Illustration: Alessandra Genualdo


Are women really just better at emotional labour?

There is a deep distrust, says author Gemma Hartley, that even the best partners won’t – or can’t – “get” the work women do. Is it true?

Added on

By Gemma Hartley on

My husband and I grew up together. I mean that both literally and figuratively. We met in high school and have spent all of our formative teen and adult years together. Where this could have led to a relationship that struggled to mature, we went in the opposite direction and grew during that metamorphosing time, comfortably transitioning into what I consider an incredibly progressive relationship. While nurturing a relationship from childhood to adulthood comes with its fair share of struggles, there are also distinct advantages. One of the most notable advantages is that we had the unique opportunity to build our relationship roles from the ground up. We didn’t have time alone to get stuck in our ways, and we hadn’t been molded by past relationships (unless we want to count my very serious middle school boyfriend, with whom I made out on school field trips, held hands in the hallway, and never went on an actual outside-of-school-functions date).

Rob and I brought neither baggage nor knowledge to our relationship, a combination both thrilling and precarious. We knew very early on that building a life together would require flexibility and openness to compromise, and when I look back over the fourteen years since we first met, I’d say we’ve rolled with the punches fairly well. We have been together for the building of a home and a life, from the one-bedroom apartment we leased during college to the large family home we own now, complete with three kids, a dog, and a cat. We did all of that side by side, openly communicating along the way. Or at least I thought so. But why, then, were we still caught up in an imbalance in how we ran our home, how we took responsibility, how we spoke to each other? Where did the divide in emotional labor come
from, and why did it take me so long to really see it?

When I talk to my girlfriends, my mom, my aunts, my grandmother, all of them understand exactly what I’m talking about, while my husband struggles to grasp it. Even those women who haven’t previously heard the term emotional labor need only hear an example, like the frustration of telling your partner where a basic household item is kept as if he were another child in your household, and the light bulb immediately flickers on. That’s relationships. That’s men. That’s the patriarchy. That’s life.

They aren’t entirely wrong in these assessments. It is a part of heterosexual relationships, interacting with men, the patriarchy, life in general. But there’s a specific frustration that arises from the careful self-regulation of feeling, management of emotions, and micromanagement of other people’s lives that strikes a particular chord. That, I tell them, is emotional labor.

Every woman I know recognizes this work, but there is skepticism and downright disbelief when I suggest that the dynamic could ever change. “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” I’ve heard this countless times from countless women, word for word. (I’m fairly certain I’ve said these words while venting with girlfriends too.) There is a deep distrust that even the best partners won’t “get it,” that they not only won’t do what we do, but can’t do what we do. There is this notion that even if men were willing to take up more emotional labor, they simply wouldn’t understand how to—that we are hardwired so differently that there is no hope for balance. Both men and women are conditioned to believe this myth. Women are just better at this stuff.

I’ve looked at my own relationship and wondered at times if that is true. After growing up together, starting our relationship with as blank a slate as anyone could ever hope for, we still unwittingly fell into this pattern. Did I naturally take over because I was born better at this stuff? It seems a fair question to ask. After all, aren’t I more naturally organized? Better at noticing what needs to be done? More attuned to the emotional needs of our children? Maybe not. When I ask Dr. Michele Ramsey how much of emotional labor is nature and how much is nurture, she’s quick to respond that she thinks it’s almost 100 percent nurture. “Children understand gender roles by the age of three, both in terms of what they’re ‘supposed’ to be doing and what they’re not supposed to be doing. We know that from birth children comprehend a lot more than most people assume, and most children are exposed to a lot of media content (or to other children who’ve been exposed to a lot of media content) and so they learn the gender role stuff very early.” She says some women will disagree, saying their toddler sons are “naturally” drawn to trucks while their daughters are drawn to dolls, but this is simply ignoring how early those gendered messages creep into their consciousness. Kids get these messages everywhere: family, friends, media, religion, education—it’s inescapable. We model the behavior that is familiar to us, and all of us have grown up in a culture that tells us emotional labor is women’s domain.

Even those women who haven’t previously heard the term emotional labour need only hear an example, like the frustration of telling your partner where a basic household item is kept as if he were another child in your household

Pauline Campos is a first- and second-generation Afro-Latina American whose father was an immigrant and her mother US born but raised in Mexico. Growing up, emotional labor wasn’t a concept she was consciously aware of. Women performing this role was simply the way it was. If she understood it at all, it was through the colloquialism “Si el esposo es la cabeza, la esposa es el cuello” (If the husband is the head, the wife is the neck). The saying pokes fun at the notion that men are in charge when women are the ones who really run the show. Yet if there was one thing the women in her family didn’t control, it was the unquestionable gender roles they were expected to fill. The eldest of five girls, she recalls how she and her sisters were expected to wait on any man who came to the house. When a date would come to pick up Campos, one sister would get him chips and another would pour him a drink. “If he needed a refill, my dad would signal to one of my sisters like one of his customers at the restaurant he and my mother worked at to refill his water or pop or whatever it was he had been drinking while waiting for me to get ready.”

