So, the day before Valentine’s day, huh? What a great time to talk about Emotional Labour. What is emotional labour, you ask? I’ll be happy to tell you! Read on:
A lot of men seem to think that if they give their SO a giant gift for V-day, that discharges their obligations for the rest of the year (as if 20 chocolate-covered strawberries or a ridiculously overpriced bear will replace being loving and thoughtful). There’s even a significant number of men who regard V-day as the day when women go completely crazy, demanding flowers and gifts like they’re owed something. Women. Such gold-diggers, amirite?
A lot of women do get upset if their expectations of V-day aren’t met; if it’s one of the only times a year their SO demonstrates any kind of awareness that there’s two people in this relationship, sure they’re going to be disappointed! For the rest of the year, they do all the emotional heavy lifting; taking care of their partner’s needs, nurturing, supporting, cooking, cleaning, working, taking care of the kids (if they have any), and generally doing everything else so their partner only has to work for a paycheck, and not any other time. For some women, being a supportive partner is a full time job, with no pay, no promotions, and often, no support. Of course they want flowers!
(Deliver them to her workplace; they want to prove that they do, actually have a partner that thinks about them once in a while, since Tina in accounting has her doubts.)
Don’t believe this is really an issue? There are lots and lots of places on the ‘webs where they go to talk about it, and one of the saddest was a Tumblr conversation I read where women wrote and wrote and wrote about how hard it is to be partnered to a man who not only doesn’t realize how much care and support he receives, he somehow manages to feel entitled to that care and support, while not reciprocating it in any way. I watched an old episode of “Supernanny” this morning where a husband said that his wife was supposed to do all the work in the house and take care of their three kids 24/7, and therefore didn’t deserve any appreciation or thanks for it. Or, as one woman put it in another essay, her partner thinks that all the love and support he gets from her is something she should do for free, out of love for him.
That would work, if he gave the same in return, but he doesn't. Many men don’t. They assume it’s a woman’s job to take care of everything around the home, and as a part of that, their emotional well-being and their relationship, even if she also holds a full-time job. She asks him about his day, she takes care of laundry, cooking, and the million small things that he doesn’t realize she’s even doing. Again, even if she has a full-time job. It’s what women are good at, he thinks; they’re naturally made to take care of men. Women are kind, soft, sweet, nurturing helpmeets who will always put him first. Nature made them that way! Experts have said so! John Gray has a best-selling series about how women are nurturers!
And many women do end up taking care of their spouse in all emotional matters. They always put him first, they let him pick the movie, the restaurant, the TV show. They go with him to things he’s interested in, they allow him to make fun of and belittle their interests, they get used to building their entire lives around him and his needs, and they take care of their own needs in silence. Who remembers birthdays? Who keeps track of doctors appointments and school functions, and how their friends are doing? Some women even take over the emotional labour of dealing with their partner's family - who's sick, who's moving, where is everyone going for Thanksgiving.
“Not me!” you may say, “I’m not like that!” (And I'm fairly certain at this point, that 20% of the men reading this will stop right here, 30% will be angrily writing "nu-uh!!" comments without reading further, and the other 100%* think this isn't how they are with their partners). Well, let me give you a scenario. Your wife gets sick – really sick, and she’s not going to get better any time soon. The laundry gets done slowly, and you can’t rely on her to pick up the dry-cleaning, or darn your socks, or make clothing for the hobby you both share. She can't remember birthdays, and can't do the Xmas cards. The dishes go unwashed, dinner is uncooked, and she’s on the sofa all day, reading or working on the projects that make her now somewhat curtailed life meaningful to her. Dust bunnies pile up. She goes to bed early, sleeps late. You have to go out and pick up her prescriptions, and drive her to the multiple doctor’s appointments she needs. She isn’t up to going grocery shopping, and when you want to go out and do things, she doesn’t want to go because she feels terrible. Her needs become many; you have to unload the groceries and put them away if she can’t help, you have to take care of the house, pay the bills (she can’t work), care for her when she’s really feeling bad, and do all these things as well as all the things you did before.
What do you do?
