks. I mean, she’s absolutely right. But what kept getting to me throughout her essay was her fear of saying any of these things to her regula, degula husband—fear she repackaged as not wanting to be seen as a nag. Although to be nagging, you’d have to be saying these things constantly, but Gemma wasn’t even saying these things once. Because according to Gemma, she was also afraid of a confrontation:
Forcing him to see emotional labor for the work it is feels like a personal attack on his character. If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out ... he would take it as me saying, “Look at everything I’m doing that you’re not. You’re a bad person for ignoring me and not pulling your weight.”
But why would this be a confrontation?
I can see the people who are going through something similar in their household sighing and saying that I’m missing the point. That even having to say these things he should know to do out loud is emotional labor. And to that, I say: Welcome to dealing with people—man, woman or child. Being a micromanager is fucking exhausting—did I say that already? But just as she composed a 2,000-word essay decrying the division of labor in her household, why not just say something to him? It’s disingenuous of her to say she can’t when she just said it all to us.
Editor’s note: Fair, but she probably got a cute little paycheck from putting it in essay form.
So many of us accept the fact that men aren’t shit. Men accept it, too. And we micromanage everything because we don’t trust that they can do as good a job. And that guy you’re dating or you’re married to who has a steady job and pays his bills on time and managed to do more than just survive before you walked into his life—give him a chance. And even if he fucks it up royally, keep making him do it. Make him do it until he gets it right. Wash your hands of it. Believe in him.
When I was growing up, my mom and dad had their own growing pains. Dad’s first attempts at doing laundry were colossal failures. Blacks were bleached. Reds bled onto whites. Clothes went missing. And I know this because Mom still talked about it years later. But laundry was Dad’s job. And she didn’t take it over because he didn’t get it right the first few times. So he washed our clothes, folded them and ironed what needed to be ironed. (He always loved ironing; he’s a compulsively neat person. He even used to iron underwear. He’s West Indian.)
He also did the yard work, and he handled the household finances. And his neatness meant he couldn’t see a dirty dish in the sink without taking care of it, and for him, cleaning the house was meditative. But him knowing his role and doing his role without being asked didn’t just happen. Communication was necessary.
So, Gemma, why are you a lion on the internet and a lamb at home? Your husband is the one person you’re supposed to be able to be the most yourself with, the most transparent around, the most at ease next to, but instead, you’re on pins and needles—in your own home. And if you’re so afraid to say anything to him directly, is the real issue here the emotional labor of managing a household or the fact that you’re married to a man you can’t talk to? A man who, by your own admission, “responds to criticism in a very patriarchal way”—and that sounds ominous.
And that’s what kept niggling at the back of my mind—it isn’t normal that someone can’t say to her husband, in 2017, “I need your help.” And that’s what stood out to me: her fear. She was carrying the brunt of the emotional labor in her household, going around saying to herself, “It’s cool” because she’s afraid. Afraid of her husband’s reaction. Afraid of confrontation. Afraid to be seen as a nag. Afraid of asking for too much.
Gemma’s piece seemed less about how taxing it was to articulate her wants and needs and more about how afraid she was to articulate those wants and needs. And if I were her friend, that’s what I’d ask her: Why are you so afraid, Gemma?