She says her father never once changed a diaper, and she had a baby on her own hip from the age of eight, often waking up her younger siblings and getting them ready for school to give her mother a break from the constant and exhausting work of running the home. “It’s just how things are done,” she tells me. Even now, she has trouble recognizing all the emotional labor she does in her own relationship with her husband. She says it takes putting on her “third-party goggles” to see the invisible labor that has become second nature because of the way she was raised. “I still find myself surprised when my husband steps in to clean or give me a break from parenting—like he’s doing me a favor and not just being my partner in parenting,” Campos says.

Most all of us, in big and small ways, have been conditioned to accept emotional labor as our lot in life. I watched my mother run our home, plan our meals and birthday parties, take us to doctors and dentists, send birthday and Christmas cards to every extended family member. I remember her being the one to lie in bed and listen to me talk at night. I remember her relentlessly trying to break through the emotional walls I put up as a teenager. I recall her ironing everyone’s clothes, and helping her fold and put away everyone’s laundry when I was old enough. I didn’t notice the mental load she carried, but I knew she was the one to go to if I needed something, be it a misplaced sweater or a running list of snacks in the pantry. All of these small things were quietly absorbed, day after day, year after year. I looked to my mother for the type of behavior that would be expected of me in the world, and to my father for the type of behavior I could expect from a partner. In my dad I saw a man who shared in the domestic labor of the home, who brought home flowers “just because,” who was always ready to be the “fun” parent, but who was never the one in charge of the emotional labor.

My mother was the one running the show, giving direction, facilitating the fun without the recognition. I didn’t notice these things outright, but I can’t pretend they didn’t inform the way I now run my home and family and relationship. Yet there is so much of my upbringing that I have been able to undo. While I didn’t have a particularly problematic childhood, I was raised to think that feminist was a dirty word and watched everyone around me tout traditional gender roles as the gospel. For the most part, however, my husband and I have been able to move past these stagnant roles and into a relationship that is markedly different than that of our parents, just as my parents had markedly different relationships than those they witnessed growing up.

Yet emotional labor remains a constant from one generation to the next. Even when we talk about it with our partners, it doesn’t seem to change. It’s a constant we see in so many relationships across so many cultural and societal boundaries different than our own. This can lead to a sense of inevitability, a misapprehension that the division of emotional labor between men and women is somehow predestined, even biological. It can be hard to accept that culture could so entirely convince us that these are our natural roles without there being some truth to it. But the deeper we look, the clearer it becomes that in emotional labor, nurture trumps nature at every turn.

Initially, in researching and thinking about different partnership models that might light a way out of the emotional labor quandary, I set out to look at matriarchies. But it quickly became evident that my logic was flawed. Flipping the script and focusing on cultures in which women run the show was not going to address the fundamental problem of imbalance; it would simply reverse the roles. Only an egalitarian structure would lend that critical insight about how the hell we get out of this mess. This led me to anthropologist Barry Hewlett’s research on “the best dads in the world”: the men of the Aka tribe.2

The Aka Pygmy tribe consists of around twenty thousand people who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that isn’t without gender but certainly bucks what we would think of as traditional gender roles. Hewlett found the Aka to be the most egalitarian parents of any people he had ever studied. The roles of men and women are interchangeable both at home and on the hunt, with men slipping effortlessly into caregiving roles without micromanagement of any kind, and women often outperforming the men when they go out to hunt. Everyone in the Aka tribe seems to know what needs to be done and how to do all of those jobs without being told. Even, perhaps especially, when it comes to parenting.

I still find myself surprised when my husband steps in to clean or give me a break from parenting—like he’s doing me a favor and not just being my partner in parenting

While we may be wedded to the idea that mothers or other female allo-parents are the most natural nurturers for a child, the men of the Aka tribe turn the biological debate on its head in how they raise their children. Hewlett noticed during his stay with the Aka that male breastfeeding (or at least using the nipple for comfort) was a completely normal way for men to comfort their babies when the mother was away. It wasn’t unusual for men to gather for a “guys’ night” and drink palm wine while cradling infants to their chests. Hewlett found that Aka fathers were within arm’s reach of their children 47 percent of the time—more available to their children than any other fathers in the world. There is no stigma attached to men slipping into the role of primary caregiver, because there is no preconceived notion among the Aka that women should “naturally” assume that role. Intimacy between father and infant is the norm, just as intimacy between mother and infant is. Which begs the question of where we got our Western ideas about what is natural in the first place.

Indeed, when I ask most women about the emotion work that goes into their relationship with their children, they assume they have a slight edge over their partners. They have stronger intuition, a better ability to pick up on moods and disturbances. They are more attuned to their children’s needs. They “naturally” have greater gentleness and compassion for those around them, or so they think. But science doesn’t back up the biological claim to compassion or nurturing. Emma Seppala, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, describes broad research finding that women and men have equal capacities for compassion but may express it differently because of the way they are socialized. “Compassion is natural and no gender differences have emerged across [various] studies,” Seppala notes in an article for University of California–Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. “While women’s expression has culturally evolved to be expressed through nurturing and bonding behaviors, men’s compassion has traditionally evolved to involve protective behaviors that helped ensure survival.”