Well, if you’re my husband, you load the dishwasher and unload it. You’re patient when the laundry gets delayed, and the ironing piles up. You iron your own shirts, you go grocery shopping, and you do the cooking (and cleaning up after). You stay home with her if she needs you to, and you go to events alone. You drive her everywhere, and laugh and hug her and reassure her when she expresses her deep guilt at not being able to do the things she could do when she married you. You are patient, and loving, and kind, and you tell her you love her every single day, multiple times a day. You pick up all the threads she could no longer carry.
Bob and I don’t make a huge deal out of Valentine’s day, because for us, every day is Valentine’s day.
(Go ahead, you can throw up in disgust if you need to; I’ll wait.)
(Back? Good. I hope you feel bett… oh, you got a little something on the side of your mouth, there. No, no… a little to the left… yeah, you got it.)
Bob has never, ever, given me a hard time for being sick. He doesn’t object when I work on my projects – in fact, he encourages me, every day, and tells me constantly how talented and smart I am, and when I express fear about finding a publisher, or dealing with selling stuff on-line, he helps me. He doesn’t complain when I lose whole weeks to fatigue or migraines, he just worries about me. He still thanks me for taking care of me when he was in the hospital two years ago, and even when he was still in real pain from surgery, he worried about me wearing myself out taking care of him, and staying with him (as if I would ever be anywhere but at his side).
(Oh, there’s a little more vomit… whoa, what did you eat today?! Oh, okay. Better? Good. Oh, you got some on your shirt. Never mind, hot water will get that right out.)
Bob nurtures me. That’s what emotional labour is all about, caring and supporting each other, always having each others’ back, always trusting and believing the others’ lived experiences. Bob doesn’t tell me I’m overreacting when I have panic attacks or bad flashbacks; he even tells me if a movie or book will be triggering for me. He believes my lived experience, even if it makes him uncomfortable, or worried about my well-being when I remember bad things and need to talk about them to process them. He suffers with me when I hurt, but he never makes it about him. He lets me talk about the issues that are meaningful to me, and he's learned to listen, and not just try to fix, though he does that, too.
I worry sometimes that I don’t reciprocate enough, that I’m the one who isn’t pulling their weight. Nurturing is how we show our love for each other.
I know lots of great men who are right there with their partners, shouldering the combined weight of emotional labour. But I also know men who think that all of that weight is woman’s work, and that because they earn money (or more money than their partners), that their paycheck means they don’t have to do anything else. I know men who think that a (not very expensive)Valentine’s day gift discharges all their emotional debt. I read people who follow (and rightly mock) Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) and Pick-up Artists (PUAs), who show that for some men, even the effort of doing something nice for their partner on V-day is considered too much, and they complain about the patriarchal system that absolves them from caring at all about their partners’ needs, because that same system says that they have to do something on Valentine’s day, and they don’t think they should even have to do that. They complain about having to show consideration for one fucking day out of the entire year.
Even leaving the MRAs and the PUAs behind (in the pit they they so deservedly belong in), there are lots of men out there who are loved by their partners, and yet make their partners feel completely unappreciated because all the emotional support and labour that partner provides is taken for granted, even expected, and those men will complain if they don’t get it, even though they do nothing in return. These are men who have centered their entire lives around themselves and their needs, and patriarchal society encourages them to feel that way. When women talk about male privilege, that’s one of the things they mean; women are told from the day they are born to put the needs of men before their own needs. Men get the opposite side of that training – they are taught to expect that the women they date/marry will be supportive of them, and center their lives around them. Some men discard that training, but many men don't, even if they don't consciously realize what they're doing.
This system is bad for women, but it’s also bad for men – a lot of men (especially white men) grow up feeling entitled to a well-paying job, and entitled to a woman. This leads to a man shooting up a girls school and a women’s gym, and posting rambling rants to YouTube about how no woman will fuck them, and so they’re going to kill a bunch of random women as revenge. Or he never manages to find a woman who’s willing to take him exactly as he is, because “exactly as he is” means he doesn’t give a fuck about his partner’s needs. Or he kills himself by flying his plane into an IRS building because life didn’t hand him everything he thought he deserved, and he’s going to punish random people for it. It leads to whole communities of men on-line being abusive to any woman that dares to want to be part of that space. It leads to men threatening to rape and kill any woman who dares to point out male privilege. It leads to men thinking women are lesser beings, existing solely to be servants and fuck dolls for men. I try not to write about my ex-husband, but he was the kind of man that thought “compromise” meant “we will always do what I want, no matter what”.
