12 November 2019
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What's emotional labour and should men do more of it?

Fi Bendall
3 June 2019

Call it emotional, mental or invisible labour, it’s basically all of the work women, and it’s mostly women, do outside of their job or career to organise a household and run a family. It’s the neverending and always growing inventory of lists and tasks women carry in their heads to keep the show going – because the show must always go on.

As the author Gemma Hartley wrote in her Harper’s Bazaar article ‘Women aren’t nags; we’re just fed up’: 

Emotional labor, as I define it, is emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. It envelops many other terms associated with the type of care-based labor I described in my article: emotion work, the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labor, invisible labor.

It’s not only about who does the dishes or who mows the lawn, or any of the other household chores domestic partners often bicker about. It’s about the heavy mental load mostly shouldered by women in thinking about children’s vaccinations or aged care arrangements for an elderly parent. In thinking about setting up play dates and talking to kinder teachers about behavioural changes in your child. Or staying awake late at night thinking through the minutiae of organising the next family get-together that’s coming up on the weekend.

It’s keeping all the plates spinning in the air at once and making sure the plates are clean and we’ve pre-ordered spare plates, because accidents always happen. And someone’s going to have to clean up that mess, aren’t they?

It’s all the stuff women have almost always done, mostly without any real gratitude or thanks. Which is OK, sort of. But not really.

Women are still doing all of this stuff, but now we’ve got careers and businesses to think about too. We’ve got mortgages and financial security to consider. We want nice things for our kids. Maybe even a few little things for ourselves along the way. We want family. We want career. Perhaps the men in our lives could help that happen? 

But it feels like we’re carrying a lot of this on our backs alone. Women have entered the workforce, but in so many ways, we’re still waiting for men to enter the household. Cooking every now and again is nice. Doing the gardening is good. But too many men still seem to ghost through the grind. Present in body, absent in mind.

Not all, of course. But it does sometimes feel like men cherry-pick the tasks and chores they don’t mind doing, while women take on pretty much everything else that’s leftover.

Do men need to do their fair share of this work? Would it actually help men better understand their partners and bond more with their children if they did? Would a more evenly shared domestic and mental labor load help both men and women at work and at home? Might we even find a deeper harmony and understanding in sharing this work?

The world has changed a lot in the past 30 years. Women have moved with the times. Certainly, in some ways, so have men. But just as men and women have learnt to work together and appreciate each other in the workplace, maybe we can start to do the same at home. It’s sad, but I’ve known men who feel like they don’t really know their wives or children. Hard-working, professionally successful men. Even when they’re at home, they never really feel like part of the furniture.

Men could start to talk to the women in their lives about all of that invisible work, about the mental load. The braver ones could even start to take on some of the load. They could learn about all the bits and pieces, cogs and levers, that keep a household running. In doing so, they could ease the burden on the women in their lives. They could even find a new kind of meaning and connection in their lives too.

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