Men are socialized to associate masculinity with aggression, emotional suppression, protection, and breadwinning. Women are socialized to associate femininity with emotion work, caring, nurturing, child rearing, and deference. It’s obvious, then, why emotional labor is much easier for women to bring into their lives and identity, even though men are equally capable. It’s nurture. Not nature.

While certain cultures can show us proof of how harmoniously and naturally an egalitarian society can handle emotional labor, they don’t show us how to implement such a model in our own lives. Becoming aware of this conditioning is one thing, but reversing its effects is quite another. Yet there is one modern example we can look to for guidance: Iceland.While many Nordic countries have become more egalitarian societies in recent decades, none have done so at quite the breakneck pace that Iceland has. It has been labeled the most feminist country in the world, but it hasn’t held that spot for long. In fact, it’s only in the past decade that Iceland has truly turned from its ma-cho Viking culture into the egalitarian utopia it’s touted as today.

Though there is obviously some contention as to whether they have feminism down to a science, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some-thing to learn from a country that boasts a low gender wage gap, the best working conditions for women, and a parliament where women currently hold 48 percent of seats alongside a female head of state.

The country also has some of the most generous parental leave policies in the world, which both mothers and fathers take. Much like the US, Iceland was hit especially hard in the global recession of 2008, and it was obvious to its leaders that government needed to change if Iceland was going to get back on its feet.

But as Joanne Lipman notes in her book That’s What She Said, there was a notable difference in the way each country dealt with the fallout. “In the U.S., the men who crashed the economy remained at their posts. In Iceland, the men were sent to jail. Women replaced them. Two of Iceland’s three banks named women as their new presidents. The entire Icelandic government resigned, right up to the prime minister.”

I think we will find our best solution if we are willing to blend the power that both men and women bring to the table

The wave of discontent following the economic crash spurred a large change in parliament as Iceland elected its first female prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, in 2009 (if you want to talk about someone skilled in emotional labor, Sigurðardót-tir is both openly gay and a former flight attendant). She quickly went to work, implementing a quota of 40 percent for women on corporate boards. She made sure that spending on men and women in the country did not slip into an imbalance by implementing a new sector in the Finance Department called “gender budgeting,” which ensured that all budgeting decisions were made with equal rights in mind. She helped ban strip clubs, introducing legislation she says was aimed at decreasing human trafficking, and legalized gay marriage during her time as prime minister.

Her agenda was feminist, obviously, but she says tackling gender inequality would not be possible without the understanding of men. “[Men] have to realize that equal rights are not merely a ‘women’s issue,’ they con-cern each and every family and the whole of society,” Sigurðardót-tir relayed in an interview with the Women in Parliaments team. “If a woman is treated badly in some way in the labour market, for example if she is being badly paid, her entire family suffers. If welfare-issues are not high up on the agenda, then it becomes a huge social problem that harms children, the aged, the disabled and, thus, most of society.”

It may be hard to imagine a political overhaul that could lead to the swift change in gender equality that Iceland has seen, but if we can shift our personal views—the false narratives that have long held us in this stagnant imbalance of emotional labor—it is possible that we could see such a change on the horizon. If both men and women can get over the notion that it is nature, not nurture, that holds us in these roles, we can come together to harness the power of emotional labor and make this valuable skill set work for us all. That means we as women need to stop tethering ourselves to the idea of our own natural superiority in emotional labor and accept that our partners may be able to acquire these skills just as well as we have, perhaps better in certain areas.

We need to trust that they will succeed instead of assuming that the moment we let something go and hand it over it will end in disaster. It probably will. It almost definitely will, but with enough time and space and perspective, it will get better. For this to happen, men need to stop feigning incompetence and learn these skills, even if it doesn’t come “naturally.”

They need to recognize the work their partners are do-ing and rise to the occasion. We all need to own emotional labor as our responsibility as adults, regardless of our gender. That’s how we fix this imbalance.I know, because I am now living on what I consider to be “the other side.”

My husband and I have balanced emotional labor in a way that works for us most of the time. Right now, I am writing this while he is at his parents’ house with all three of our children. When I returned home from the library after spending the morning on research, he had packed them up all on his own. The laundry was folded and put away. The dishes were done. The house was tidy.

Moreover, I did not micromanage any of this. I didn’t leave him a to-do list. I didn’t send any reminders of what the kids would need for the day. I didn’t have a hand in any of it. I didn’t have to ask.

Despite my endless frustrations, I have seen how worthwhile it is to lean into the issue of emotional labor rather than ignore it. While Rob and I are nowhere near a perfect balance, we are getting ever closer to that moving mark—not only because of my knowledge of emotional labor but also because of his perspective and understanding.

I think we will find our best solution if we are willing to blend the power that both men and women bring to the table. It is a conversation we must invite men into if we are going to truly find and change our blind spots and root frustrations. But we must first get rid of the power imbalance, our assumptions, and our biases, so we are listening to one another from a place of equality. And we need to know how to talk about it.


Illustration: Alessandra Genualdo
Tagged in:
long read

Tap below to add to your homescreen

Love The Pool? Support us and sign up to get your favourite stories straight to your inbox