One of the most essentialist views about the difference between men and women is that women are naturally better at dealing with feelings. But even though studies have suggested this is false, is it worth pushing men to split this kind of work, just as we have with housework and diaper-changing?
In an interesting piece at the Guardian, Rose Hackman digs into the cost of women absorbing most of the emotional labor required to make the world go round—the workplace kind (which includes conjuring and telegraphing the appropriate feelings for your customer-service type job, being pleasant at work, and doing all the menial shit workplaces tend to off-source onto women, like office housework) but also the interpersonal kind, like presenting as nice, caring, and genial, because as a woman, you’re supposed to be those things.
Even though this stuff has been studied for decades, Hackman posits that it’s just now becoming something mainstream feminism is really looking to unpack; perhaps it is the next frontier in radically rethinking how women’s work is diminished. There are real consequences for this stuff, Hackman notes: tipped workers (mostly women, mostly women of color) are twice as likely to be harassed, and in addition to all the ways men schmooze, small-talk, and seem personable, it’s a plus when they do it—it’s an expectation for women.
Part of the problem is that people seem heavily invested in this view of women as a fount of innate love, even 30-something male feminist types. Hackman quotes one as saying, “Why is the fact that women provide emotional support work, though? What if people actually enjoy it? What if women are just better at doing that? Why do we have to make that something negative?”
Well, we aren’t making it negative. For one thing, as Hackman notes, there’s a difference between being better at something naturally and better because of a lifetime of conditioning. Studies show that this is just an elaborate gender construct—that women are often cast in the role of the pleasant helper, which we then characterized it as their most natural self. And this has happened fairly constantly to women over the course of history. We weren’t (and in some places, still aren’t) given access to education, and it was therefore concluded that we were not as intelligent. We were held hostage in the home our entire lives, and celebrated for being such wonderful decorators. And on and on and on.
And for another thing—even if women are better at feelings due to a lifetime of wallowing in them, as Jess Zimmerman lays out so poignantly in her essay about the hours and hours of agony aunt duty she’s filed in her lifetime—it’s still exhausting, time-consuming, and damaging. Zimmerman suggests possible compensation, only half joking:
Rather, women should get paid for all the work they typically do for free – all the affirmation, forbearance, consultation, pacifying, guidance, tutorial, and weathering abuse that we spend energy on every single day. Imagine a menu of emotional labor: Acknowledge your thirsty posturing, $50. Pretend to find you fascinating, $100. Soothe your ego so you don’t get angry, $150. Smile hollowly while you make a worse version of their joke, $200. Explain 101-level feminism to you like you’re five years old, $300. Listen to your rant about “bitches,” $infinity.
(For what it’s worth, this “Need a Mom” service in Brooklyn outsources the mom version of this work for $40 an hour.)
And when it comes to hetero marriage, it’s almost inevitable that women will throw in on this more than men. Hackman speaks with a lawyer who is in what she characterizes as an equal relationship, who chronicles for Hackman the endless thoughtfulness that she proffers, most of which goes unnoticed—everything from whether the sheets are getting old and new ones need purchasing, to what he might like for dinner, to answering his endless questions about where various household things are located.
“It suggests to me that there is a detachment to home that I do not have the luxury of having,” she tells Hackman. “Because if I did, then our everyday life would be a nightmare. So I take on that role. That’s not my authentic self, but I have no choice.” The author posits that even if nature didn’t make us better at it, we clearly are, so “Should we just shut up and get on with it because the world would probably stop turning if we didn’t?”
That detachment to home life can be maddening. Whether it’s picture day for the child, an eye appointment that must be made, or thank-you cards that must be sent, usually it’s women who track all this stuff. These are things that many men have the luxury of thinking don’t matter all that much, or matter only to women. Things they were used to having handled by their own mothers, which then tend to get transferred in duty to their wives. Women sometimes try to ask men to care, often endlessly, or tell them they want them to want to care, at the very least, but it doesn’t seem to stick.
And it only gets worse when you have kids. You go into parenting with a perfect vision of splitting everything just so, and then the baby arrives and suddenly, as sociologists often note, we are all playing these “1950s movies” in our heads, which the urgency of parenting and the primal instincts behind it tend to reinforce: stick to what you know, what you’ve seen, what you can manage. You’re too fucking tired to fight the system.
And therein lies the rub. Getting men to understand how important this stuff is often an uphill battle that goes against everything we’ve been taught and seen modeled. In the domestic labor division wars, arguing that men simply don’t care as much about these things is a common position, though some Millennial dads are invested in throwing all in. But this is all part of anticipating needs, something men tend not to be raised to do.
I do more of the emotional work with my daughter—the sorting through feelings, the talking about them, the emotional literacy that I think is a huge part of being a good person. It’s not that my husband doesn’t think it matters. It’s that there are two of us to split things, and he gravitated toward imparting the things he was best at, which are hands-on, problem-solving skills. It’s easier to do what we know, even though we both know it’s a result of how we were raised. And the best thing we can do is try to raise a well-balanced person. But the crux of it is that she’s still associating traditional behavior with the typical gender, and all the talking in the world won’t undo the power of that division. So even as we’ve labored to make her more well-rounded, we’ve still reinforced the tradition.
And it seems men can absolutely learn to do it, but in some cases, it requires the absence of a women to step in, and it doesn’t sound “easy” either. Essays from single dads remind us that men can rise to the occasion of emotional presence when they have kids, even if they think it’s “innate.” Last year, Dave Taylor wrote about his own experience adjusting to single fatherhood, saying, “after almost 7 years of flying solo, I’ve learned a few things about finding the balance between innate male reactions and the need for a child to have a parent who is present, who is tough when needed but who is also sympathetic.”
It’s unfortunate because with parenting, it’s not something you can just turn on or off like schmoozing with a client. You have to be present in the here and now, and give the best you’ve got, and that tends to get divided in the ways that are easiest to produce on no sleep. Men can certainly be taught, but do you have a lifetime to wait? No, because you have meals to plan, RSVPs to send, and a crying child who needs to be hugged.
Image via Netflix/Jane the Virgin.