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Explaining Emotional Labor To My Husband Takes Too Much Emotional Labor

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woman talking to husband about emotional labor

“Why do moms make all the plans and dads just follow directions?”

My six-year-old daughter asked me this astute question during a time in my life when I was very much wondering the same thing. I don’t recall my answer; clearly, it was not profound.

On that particular morning, we were packing for a camping trip. I had made a massive list and had been working steadily since 7 a.m. gathering various items into various piles, pausing now and then to ask myself why in the world I continued to operate under the stubborn illusion that camping was “fun.”

My husband, who was diligently taking the bags in the “ready for loading” pile to the car, had recently returned from a three-month fieldwork assignment in San Francisco as part of his graduate program. I had stayed behind in Portland, Oregon with our two kids and my full-time job.

It had been the right move for him, as the assignment was in a locked psychiatric ward and would leave him with little to no energy to handle the demands of young children. In the weeks leading up to his departure, I felt some understandable anxiety, but also a mounting sense of anticipation. The introvert in me kept imagining the blessed solitude that would await me each night after the kids went to bed — 90 minutes of blessed solitude. Every. Single. Day.

I had lots of plans. First, I would pour myself a glass of red wine. The good stuff, straight from the box. Then I would write for 30 minutes. Then I would read for 30 minutes. Then I would pop an enormous bowl of popcorn, seasoning it with all the things my husband dislikes, like dill and nutritional yeast. Then I would eat the entire bowl while watching The Office, a show that I’ve been watching off and on for the last decade because my husband doesn’t care for it and my solo nights on the couch are few and far between.

Of course, my imagined scenario didn’t exactly play out. I did eat lots of popcorn and got through nearly three seasons of The Office. I did write, but I did it at 5:30 a.m. instead of 8:30 p.m. because I quickly realized that by 8:30 I would not have a single ounce of creative energy left to expend. After all, 100% of my energy, creative or otherwise, had already been squandered on clearing, collecting, wiping, folding, hanging, scrubbing, loading, unloading, and sweeping the floor.

I can’t count how many times I swept that floor. It’s a chore my husband typically does on a nightly basis, while I’m getting the kids ready for bed. The task, though tiring, is inevitably satisfying, as children have a tendency to leave a trail of sand and crumbs behind them wherever they go, even if they have not encountered sand on that particular day, or even if they have not consumed anything particularly crumbly.

By the time 8:30 rolled around, if I was lucky enough to be done with the kids’ elaborate and individualized bedtime rituals, which often didn’t realistically conclude until 8:45 or 9 p.m., I had nothing left to offer this world.

I also realized that I had not factored conversations with my husband into my imagined post-bedtime routine, who might be temporarily residing in a different city, but who was still reachable by phone. So instead of writing or reading, I sat on the porch with my phone on speaker, and we caught each other up on our respective adventures of the day.

I would tell him how the kids had built a fort out of blankets and pillows and stayed inside for nearly half an hour eating rice crackers. He would tell me how he found a Chinese place up the street with $9 lo mein that could last him three meals.

I would tell him how our son, then almost three, wouldn’t eat his dinner, how our daughter taunted him because she was done first, and how he hit her on the shoulder to which she responded by shoving him off his chair, and how I didn’t even know why I bothered making dinner, and how many problems I could potentially solve if I just fed them Cheetos.

Then my husband would tell me about a schizophrenic patient who kept calling him the N-word and had attempted to put him in a chokehold because she was convinced that he raped her when she was five years old.

It always helped to get a little perspective.

Photo: mikoto.raw Photographer/Pexels

RELATED: We Need To Appreciate The Unpaid Emotional Labor Of Single People

About a month in, my coworker asked me how it was going flying solo, and I told him, “It’s easier and it’s harder.”

On the one hand, I felt like I was cleaning All. The. Time. And I’m not even a clean freak. My goal was to get the house to a passable state each day, which meant being able to rest a hand on a surface without fear of encountering an Unidentifiable Sticky Substance or being able to walk across a room without fear of stepping on a Lego.

On the other hand, I found it strangely liberating to have a husband over 600 miles away. We had our nightly chats, which only once devolved into an argument, and I didn’t have to deal with the daily puzzle of delegation, of who would do what and when. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was taking on too much. I never had to feel frustrated that my husband had come back from Walgreens with only two of the three items I had sent him out for because I’d forgotten to text him The List.

There was an odd comfort in knowing that I’d have to do it all, that it would all be done My Way, and that I could just hit pause when it came to my exhausting and ongoing quest for equity. At that time in my life, I did not yet have a name for the vexing imbalance I felt when it came to household management, even though we had worked out a fairly even division of chores.

It was during those three months that my sister texted me a link to an episode of the Dear Sugars podcast called, “Emotional Labor: The Invisible Work (Most) Women Do.” I listened to it, and my heart began to race. I thought, “Aha! This is it!” I felt the same relief that a patient might feel when a doctor finally diagnoses a condition, finally gives it a name.

For so many years, I had felt a nagging pain. During so many marital spats, I had tried to articulate this pain. But whenever I did, it sounded so trivial.

“It’s a lot of work to _______.” That blank could be filled in with: find a daycare, enroll a child in daycare, make a doctor’s appointment, make a dentist appointment, sign a permission slip, find a summer camp, enroll a child in summer camp, plan a vacation, pack for a vacation, plan school lunches, pack school lunches, plan weekend lunches, pack weekend lunches, plan a birthday party, remember my mother in law’s birthday, find a plumber… I could go on (and on), but I’ll spare you.

