Men can do emotional labour: I know because my husband does

Men can do emotional labour. Really.

Recently, I was out with a few girlfriends when one asked the question: “what does a feminist marriage look like?”

In response, I offered up the following anecdote from the perspective of a 43-year- old woman in paid employment and a heterosexual relationship for nearly 18 years (married for 8) with two children under the age of ten. (I give this context because it obviously bears relevance to the kinds of things I might personally place a high premium on.)

One morning a few weeks ago my husband advised me that he would be picking up the kids from school early that day because he was taking them to the dentist. Not only was my husband tending to the practical aspects of the kids’ dental appointment, picking them up from school and physically transporting them there, he had also handled what some might call the “emotional labour” aspects of it.

He had kept running track in his mind of their dental needs throughout the year and made the appointment – I didn’t have to think about it. The kids’ dentistry requirements, their medical appointments generally, their school lunch-boxes and varying food preferences, the weekly shopping list and the weekly shop take up zero of my band-width. Nada. My husband does it all.

He could recite the entire contents of our pantry and fridge on any given day of the week and heaves a heavy sigh of frustration, probably familiar to many women, when his partner goes out and buys an “off list” aubergine or adds to our already considerable collection of turmeric spice jars because she failed, yet again, to check stock levels before embarking on a shop. (If you ever need brown sugar, come see me, I have loads.)

My husband is the one our eldest daughter, shortly entering her “tween” years, often turns to for counsel when she is feeling emotional or uncertain.

Yes, I joke, that he lacks facial recognition technology and remembering people’s names, and keeping up social connections with family, friends and the community often falls to me, but, you can’t have it all.

When it comes to performing so called “emotional labour” alongside routine domestic tasks, something in recent years many heterosexual women have quite publicly complained is lacking in their male partners, including an essay that went viral two years ago penned by US writer Gemma Hartley, Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up, I can honestly say that in that regard my husband excels.

And I believe that is the cornerstone of our “feminist” marriage.

Yes, I am what I like to call a “professional feminist”, as I spend my days reading, writing and speaking on contemporary feminist topics and campaigning for change, and our marriage is not feminist insofar as my husband shares this passion to the same degree, though he certainly doesn’t oppose it.

Our marriage is feminist in the sense that his everyday actions, his carriage of not only 50 percent of the practical aspects of the running of the household and family life but 50 percent of the emotional labour, means that I have the time and mental bandwidth to do this work, or any work for that matter.

I offer this anecdote because I think it represents a key battleground in the fight for gender equality that hasn’t traditionally received quite as much attention compared to the workplace, though that’s changing – the home-front. That is where we need “male champions of change” to step up beside women if we are to achieve gender equality.

I started to think about this again last week after writing a column for Women’s Agenda revealing that a decade’s worth of effort to “engage men” in the fight for gender equality had yielded somewhat lacklustre results, according to new research from Chief Executive Women and Bain & Co. While the majority of men support gender equality in theory, too foo made a high priority of doing something about it in practice.

The research showed a glaring “perception gap” between the kinds of things men and women prioritise as making a difference, particularly whether the home front featured high on the list of priorities. Women, surprise, surprise, included “sharing household responsibilities with a co-habitating partner” in their top three, while taking on a fair load of domestic drudgery, surprise, surprise, did not feature prominently among men’s priorities.

This “perception gap” is mirrored in other new research released late last year showing a gap between men’s principled support for gender equality and their willingness to live it in their personal/ private lives, particularly if that means taking on an equitable load at home.

The new study in the journal Gender and Society, Attitudes and the Stalled Gender Revolution: Egalitarianism, Traditionalism, and Ambivalence, found that though two-thirds of Americans and three-quarters of millennials say that they believe men and women should be equal in both the public sphere of work and the private sphere of home, but roughly a quarter of people’s views about gender equality are more complicated and differ regarding work and home.

Many said that while women should have the same opportunities as men to work or participate in politics, they should do more homemaking and child-rearing.
Why? Because while we have invested heavily in tackling gender stereotypes about women at work (and that work is by no means complete), stereotypes about women and men at home, particularly that women are naturally better nurturers and caretakers and men are naturally clueless, strongly persist.

Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the authors of the study credited the “stalled gender revolution” to this cognitive dissonance.

“You can believe men and women have truly different natural tendencies and skills, that women are better nurturers and caretakers, and still believe women should have equal rights in the labour force,” she told the New York Times.

Responding to these findings in an essay for Medium about “woke men who still want housewives”, feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote that, “One way to combat this line of thinking is to highlight how fully capable men are in the private sphere”.

In that spirit, I offer up my husband as an example of male capability in the domestic sphere, including when it comes to the thornier and, supposedly for men, harder to grasp aspects of emotional labour. It can be done.

(An aside, I do wonder if the spate of recent essays penned by women decrying men’s uselessness in that regard, though written from an understandable place of frustration, have helped normalise the cultural narrative that men are fundamentally incapable of doing it — much like advertisements featuring bumbling men trying to figure out how to open up a bottle of washing up liquid helped harden beliefs men can’t perform routine domestic chores?)

So men go forth and open that bottle of washing up liquid, the very one I know you’re perfectly capable of noticing was near empty and dutifully added to your personal shopping list to procure whilst simultaneously remembering to pick up two packs of Pokeman cards for children’s birthday parties this coming weekend – in addition to topping up the wrapping paper, which you just happen notice was running low.

You’ve got this.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

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