One of the best things about working in a bookstore is that publishers send you advance copies of upcoming books as part of their promotional campaigns. When an advance copy of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley showed up in a package of advance copies of new non-fiction books, my inner anti-feminist perked up. The book is based on Hartley’s September 2017 Harper’s Bazaar article, “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” which went viral. I vaguely remembered it, but I was more familiar with emotional labor as an excuse offered up by social justice warriors when they refuse to explain their points in online exchanges. The infamous 2014 HuffPost Live interview comes to mind, in which activist Suey Park told host Josh Zepps that she wouldn’t “enact [the] labor” of explaining why she took offence at his criticism of her ideas, when asked. A whole book about that entitled, huffy petulance? Sign me up for that dumpster fire, I thought.
I only had to read the first page to discover that Fed Up wasn’t quite the limp feminist lettuce I thought it would be. Hartley begins with a story about Mother’s Day. Her husband asked her what she wanted as a Mother’s Day gift, and, after thinking about it for a while, she told him she wanted him to hire a cleaning service to do their bathrooms and floors once a week, and maybe clean the windows if the rate was reasonable enough. They could afford it, and since Hartley’s freelance writing career was picking up steam and the couple had two young children, she didn’t have time to do those chores as often as they needed to be done. The cleaning service would take care of it and if her husband hired the service—researched, asked friends for recommendations, paid—that meant that she wouldn’t have to. That was half the treat. For once, something would get done in their house, and she wouldn’t even have to think about it.
Her husband waited for her to change her mind to an “easier” gift, “something he could one-click order on Amazon.” He procrastinated until the day before Mother’s Day, when he finally called one housecleaning company and was appalled by their rates. Hartley, who controlled the household budget, assured him they could afford it and affirmed that she still wanted it. Hartley’s husband instead announced that he was going to save the money by doing the cleaning himself. He gave her a necklace for Mother’s Day.
He didn’t do as good a job as the professionals would have done, and he only did it for a few weeks before stopping, but the part of the story that actually made my throat block up with tears was the necklace. The necklace, a material item that Hartley hadn’t asked for and didn’t want, was thrust into her hands by the man she loved in lieu of an act of service that would have required some effort. Instead of putting in some administrative work—phoning around, comparing rates, working out a schedule—to get a job done and ease some of the stress his wife was feeling, Mr. Hartley gave her a meaningless thing and half-clean bathrooms for a few weeks. What she wanted: someone else to arrange for the cleaning to be done so she could concentrate on her work. What she got: a thoughtless gift, a house that was hardly cleaner than before and a husband who complained about the amount of effort it would take to get her the help she had asked for.
I couldn’t believe a gender studies book had actually articulated a problem I’ve had. I still sensed a divide between the kind of life Hartley described, with her budget that allowed for a cleaning service and her freelance writing career that left her too busy to do the cleaning herself, and my own below-the-poverty-line existence, but another story in the first couple pages drove her point home. On the same Mother’s Day, Hartley’s husband had taken down a bin of wrapping paper, ribbon and gift bags to wrap both a gift for his mother—a gift Hartley had chosen and purchased—and the necklace he gave to Hartley. He wrapped the gifts, but left the bin of wrapping supplies on the floor in the middle of their master bedroom. Hartley was immediately bothered by it, but decided to wait and see when he would put it away. Days later, the bin was still sitting in the middle of the room, pushed and kicked out of the way when she needed to grab laundry bins or he needed to grab his workout clothes. Despite the fact that he was the one who had taken it down, he never put it back. Eventually, Hartley dragged a chair into the closet so she could put the bin back.
Watching her, a short woman, struggle to lift the bin above her head, her husband said, “All you have to do is ask me to put it back.”
Reading that, I had to swallow my anger. I read his words again and again, scarcely believing his audacity. How dare he? How could he lack the self-awareness to realize that he was admitting that he could have put the bin away, but he didn’t because she didn’t tell him to? He knew it was in the way, he knew it needed to go back, but somehow he needed her direction to get off his butt and do it? Who does he think she is, his mother? Those are the exact same things I think when my boyfriend does something similar.
Just a few days ago, after we walked home from the grocery store, my boyfriend sat the bag he had carried home on the kitchen floor. There was a carton of milk in there, as well as some cans that needed to go in the cupboard and a six-pack of Irish Spring soap that needed to go to the bathroom. I watched him, waiting to see if he was going to put the items away. He took off his jacket and shoes and beelined straight for the living room. Within a minute, Red Dead Redemption 2 was loading, his headphones were on, and the grocery bag was forgotten.
