Mother’s Day is Sunday and if you haven’t yet purchased an expensive candle or bath salts or bought the ingredients for brunch, relax. There’s a perfect gift you can give that won’t cost anything, doesn’t need any time to arrive, and will keep giving all year long. It has the added benefit of making you seem woke AF. It might even make you woke AF.
It’s also simple: make an effort to understand and address the emotional labor gap between men and women in families in the US, then propose some solutions to the gap in your own home. Do this the Saturday before Mother’s Day, preferably over her beverage of choice, and then give her Sunday to herself.
The concept of emotional labor started as a very specific sociological term, to describe workers who have to control their own emotions to properly do their job, and the toll that takes on their lives. It has come to be used far more broadly, especially after Harper’s Bazaar ran an incredibly widely-shared story last year by Gemma Hartley, in which she outlined how emotional labor functioned in her own home, with her husband whom she identified as a solid feminist ally. If you want to understand why your wife bristles when you brag about all the chores you just accomplished, or understand modern moms, especially modern moms who are also invested in careers outside the home, please, read Hartley’s essay.
Emotional labor has come to mean all the little organizational tasks that make organizations and homes run smoothly, but which remain invisible to the people who rely on that work without actually doing it. Think: ordering birthday cakes and passing around a card for going away parties at work; finding medical professionals, handing insurance claims, and scheduling appointments; planning holiday travel, gifts, and gatherings. Now picture who does those things in your life—it’s very likely a woman.
Some critics have remarked that emotional labor should not simply be shorthand for any task that is annoying to a woman— that the term was meant for specific use in the workplace, not the home. The fallacy in that logic is that controlling your emotions to do your job well is a fair description of what it is to be a parent. Apologies to any romantics out there, but running a household is like running a business, only once you have kids, you can’t quit and you can’t fire your employees, even if they poop in the conference room.
One of the biggest takeaways from Hartley’s story and others is that women feel especially exhausted by the conversations they attempt to have with their partners about emotional labor. If your partner feels like it’s easier to just do things herself than have a conversation with you about doing them, you’re failing her. If you can’t take constructive feedback or suggestions about how to accomplish a task without getting angry or frustrated, you need to learn how.
This guide is just a starting place and it’s surely skewed by the fact that my kids are young, I have a Monday through Friday job with regular hours, and I work more paid hours than my husband does. Families with service industry jobs with weekend hours and older kids will have needs that I haven’t thought of here. Read through for inspiration on the sorts of things that could be gifts of emotional labor.
Be prepared though, for your partner to suggest you take on something different than what you’re proposing. She may enjoy being the parent who is super involved at school; planning meals may be the thing she does when she’s procrastinating at work; paying bills and organizing your family paperwork may be oddly soothing for her.
This is a conversation. Get a bottle of wine and explain to her that you want to make your family life easier and better and that you’ve been thinking a lot about how much emotional labor she performs all the time, and what good care she takes of everyone. Tell her you have some ideas about how to free up some brain space for her, and that you’ve put some thought in, but that you really want to know what would be most helpful to her. Then listen.
Think about all the work it takes to keep your household running. Now think about the mother of your children and which of those sets of tasks she likes the least. Paying bills? Managing the nanny share? Coordinating carpool? Hiring a date-night babysitter? Checking homework? Pick one (or two or three) to take over. For good. Acknowledge the work it takes to do these things well, and ask her for any pro-tips on how to best accomplish these tasks.
Say that you thought these would be good tasks to take on, but that if there were others she’d rather pass off, you’re all ears. Under no circumstances is this an opportunity to simply stop doing something. If your partner has been writing thank-you notes for birthdays and holidays and you think that’s silly, do not offer to take over and then abandon the project.
Food is such a huge part of the workload of daily life in a family. Keeping the cupboards stocked with healthy breakfast foods, lunch materials and snacks that everyone likes, plus getting dinner on the table every night is a lot of work. Sure, prior to kids when the fridge was empty drinking the last beer and making popcorn for dinner was fine. The stakes are a lot higher with children.
Even if cooking is not your thing, there are ways to meaningfully participate in keeping your household fed. This is one where you’ll want to sit down and talk through what would be most helpful, depending on your current circumstances. Do you want to start packing lunches? Cooking a few more nights a week? Handling all breakfasts? Doing the grocery shopping? Compile a master list of recipes in a spreadsheet to choose from each week so planning doesn’t feel so onerous?
Other ideas in this realm: College applications for an older child; summer and school vacation child care for school-aged children.
One of the secrets of parentlife is that the weekends are jam-packed and often hold almost no time for relaxation. If grocery shopping, laundry, and soccer practice are making it impossible for your partner to go to the yoga class she loves, or just have a little unscheduled time, fix it. Or, if your mornings are nuts and everyone is forgetting permission slips and lunches and running out the door in a panic, or bedtime has become a miserable slog, make some changes.
This is a moment where communication and intellectual interest in the project that is your family are key. Don’t just say, let’s make some changes, but read up on this stuff. There are a million resources online where you can read other parents’ struggles and solutions. Women google things like, “toddler hates bathtime,” “bedtime sucks,” “afraid of spiders under bed,” and “boarding school financial aid” all the time. Identify the issue, try to pinpoint what’s going on, and offer real solutions that you can implement together. Don’t be offended if she disagrees with your analysis or suggests other solutions. The more ideas you have, the more likely one of them will work.
Maybe your toddler is ready for a big-kid bed and you need to buy one, and in the process rearrange and repaint her room. Perhaps there are boxes filled with outgrown clothes that need to go to the thrift or consignment store. It’s possible that all of your important family papers and documents are not organized. Think of a couple projects to propose and let her pick which one you should tackle first.
My kids aren’t old enough yet for me to truly understand the pressure of participating in every t-ball game, school singalong, and field trip. I got a glimpse though recently, when a friend with older children asked Facebook how many youth soccer games she needed to attend if the other parent was going to be there anyway. I was deeply shocked that so many people quoted a number higher than zero. Your partner is a grown woman and doesn’t require your permission for anything. But in the high stress parenting milieu of today, sometimes it might be helpful for you to explicitly take the pressure to do every little thing off.
If she hates soccer give her the gift of banning her from all games and practices for the next year. Likewise, not everyone always needs to go to every school event, family gathering, or routine doctor’s appointment. Halloween costumes? You got it.