Donald Trump is a perfect example of a man who grows up thinking all these things – women are inferior, and only useful for fucking (or “grabbing by the pussy”), objects to be leered at and discarded when they are no longer good-looking enough for him (or too old – he does keep trading in wives for younger ones...). Even with all his money, and all his power, he gets especially enraged when women point out what an asshole he is (say, by making fun of the men in his administration by having women play the part of the men on SNL). He certainly doesn’t think women are equal to him.
The thing is, the foundation of a good relationship is built on mutual support and care. If one person does all the emotional lifting, they will start to break under the weight of all work and no return. If a woman’s partner values his contribution to the relationship highly, and doesn’t even notice hers, she’s going to start to hope for a big present on Valentine’s day, because that’s the only time she can gauge how much he loves her. And when men complain that Valentine’s day is unfair, and only women get given presents, they’re saying that an expensive piece of jewelry, or even the minor effort of flowers (which you can buy on the side of the road) or chocolate (that you can buy for cheap on-line), is too much work. Because men are entitled to all the work women do, and if they’re entitled to that level of work from women, then they shouldn’t have to thank women for what is, after all, due to them.
(Ooooh, now the baby is throwing up on you. Oh dear. Must be a sympathetic puker.)
Men often respond to ideas like this by claiming that women expect them to be walking wallets, and that women can stay home while they have to work, completely eliding the fact that men are still paid more than women, and are more likely to be promoted, and much more likely to be encouraged and welcomed into well-paid fields. Moreover, the decision for one parent to stay home and raise kids (apart from being a middle-class privilege) is primarily decided by who brings in the bigger paycheck – which is almost always the man. Women are not "naturally more suited to raising kids", women just (still) tend to earn less money. And though it may be unpaid work, raising kids and taking care of a home is full-time work, with no days off.
So forgive me, but it’s a tad grating when some men act like their paid work means not only that their work is more valuable than that of women, but that they’re off the clock when they get home. And it’s fucking insulting when they act like staying at home to raise children means women spend their days lying on a sofa and eating bon bons, when in reality, they’re working all the time, night and day. I’m reminded of another episode of “Supernanny” where the husband sulked massively when Jo Frost sent the mother to a day spa and made the husband (for the first time, apparently) take care of the kids for a whole day. “Why does she need a spa day? I’m the one who works”, he said, completely dismissing everything his wife/mother of his four kids did every single day. Too many men still seem to think that parenthood is something women are "naturally" suited for, and men don’t have to be involved at all; this is not only untrue, it’s a huge insult to every dad who is equitably sharing parenthood with their partners, or raising their children while their partner has a paying job.
So what is Valentine’s day, really? It’s a bonanza for companies selling horrible chocolate and overpriced roses. It’s a day where men buy lingerie for women, completely oblivious to the message they’re sending (“this present is really for me. Also, I don’t know what size you wear"). It’s a day that reduces single people to tears, since our culture obsessively centers heterosexual cis couplehood, and implies there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have a partner, and focuses all its advertising on het couples. It’s a day that, like New Year’s Eve, inevitably ends in sharp disappointment for every woman who thought that maybe, for once, they’d get an acknowledgement of their value to and from the man they love, but were instead handed a video tape of a movie they don’t like and a free promotional toy from that man’s workplace (biographical? Who, me? Nah).
A single day on the calendar is not enough to make up for a year of neglect, and smart men (Bob is super-smart, obvs) realize that. Don’t let advertisers or the patriarchy guilt you into loving your sweetie but not expecting that love back every single frickin’ day. Don’t let them tell you you don’t count unless you have a man, any man, because that road leads to women dating horrible men who don’t appreciate/love/regard as human them, because they have been scared into thinking it’s better to be miserable and married than single and happy.
Don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking it’s okay to put up with them if they don’t value your work and effort, even if you aren’t paid for it. Don’t think you have to have a man if you don’t want one.
And don’t ever, ever, let vomit dry. Get that spot while it’s still wet. That stuff sets like cement.
I love you, Bob. Every day.
*Made you look. And grumble.