Our apartment is far from a spartan, pristine space. Pretty much the opposite. We consciously choose relaxation and fun—and, for me, time to work on my writing—over a perfectly tidy living space. I tolerate a lot of laziness from both of us, but an abandoned grocery bag with perishable food in it just won’t fly. Now, I’m a disagreeable woman with a passive-aggressive streak so pronounced my second grade teacher mentioned it on my report card. My reaction was to sigh heavily and stomp around as I put away all the groceries. The last thing in the bag, the Irish Spring soap, didn’t belong in the kitchen and wasn’t going to spoil, so I sat it on the side table next to my boyfriend and said, “Put this in the bathroom when you get a sec.” It would be the one thing from our grocery run that he would put away, I decided.
A few hours later, I went into the bathroom. There, sitting on the counter in front of the sink, was the six-pack of Irish Spring. The bathroom cupboard, where he damn well knows it belongs, was right underneath. All he had to do was open the door and place the soap inside.
I marched back into the living room, held up the soap, and asked, “Why didn’t you put this in the cupboard?”
“You just said to put it in the bathroom,” he said, without even pausing his game.
I don’t consider myself a feminist anymore, but within the first few pages of Fed Up, I knew deep in my bones that Hartley had a point. Emotional labor is real, but we have a problem of definitions preventing us from discussing it properly.
True to an older meaning of the term, Dictionary.com defines emotional labor as “work that requires good interpersonal skills.” Some still use the term when they talk about service and retail jobs that demand emotional acumen, which are filled mostly by women, but the oh-so-eminent Urban Dictionary’s cynical definition is, surprisingly, more accurate:
Emotional labor was originally a word for people who have to put a lot of uncompensated emotional effort into their job. Recently, however, it’s more along the lines of “idk, it kinda sucks when I have to listen to my boyfriend” or “now that I’ve made my statement, I don’t want to defend myself or back it up because it’s emotionally laborious[.]
By Gemma Hartley’s definition, emotional labor is not an excuse you can use to avoid having to explain your ideas. It’s a skill, an extra layer of effort you put into something when you really care about it. It’s the figuring out, the organization, the planning and coordinating that goes into everyday life that mostly women take on. Getting the kids to school on time, with everything they need, including nutritious, thoughtfully packed lunches? Emotional labor. Meal planning? Emotional labor. Decor that turns a house into a home? Emotional labor. Planning weddings, anniversaries, vacations? All emotional labor. Not to mention household budgeting, finding the right doctors, dentists and specialists when needed, and making decisions regarding social situations, like what gifts we should give to extended family members or which side of the family we should spend Christmas with. Emotional labor is the work others often don’t see, because a lot of it happens inside women’s’ heads as they worry and agonize. Should the family embark on a new healthy eating plan? If so, which one, and how will you juggle your oldest child’s picky eating? Should you email your youngest child’s teacher and schedule a meeting to talk about the bullying he told you about? If so, when? The car needs new brakes … when would be a good time to take it in? It’ll have to be soon, since your husband’s big business trip is coming up …
Those are examples Hartley mentions in Fed Up, and you’re correct if you detect a mommy slant to them. They aren’t exclusively the domain of women. But they are things that, if women don’t do, no one does. Even good fathers, who Hartley acknowledges have picked up more of the domestic and childrearing responsibilities in the past few decades, often don’t grasp the level of care that keeps a household running. Hartley’s husband often cooks dinner, does the dishes and puts the kids to bed when she’s up late working. She refers to him as a “good man and a good feminist ally,” and says that it “feels greedy, at times, to want more from him.” He’ll do any chore she asks him to.
But that’s the rub: he’ll do any chore she asks him to. After the gift wrap bin debacle, Hartley describes saying, though tears, “I don’t want to have to ask.” That deeply resonated with me. Like Hartley, I “don’t want to micromanage housework. I want a partner with equal initiative.”
I run the show that is my relationship with my boyfriend. If I don’t start the text message brainstorming over what we should have for dinner, I’ll get home from a closing shift at 10:30pm not only to no dinner, but not even to an inkling of an idea of food. You would think we’re amorphous blobs who don’t require sustenance, based on my boyfriend’s meal planning. We’ve lived in the same apartment for two and a half years. Garbage day has always been on Monday morning, but in cases where I forget to ask him or don’t do it myself, the garbage does not make it out to the bin, and therefore does not make it out to the curb. He does the dishes and cooks—once I’ve initiated the conversation around what we should have, and often outright decided the matter. I refuse to take charge of our relationship with his disparate, distant family, and as a result we have next to no relationship with them. When he drops the ball, I don’t pick it up.
