“Just let me do it.”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve said this to my husband—while he was dressing one of our children, shrinking my favorite sweater in the laundry, doing our daughter’s hair, making a to-do list for a birthday party, rescheduling the vet appointment for the umpteenth time because he wouldn’t look at what’s on the family calendar.
This isn’t necessarily the reaction I want to have. As someone who writes often about emotional labor, I advocate for everyone to step up and do this type of work. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to shift the balance in the invisible mental and emotional load women most often carry: keeping track of the schedules, tuning into the emotions of those around them, noticing and delegating or doing household work in a way that keeps everyone comfortable and happy. But it can sometimes be hard for women to give up this work. And men often use women’s “just let me do it” resistance as an excuse not to try.
At a family dinner, my great-uncle, loud-spoken and self-assured, pointed out to me a time years prior when he had decided to put in the emotional labor of booking flights for himself and my great-aunt, only to be met with anger because he had “done it wrong.” I hear this argument a lot: it’s not that men can’t or won’t do this work, it’s that they are chided when they try. The men at the table nodded along, citing dishwashers loaded incorrectly, the kids they dressed perfectly fine but not “perfectly,” all the times they had heard the phrase, “Just let me do it.” Good enough is never good enough for women—it’s always our way or the highway. To them, we’re not just nags, we’re control freaks, too.
Whenever I speak on the topic of emotional labor, interviewers and audience members almost always ask about women’s need for control. We don’t have to micromanage. Things don’t have to be done our way. We could (and, the questioner usually implies, we should) let some things go. Maybe if we gave our partners more room to explore emotional labor, we wouldn’t be stuck shouldering it all the time. Maybe we are standing in our own way by demanding unreasonably high standards. I talk a lot about how men need to show up for their lives and tune in to emotional labor, but, men retort, what about all the times women haven’t let them past the gate? What about that?
Maternal gatekeeping, the act of standing between men and their ability to become full and equal partners by micromanaging or bulldozing their efforts, is often used by men as an excuse for why they don’t take on more domestic labor. Women, some men believe, just won’t give up control who have exacting standards they think the men in their lives can’t follow.
In truth, there are more nuanced reasons women engage in maternal gatekeeping (the term technically applies only to women with children, but women can exhibit the behavior in households without them). From childhood, women are bombarded with cultural messaging that tells us we are the only ones qualified for this work. We’re told in ways both overt and subtle that emotional labor is our birthright. We’re “naturally” more in tune with our emotional side. We’re “naturally” more organized. We’re “naturally” better at keeping a household running, planning holidays, arranging childcare, noticing the details. We’re “natural” nurturers, and if we’re not, we’re less woman than the next. Though none of these assertions are scientifically true, our culture reinforces them as fact, and this prophecy becomes self-fulfilling as we grow up and take on adult loads of responsibility.
We get it in our heads early that we are better at emotional labor, and over time (and with endless practice) this becomes true. We tend to figure out the best way to care for those around us, the best way to keep everything running smoothly. It’s not usually a matter of maintaining control, it’s that we have, by trial and error, found a particular way of doing things that works best. We don’t get broken wine glasses when the dishwasher is loaded correctly. We don’t deal with a kid’s meltdown over a dirty school uniform when the laundry is done on schedule. We don’t have a six hour layover in Acapulco that steals our first vacation day when we examine at the flight itinerary before booking (looking at you, Uncle Chuck).
If you’re not the one dealing with the fallout, the attention to detail involved in emotional labor looks unreasonable, perfectionist, controlling. But in conversations with hundreds of women about their experiences with emotional labor, I’ve found that this is rarely the case. When we say, “just let me do it,” what we’re really saying is, “I don’t want to be let down again.”
Most women can easily recall a time when her partner let her down, when her standards were deemed unnecessary and consequently ignored. If we do hold the reins too tightly, it’s usually because we’re protecting ourselves from the fallout of a job done poorly, or not done at all. Maternal gatekeeping is rarely where the problem of emotional labor imbalance stems from; it’s far more likely to be a symptom of an already-imbalanced partnership.
So how can we move past maternal gatekeeping into a more healthy, collaborative partnership?
I don’t believe women need to “let it go” in order to achieve balance. Developing a set of shared standards for how partners are going to show up for their shared life needs to be based on what is going to best benefit both parties (and the rest of the family, if applicable). That requires an open conversation that goes beyond “if you want it done your way, do it yourself.” I think most men need to step up to meet women where they are, as women examine what truly serves them and where there is room for reasonable compromise.
That means both partners practicing self-awareness, and for men in particular, an awareness of how their partner keeps things running smoothly. Showing up to do the physical work is not enough, you must also tune into the emotional labor it takes to do it in a way that keeps everyone’s best interest in mind. If your efforts are met with frustration or a “let me do it,” ask for feedback rather than tuning out that job forever. Men can open up the conversation, too. It’s not a one-way street.
We have to meet in a place that makes sense for everyone. Balance doesn’t mean a 50/50 split, it means both people showing up to do 100% of the emotional labor.
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.