For Mother’s Day I asked for one thing: a house cleaning service.
In the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Gemma Hartley bemoans the chore of getting her multiple bathrooms cleaned by someone else. Actually, the clean bathrooms are, it turns out, a secondary concern:
The real gift I wanted was to be relieved of the emotional labour of a single task that had been nagging at the back of my mind. The clean house would simply be a bonus.
It’s been said, here at least, that when someone uses the term “emotional labour” unironically, the person doing the mouthing is most likely a bit of a nightmare. Say, the kind of woman who complains about the “emotional labour” of hiring a domestic cleaner. Or the kind who bitches about her husband and his shortcomings in the pages of a national magazine, where friends and colleagues of said husband, and perhaps his own children, can read on with amusement.
My husband waited for me to change my mind to an “easier” gift than housecleaning, something he could one-click order on Amazon. Disappointed by my unwavering desire, the day before Mother’s Day he called a single service, decided they were too expensive, and vowed to clean the bathrooms himself. He still gave me the choice, of course. He told me the high dollar amount of completing the cleaning services I requested (since I control the budget) and asked incredulously if I still wanted him to book it.
What I wanted was for him to ask friends on Facebook for a recommendation, call four or five more services, do the emotional labour I would have done if the job had fallen to me.
I had wanted to hire out deep cleaning for a while, especially since my freelance work had picked up considerably. The reason I hadn’t done it yet was part guilt over not doing my housework, and an even larger part of not wanting to deal with the work of hiring a service. I knew exactly how exhausting it was going to be. That’s why I asked my husband to do it as a gift.
This, it seems, was unknown to said husband and so, alas, ‘twas not to be.
I was gifted a necklace for Mother’s Day while my husband stole away to deep clean the bathrooms, leaving me to care for our children as the rest of the house fell into total disarray.
She ain’t happy.
In his mind, he was doing the thing I had most wanted—giving me sparkling bathrooms without having to do it myself.
Again, the psychological intricacies of Ms Hartley’s preferences regarding bathroom cleaning do not appear to have been expressed directly to Her Loving Other, who, we’re told, “willingly complies to any task I decide to assign to him.” Perhaps he, or one of his friends, will read Harper’s Bazaar, at which point the full scale of her discontent will become apparent. Why Ms Hartley chose not to convey this issue directly is not entirely clear. Though it seems she’s been quite busy publicly cataloguing her husband’s faults – which extend from telepathic inadequacy to a failure to return gift wrap to its usual storage location:
I stumbled over the box of gift wrap he had pulled off a high shelf two days earlier and left in the centre of our closet. In order to put it back, I had to get a kitchen chair and drag it into our closet so I could reach the shelf where it belonged.
This goes on for some time. It’s not just gift wrap disarray, you know. Shoes are also left untidily. Sorrows accumulate.
“All you have to do is ask me to put it back,” he said, watching me struggle… “That’s the point,” I said, now in tears, “I don’t want to have to ask.” The crying, the snapping at him — it all required damage control. I had to tell him how much I appreciated the bathroom cleaning,
Ah, a breakthrough. Direct communication - gratitude, even - and without the nagging.
but perhaps he could do it another time (like when our kids were in bed).
Damn. So close.
Then I tried to gingerly explain the concept of emotional labour… Delegating work to other people, i.e. telling him to do something he should instinctively know to do, is exhausting. I tried to tell him that I noticed the box [of gift wrap] at least 20 times over the past two days. He had noticed it only when I was heaving it onto the top shelf instead of asking for help. The whole explanation took a lot of restraint.
Hubby’s restraint, and his own possible causes of exhaustion, are left to the imagination. We are, however, treated to the inevitable feminist boilerplate. We learn, for instance, that,
Walking that fine line to keep the peace and not upset your partner is something women are taught to accept as their duty from an early age.
This, too, it seems, is exhausting. Though readers may have doubts regarding Ms Hartley’s professed reluctance to complain.
After describing her husband’s puzzled reactions to criticism as “patriarchal,” and by implication despicable, Ms Hartley resumes her listing of his faults, and her own seemingly endless woes:
Reminding him of his family’s birthdays, carrying in my head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit the kids when we go out, keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry…
While hubby merely works full-time to keep a roof above their heads, then cleans the bathrooms, prepares dinner and “does dishes every night habitually.” All “without complaint.” The selfish bastard.
Possibly sensing that her case is not quite as sound as she might wish, Ms Hartley, a freelance writer and poet, then turns to her peers for reinforcement:
“What bothers me the most about having any conversation around emotional labour is being seen as a nag,” says Kelly Burch, a freelance journalist who works primarily from home.
Again, we’re invited to weep at the “emotional and mental energy” expended while remembering birthdays and writing shopping lists. Even brushing a daughter’s hair. Truly, feminists are heroic, undaunted and indestructible. Goddesses walking among us. And in the face of such crushing odds:
Even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labour becomes emotional labour.
But of course.
It gets to a point where I have to weigh the benefits of getting my husband to understand my frustration against the compounded emotional labour of doing so in a way that won’t end in us fighting. Usually I let it slide,
I’m sure you do, madam.
It feels greedy, at times, to want more from him.
Ah. Now there’s a thought worth pondering, perhaps at length. Instead of, say, rushing to doctrinaire posturing and self-flattering excuses.
Yet I find myself worrying about how the mental load bore almost exclusively by women translates into a deep gender inequality.
I know it’s not going to be easy for either of us to tackle the splitting of emotional labour, nor do I ever expect it to be completely equitable. (I’ll admit that I probably enjoy certain types of emotional labour far more than my husband, like planning our meals and vacations.)
Planning holidays. Will the oppression never end?
But if we’re lucky, he’s got a whole lot of life left to hone his emotional labour skills, and to change the course of our children’s future.
Yes, a lifetime of scolding, until one of them dies.
At this point, I’m wondering what the compliant and accommodating husband will make of Ms Hartley’s article, should he have time to read it in between his chores and full-time job. And what of their children? Will they too be impressed by their mother and her feminist credentials? A woman who insists that “women aren’t nags,” while complaining about the “emotional labour” of hiring servants to clean her bathrooms, and how “exhausting” it is.
Answers on a postcard, please.
Heavens, a button. I wonder what it does.