Hartley details her heartache and reluctance over that method, espoused by Tiffany Dufu in her book, Drop the Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less. Dufu advocates simply not doing the jobs that your family and spouse refuse to help you with. She doesn’t instruct women to neglect their children—merely to let go of the things they do because no one else will do them. Things won’t go smoothly. Timmy may forget his jacket one day, hubby may go five years without visiting the dentist, but those you take care of will live with the consequences and learn responsibility. I like this method for my day-to-day mental health, but I sympathize with Hartley’s defense of emotional labor as a set of crucial skills that enrich your life, not drag it down.
I don’t call myself a feminist for the same reason Hartley thinks men should take on more emotional labor: a society in which women flourish but men suffer is just as unacceptable to me as the reverse. Women are now the majority of university graduates; men are dropping out at alarming rates. Women in their early twenties are out-earning their male counterparts. It’s not a bad thing that women are doing well, but for every kick-ass woman I know, I can name at least one man on the outs. Leaving aside the serious issues of mental health and financial outcomes, more and more men are living into their twenties and even thirties without knowing how to do basic adult things like apply for credit cards, climb the workplace ladder or replace expired ID cards.
It’s very important that men get up and go to work to support their families every day, but if that’s all they do—if it’s the wife doing the budgeting, arranging things like doctor’s appointments and writing the family’s Christmas newsletter—what happens down the road, when the wife dies? A Rochester Institute of Technology study found that recently widowed men experience a thirty percent increase in mortality; women don’t seem to have any increased chance of dying after the deaths of their husbands. In an interview for the Telegraph, the lead author of the study, Javier Espinosa, said, “When a wife dies, men are often unprepared. They have often lost their caregiver, someone who cares for them physically and emotionally, and the loss directly impacts the husband’s health.” Even worse, the risk of death rises by sixty-six percent in the first three months after men are widowed. Without their wives, men are less likely to watch what they eat and take care of themselves physically. They’re more likely to become socially isolated, because the work of maintaining a couple’s social relationships mostly falls to the woman. Depression rates skyrocket.
I’m a millennial. Looking back on my upbringing, I know I was coddled. My mom took on a lot more emotional labor than she should have in raising me. Sometimes situations arise that I don’t know how to deal with, and I feel helpless and sort of resentful that no one can deal with them for me. Millennials and Gen Z are experiencing extended childhoods, reaching adulthood’s milestones later than Gen X and baby boomers did. Emotional labor is a big part of it. We’re used to being cared for, not to caring for ourselves. Our moms made our dental appointments for us until we were eighteen, and in many cases, she still does. When there’s no one to make the call for us, we tend not to make the call at all. Leave aside the whole men vs. women issue: emotional labor is an essential part of growing up, and we aren’t empowered, capable adults without it.
Hartley describes emotional labor as “essential.” She says it “strengthens our bonds and creates care-centered structures of order within our lives.” Hearing it stated like that, I drew parallels to Jordan Peterson’s philosophy of Meaning, with a capital M. I think if Jordan Peterson heard Rufi Thorpe, an interviewee of Hartley’s, describe her husband as “show[ing] up to a life [she’s] organized,” a tear would come to his eye. When you aren’t involved in the planning, deciding and architecting of your life, you aren’t truly living it. You’re a pawn. You’re a puppet. Men aren’t empowered if they aren’t doing the work it takes to live a meaningful life.
It’s no 12 Rules for Life, but reading Fed Up felt revelatory to me. It isn’t always sensible—Hartley takes a few detours into social justice ideology that feel a little tacked-on—but she ultimately brings it around to a conclusion I didn’t expect, even three-quarters of the way into the book. She spends much of the book detailing the many ways her husband has let her down, not met her standards and acted like an overgrown child, but at the end she has a revelation: a lot of the expectations she has, for her husband but also for herself, are unrealistic. It deeply bothers her that her husband will spend a day at home with the kids and leave a big mess, but maybe the floor doesn’t have to be clean enough to eat off. There’s no way everything he does can please her all the time, but through communication and open-mindedness they reached a place of understanding. He stopped seeing domestic and interpersonal labor as women’s work and therefore valueless, and she learned to get past her perfectionism. “The more I let go of that perfectionism, the more we both benefit,” she writes in the last few pages. She makes some changes, and of her changes, she says, “I have the time and mental space to enjoy my family and my work, because I’m not so laser-focused on being in charge.”
Feminist literature excels at identifying problems, but it’s often short on practical, rational solutions. For Fed Up to end with a call for change on both sides, instead of a dogmatic “men need to change but women are perfect angels” stance, was unexpected, but the perfect ending to a book that could have been so much worse.
The author received an advance reading copy from the publisher. This has not influenced her opinion of the book. All quotes have been checked against the final bound copy.