In “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” a recent article for Harper’s Bazaar, Gemma Hartley explains wanting just “one thing for Mother’s Day: a house cleaning service.” However, her husband didn’t seem up to the task. After contacting a single cleaning service and deeming it too expensive, he decides to clean the house himself. Disappointed, Hartley writes, “What I wanted was for him to ask friends on Facebook for a recommendation, call four or five more services, do the emotional labor I would have done if the job had fallen to me.”
While not a new concept, the term “emotional labor” gained popularity after appearing in an article written by Rose Hackman a couple years back. Feminism has since adopted the phrase to explain a range of complaints. Just what is emotional labor? In her article, Hackman describes it as follows: “We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background.” Emotional labor, then, is the man (or, as proposed by Hackman, woman) behind the curtain. It is all of the behind-the-scenes planning and thoughtfulness that goes into making a life run smoothly.
Hartley, Hackman, and many others feel women bear an uneven and unfair amount of this work. Hartley writes, “I tried to gingerly explain the concept of emotional labor [to husband]: that I was the manager of the household, and that being manager was a lot of thankless work. Delegating work to other people, i.e. telling him to do something he should instinctively know to do, is exhausting.”
Whether she means to or not, Hartley paints a picture of a clueless husband and father who can’t do anything right. You probably know this stereotype well because men—especially white men—are depicted similarly in commercial advertising. There’s even a name for it: “Femvertising.” In an article for the New York Times, Courtney Kane explains, “The ‘man as a dope’ imagery has gathered momentum over the last decade, and critics say that it has spiraled out of control. It is nearly impossible, they say, to watch commercials or read ads without seeing helpless, hapless men.” It’s hard to believe this article was written in 2005—before the term “femvertising” was even coined—considering these commercials are still going strong. Hartley seems to have bought into the scheme.
Hartley tries to avoid sounding condescending, writing, “My husband is a good man, and a good feminist ally. I could tell, as I walked him through it, that he was trying to grasp what I was getting at.” Can’t you just picture the doughy, dumb commercial actor she’s portraying? Hartley continues, “But he didn’t…He restated that all I ever needed to do was ask him for help, but therein lies the problem. I don’t want to micromanage housework. I want a partner with equal initiative.”
What Hartley (and many other women) fail to recognize is that it’s impossible to quantify equal initiative in a marriage—and quite possibly harmful to try to. Not unlike faith, wind, or any other invisible medium, you can’t see initiative. Sure, you may see some results of initiative but, simply put, you can’t see what you can’t see. Just as Hartley complains about her husband not noticing her emotional labor, it could be reasoned that she does not notice his.
Hartley may rightfully be able to determine who does the majority of the household chores. However, could she be missing her husband’s own internal worries? In her article, there is no mention of who handles vehicle maintenance, whether it’s scheduling or performing oil changes, rotating tires, or replacing brake pads. While it may sound like a gendered assumption to suggest that Hartley’s husband is probably charged with these tasks, it is probable, statistically speaking. (Plus, she likely would’ve written about it if it was her responsibility). We are also left uninformed about all of his other responsibilities, including career. Does he have a high-stress job with a long commute that he nevertheless works hard at so he can provide for his family? Readers are left to wonder. Anyhow, we do know that he doesn’t braid his daughter’s hair and sometimes he forgets to put things away.
Hartley admits, “My husband does a lot. 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.” See? She isn’t a nag. She appreciates her husband—sort of. She’s simply a wife who thinks marriage should be a perfectly evenly distributed balance sheet of emotional and physical labor. Unfortunately, that’s not how good relationships work.