I’d had Fed Up by Gemma Hartley on my e-reader for a while, but was hesitant to start it, as I was afraid it was another relentless read about misogyny that would crush my spirit. I eventually started reading it while on a snowboarding holiday with enough exercise and positivity around to counter any potential sadness.
While the middle section of the book could have been snappier (this is true for many non-fiction books in my opinion), the beginning of the book made me realize something about my behavior in relationships. While the book mainly talks about romantic relationships I feel that it applies to friendships and professional relationships too.
The book is about emotional labor and how women are still doing the majority of it. Emotional labor is emotion management and life management combined. Emotional labor includes remembering to send birthday cards to friends and family, remembering to get the laundry done before anyone runs out of socks and knickers, knowing what everyone’s favorite meal is and making sure all the ingredients are on the grocery list and generally noticing when something in or around the house needs cleaning, replacing or tidying. Trying to remember all these things, worrying that you might be forgetting something and making sure it all gets done can be draining. It’s an invisible and unpaid mental burden.
To be clear, emotional labor is not so much about who’s doing the work. It’s more about who remembers that it needs to get done and who worries about it. Imagine that you have agreed with your partner that they take out the bin, but you have to regularly remind them that the bin is full or that the trash will be picked up tomorrow. That reminding needs to be kind and considerate, otherwise, you risk getting into a fight. If you have to remember them more than once it’s going to be even more difficult to ask them kindly without losing patience and without making it feel to them like you’re nagging. The amount of energy that you need to invest in the asking is almost not worth it. It’s tempting to do it yourself.
While I don’t have a partner or kids this did open my eyes about my role in many relationships, both in the past and today. I’m a bit of a control freak and I like everyone to be taken care of, which can lead to me trying to think for a lot of other people. It’s not that these people can’t think for themselves, or don’t want to think for themselves. I’m so on top of things that I don’t even give them a chance.
In the book, the author is going through the steps of trying to divide the emotional labor in her household equally among her and her partner. As with every problem, the first step is realizing what’s going on. What’s causing the frustration and resentment that she is feeling? When she figures this out (and writes a widely read article in Harper’s Bazaar about it) the next step is to try and explain the problem to her partner. This is more difficult than she expects and it requires patience. The chances of convincing your partner of your point of view while shouting it at them during an argument are very close to zero. You’ll need to invest time in explaining it while both of you are calm and able to have a proper conversation. Probably more than once.
Even after she’s made her partner understand they struggle to improve balancing the emotional labor between them. Eventually, she realizes that she is the one blocking improvement. Every time her husband takes care of something he does it differently than she would have done and she criticizes him that he’s doing it wrong. Sometimes telling him off, sometimes even redoing his work. Only when she realizes that she is sabotaging his efforts things start to improve.
If you feel like you are picking up more than your fair share of emotional labor be honest with yourself. Do you give your partner, friend or colleague a fair chance? Or do you step in to ensure perfectionism (aka things getting done your way)?
The beginning of the corona-crisis for me was a good reminder of this dynamic. I tend to try to carry the weight of the world and that of the people around me on my shoulders at the best of times. Doing so during a global pandemic when everyone is having a hard time adjusting and finding a workable balance is insane and unsustainable. After having tried to think and find solutions for relatively minor problems for more than 400 people for a few days I realized I had to focus on the big picture, or I was going to hurt myself not by getting infected with corona, but by worrying about everyone’s sorrows.
I’m happy to say that after two weeks I’ve found a much better balance. Changing this dynamic was made easier by the whole world changing every few days at the same time. Patterns were being broken everywhere, so this was just one more thing that changed.
Changing the dynamics that have been built for many years in a relationship is a lot harder. Although even those might be easier to change right now while we are all scrambling to find a balance inside our homes and coming to grips with an outside world that feels alien and has changed completely in the last couple of weeks.
The world might never be the same. Can you say the same about how emotional labor in your relationships is divided?