’Tis the season for women to be not at all jolly about the fact that they end up doing all the emotional labour that ensures that Christmas is a merry one. There is endless discussion of the burden women take on, why they feel compelled to do it and why men don’t notice that they’re doing it. “I think my husband thinks Santa does it all,” was one quote I saw last week. And this: “If you’re a woman in a heterosexual relationship, chances are, you’re doing most of the work.”
Lots of tasks come under discussion: the sending of cards, the wrapping of presents, the buying of food, the decorating of the house, the smoothing-over of family arguments, the avoidance of divorce. According to one survey, 61% of women say they buy all the presents compared with 8% of men; 54% of women have sole responsibility for the food shop compared with 13% of men; 51% of women are on their own doing the Christmas dinner against 17% of men. (All the other respondents said these jobs were shared. Which is at least something.) I don’t think this is necessarily confined to couples, either: many daughters find themselves playing an over-compensating role at Christmas and many single friends feel the guilt about making Christmas extra-special for their fellow single friends.
I don’t disagree that this “emotional labour" phenomenon exists and I think it’s a narrative that is familiar to most women. I am less interested in why it happens than what can be done about it. Because we all know why it happens: patriarchy, that little thing that has been around for thousands of years and is not going to disappear just because one woman earned enough money to take her family to the pub for Christmas dinner. That bit is obvious. I am more interested in how to change it. And the only way to change it is to (a) outsource or share the jobs (which requires persuasion or money) (b) not do the jobs and/or (c) not care at all whether the jobs are done or not.
The third is my favourite option. But I think the idea of “not caring” is the one women struggle with more than anything. And it’s the real reason this subject has become a bugbear. The unspoken questions are these: If women stop doing these things, will Christmas be less special? Is there something special and caring that women do that enhances life? What will be lost if we don’t do those things? What happens if we care less? This is, I think, what we are afraid of. If we don’t send the cards, who will? If we don’t make sure there is enough for everyone (whether presents, food, eggnog or festive cheer), then who will? In short, Christmas is designed to make (some) women feel indispensable.
If women stop doing these things, will Christmas be less special? Is there something special and caring that women do that enhances life? What will be lost if we don’t do those things? What happens if we care less? This is, I think, what we are afraid of
I can’t be alone, though, in getting a massive burnt-turkey whiff of martyrdom and passive aggression off all this, can I? The Christmas emotional-labour question feels very similar, to me, to the argument around shared parenting, which hinges on the idea that the mother is the “primary carer” (and the father can only be a secondary back-up babysitter). Clinging to that role becomes a stick with which some women beat themselves for years. It’s no bad thing, of course, if it’s your choice and your joy and your everything to be that person. Just as it is no bad thing to write 350 Christmas cards if it fills your heart with bliss. But if you are doing things with resentment, out of misery and grim duty, then, really, when life is short — what is the point?
It’s here that you have to ask yourself if you have the imagination to find alternatives. (And I can see for single mothers, for example, that often they don’t. Although not giving a shit about a lot of Christmas “essentials” and “special moments" might help here.) Alternative options might look like this: What happens if you don’t send cards this year? Phone or send emails instead. Or do nothing. Just for one year. Instigate a “one-present” rule or a Secret Santa for family groups. Say: “We’re doing things differently this year.” Cook a Christmas dinner that you actually want to cook and that doesn’t stress you out. Or tell someone else that you can’t face doing it and an alternative must be found. What happens if you experiment with this idea: “Would it be so awful if Christmas was just slightly more shit this year?"
You’ll notice, I haven’t said: “Get men to do the emotional labour.” This is because they are already doing the things I’m advising: deciding what they want to do with their lives and getting on with it, avoiding the things they don’t want to do. The solution is not to try and make them do that stuff. It’s to decide what to do with your own stuff. If you really care about the difference you can make and it all makes you feel like Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life (not when she is being a librarian), then great. Otherwise, why not try something different? The worst thing that can happen is that you have a terrible Christmas and have to go back to being a martyr next year. Cheers!