“Women are just better at that stuff.”  This is a phrase often used to wash one’s hands of an unpleasant task.  It reminds me of something I hear sometimes from customers:  “Hispanics just clean houses better than other people.”  If so, why is that?  Not because there’s a house cleaning gene that they are passing on to one another.  Rather it’s because there are more house cleaners who are Hispanic for economic reasons related to immigration and opportunity.  When we claim a group of people are inherently better at a task that is unpleasant, something we are glad we don’t have to do, that merely points to our underlying feelings about this type of work.  Within a marriage, an attitude that some work is outside the purview of either spouse without an explicit agreement to divide duties in this manner leads to resentment and feeling taken for granted.

47% of couples argue over house cleaning.  Part of what they are arguing about goes beyond cleaning, though, to the division of family responsibilities.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2014, 47.7% of married couples both work.  In 19.9% of families, only the husband works.  In 7.5% of families, only the wife works.  When both spouses work roughly equal amounts, there is no justification for an unequal distribution of labor at home.  Dividing tasks should be a discussion, not an assumption.

What is Emotional Labor?

Let’s talk about a hidden task that has come to the forefront of feminist debate:  emotional labor.  It’s the thought and planning that goes into everyday life.  For example:

Hanging stuff on the walls, putting photographs in picture frames, thinking about whether we should buy new sheets because the old ones are getting old, thinking about the time that we are going to have dinner, thinking about what we are going to have for dinner.

Other things might include scheduling doctor and dentist visits for family members, tracking children’s schoolwork or parent-teacher schedules, making grocery lists or buying food.  Tasks like remembering birthdays,

I have to think this cover was designed to appeal to women.

Emotional labor can take place in the bedroom, too, apparently.  A study done in 2011 revealed that 79% of heterosexual women faked orgasm over 50% of the time, and that they did it to benefit their partner, to make the experience more enjoyable for him.  Additonally, some men rely entirely on their wives to practice birth control and to research the choices associated with birth control.

Invisible vs. Derided

Although most emotional labor is lamented as being invisible to the less invested spouse, it has often occurred to me that a lot of what constitutes emotional labor is openly derided in our culture.  One that comes to mind is gossip.  Gossip is defined as

casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.

Now, certainly if someone is making disparaging remarks, particularly if those remarks are untrue, that’s acting in bad faith and tears people down as well as eroding relationships.  Slander and falsehoods, as well as tattling, should be discouraged for the anti-social behavior they are. [1]  To malign someone’s character unjustly only to look better by comparison or win allies against them is a true evil.

But not all gossip is like this.  Gossip can be somewhat innocuous information sharing.  Deriding it without qualification, particularly when done by men who generally aren’t shouldering the burden of social contact equally, seems an overreach.  Without “gossip” there would be no interventions, no assistance to those suffering abuses, no Ward Council.  So there is a place for tale-bearing, provided that gossip is confined to (dare I quote Pres. Packer on this one?) what is true and what is useful.  Gossip that mostly benefits the tale-bearer or that is slanderous or that attempts to paint the motives of the subject in an unflattering light–certainly this is what’s dangerous to a harmonious society.

Gossip is social currency and the news of our social network.  Sometimes . . . but certainly not always . . . gossip means you care. [2]

Equal Partnerships

But don’t spouses share the burdens of emotional labor?  Apparently some do more than others.  The approach her husband takes to things in the home, from finding things to taking care of the scheduling and planning of their lives has one woman saying:

It suggests to me that there is a detachment to home that I do not have the luxury of having. Because if I did, then our everyday life would be a nightmare.

Studies show that the tragic event of losing one’s spouse often leads to an earlier death for the surviving spouse.  Statistically speaking, surviving the death of a spouse curtails the wife’s life by 2 years, but the husband’s life by 7 years.  The main reason for this difference is that wives have traditionally been the ones who maintain the couple’s social contacts.  The wives are doing a disproportionate amount of emotional labor: they maintain the social network that provides support to them as a couple.  And like the Little Red Hen, they are the ones to reap the benefits.  While it may boost their longevity, it is exhausting and generally taken for granted in the meantime.

And yet, I find that I don’t have a dog in this fight.  While I can feel sympathetic for those caught in this situation, who feel their efforts are taken for granted or that their spouse is detached from the arrangement of family life in a way they envy as they deal with all the daily drudgery, I am not a woman who has on the disproportionate burden of emotional labor.

Given my career and formerly heavy travel schedule, it has nearly always been my husband who has handled the lion’s share of these types of routine activities:  scheduling appointments and maintaining medical records, creating our family newsletter, scheduling parent teacher conferences, picking up sick kids from school, volunteering as a parent, coordinating carpools, and so on.  Other areas I have taken the lead on such as reminding the kids to eat, go to bed or brush their teeth.  I have also taken the lead on reminding them to buy new clothes or to put their clothes in the hamper.  The nagging more than the scheduling.  The thing we all hate to do, but apparently if we don’t chaos reigns. When it comes to things like remembering family birthdays or gift obligations, we divide these evenly–his family is his, my family is mine.  That’s the only thing that ever really made sense to me.

You can read more about emotional labor here, here, and for those who REALLY want to see what’s under the covers on this stuff, here.  It is very illuminating.  (Quotes above are from the Guardian article).

What Do You Think?

On the whole, I feel as though we have a fairly equitable arrangement in my marriage, although it’s had to change as our circumstances have.  Talking with my friends who also have careers, most of them also feel they’ve been pretty equitable.  How about you?

  • Do you shoulder more of the burden for emotional labor or leave it to your significant other?
  • Does awareness of emotional labor give you more appreciation for the necessity of maintaining social relationships and managing the family schedule?
  • Does this ever cause friction for you or others in your family?

Given how women feel about this issue, and the fact that we preach family, family, family, it’s telling that this is not a topic I have ever heard seriously discussed as important to maintaining a healthy marriage.  Hopefully many are figuring it out on their own, but my guess is that many Mormon couples expect the wife to bear this burden with little to no support or awareness from the husband. [3]


[1] Unless you are the Honor Code Office in which case they are mother’s milk to you.

[2] xoxo

[3] After drafting this, I was surprised by two things that coincidentally came up.  The first was that the video the church put out that showed a woman who sacrifices her whole day for other people, including several who don’t really seem to need her, and has zero support from a husband throughout the day, and finally collapses into tears at the end was shown in Relief Society which prompted a lively discussion, mostly about the need for self-care and boundary setting.  Thank goodness most women see that this is not an ideal way to live your life.  I blogged about it when the video was first released here.  The second thing was that a friend shared a question on Facebook (apparently in all seriousness) whether a wife should expect a husband to chip in on housework–at all.  I’m still a bit shocked by that one.