And my husband’s response would predictably be: “Then ask me to do it.”

To which I would respond with some variation of: “But I don’t want to have to ask. It’s a lot of work to ask!”

To which my husband might roll his eyes. “Is it, though?”

Or, he might shrug his shoulders and throw up his hands in exasperation. “I can’t read your mind! What do you want me to do?”

And then I would start to second-guess myself. Was I being unreasonable? Was it that much work? Shouldn’t I be grateful that he swept the floor every night, and leave it at that?

But the Sugars told me otherwise. They had handed me a diagnosis. My condition was real. I was suffering from a chronic case of Excessive Emotional Labor, and I wasn’t the only one.

Now, the million-dollar question: Was it treatable?

   

   

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After three months and 93 episodes of The Office, my husband returned from San Francisco.

We, along with a handful of friends, made “Welcome Home” signs and surprised him at the airport. The kids were exuberant. Daddy’s home!

The very first evening, our son somehow managed to kick himself in the chin during an after-dinner dance session and blood began spurting theatrically from his mouth. I was grateful that my ex-paramedic husband could attend to his wounds, as I am famously squeamish when it comes to blood. I was grateful that he swept the floor — and wiped down all the surfaces, and loaded the dishwasher — while I read the kid's bedtime stories. I was grateful for his presence in our bed, snores and all, and for the warm, broad back I could wrap my arms around and instantly feel less alone.

Then, the sh*t hit the fan.

Over the next four months, it was one thing after another. For the first two weeks, he was back, he had to study for a huge test. He was a nervous wreck and after three months of solo parenting, I found myself facing more weekends alone with the kids.

Then my mother-in-law flew out to visit, meeting her grandchildren for the first time (long story). That wasn’t exactly relaxing. During the visit, my husband had a panic attack and threw up all over the car. He lay on the couch while I cleaned up vomit, tended to him, wrangled the kids, cooked, cleaned, and entertained my mother-in-law.

Then he was supposed to meet us at a cabin near Lake Michigan, but he overslept and missed his flight. I spent four precious hours of my six-day vacation on the phone with various airlines trying to figure out how to get him on another flight.

Oh yeah, and that Labor Day camping trip we were packing for? Kind of a disaster. Our campsite, as we came to find out, was infested by ground hornets, and we ended up eating most of our meals in the car.

A few weeks later, back at home, my husband woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t move his hand. Turns out, he had a rare and random condition called radial nerve palsy. It got better, slowly, but in the meantime, I had to button his shirts and go back to sweeping the floor.

Then he got pneumonia.

The irony could not have been more cruel. I had recently had a revelation, a spiritual awakening, if you will. I knew the darkness that had been plaguing me for so many years, particularly since having children, and now I had seen the light.

And yet since my husband’s return, my emotional caseload seemed to have increased exponentially. Now that my problem had a name, it was no longer some vague buzz in my ear, but something I was acutely aware of — which almost made it worse.

From my husband’s point of view, I was being a nag. And he wasn’t wrong. I was feeling bitter, overwhelmed, and not particularly gracious.

Somewhere between the radial nerve palsy and the pneumonia, when we had a moment to exhale, I asked him to listen to the Dear Sugars episode. I thought it would be as revelatory and earth-shattering for him as it had been for me, that it would bring a sharp clarity to so many of our previous arguments, and also help him understand my current state of mind.

Instead, he shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. “I just don’t buy it.”

When the pneumonia hit, I told him he could make his own chicken soup.

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Gloria Steinem has famously said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” 

Photo: rüveyda/Pexels

I know I’m not the only woman who has become more aware of emotional labor in recent years but doesn’t know what to do about it. I am trying to set myself free, but I’m still kind of irritated.

My anger is not directed at my husband. Okay, it’s only occasionally directed at my husband. But I’m mostly irritated because now that we, as women, have diagnosed our “condition,” we find ourselves faced with the thankless task of explaining it and finding our cure. Within the cocoons of our own homes, we are each having variations of the same conversation, coming up against the same roadblocks, and all the while, feeling isolated and misunderstood.

After all, how do you tell your partner: “I’m doing more work than you, but it’s invisible, and I don’t want to delegate it, I just want you to intuitively understand that it needs to be done and then do half of it without needing to be asked or reminded?”

I just wish that my husband could just spend a day inside my head, à la Being John Malkovich, entrapped in the undulating tentacles of my task lists, the tangled webs of my worry, the shadowy jungles of my daily juggle. He would no doubt come out panting, sweating, gasping for air.

It’s not that he and I haven’t made some progress over the years.

Ongoing conversations, a weekly scheduling meeting, and a shared task list have helped. Just as a company CEO creates processes workflows and feedback loops, an effective head of household can do the same.

But there are some crucial differences. Unlike most CEOs, we wear a hell of a lot of hats, from custodian to scheduling assistant to CFO. And during the week, most of us spend less time working on our families than working on… well, work. The family work, the unpaid work, the “woman’s work,” is generally unacknowledged and devalued, if not actively disparaged.

When it comes to emotional labor, my husband now “buys it.” Mostly. It’s still an ongoing conversation, which sometimes erupts into an argument, which sometimes evolves into an all-out fight.

But the problem is, even if my husband buys it, most of the rest of society does not. Until this can become a national conversation, not just a private one, I’m not sure how any of us can truly be set free.

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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication, Mom, Interrupted.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.