When I was at my first job, I had a boss a few years older than me who was entering the dating world for the first time. This boss had been raised very conservatively and hadn’t had a boyfriend until her mid-twenties—while I, on the other hand, had been a serial monogamist since Pat Judge and I decided to become exclusive in the fourth grade. (We broke up two years later because I “didn’t want to be tied down to just one person in middle school.” #Normal.) And because I didn’t understand the nuances of workplace relationship boundaries, twenty-two-year-old Maddie spent a lot of time doing this woman’s makeup and talking with her about boyfriends. I remember at one point explaining to her that I often contextualized my romantic relationship through the lens of work. Because while it may sound unromantic, I believe that if you strip down a partnership to its most basic parts, long-term success in a relationship often looks like long-term success in the professional sphere: open communication, clear boundaries, and a commitment that you’re both in this thing for something bigger than yourselves.
Or at least, this is the line of thought I return to when I want to murder my husband in his sleep. It strips away (some of) the emotions and reminds me that so many of the conflicts in my marriage arise from the same bullshit that can make a workplace frustrating: unclear expectations, uncommunicated power imbalances, and eating food from the fridge that doesn’t belong to you. And when I can distill a conflict into its simplest form, I can usually get to work on fixing it.
What Emotional Labor Looks Like For Me
Which is exactly what I set out do a few years ago with the emotional labor in my marriage. For those not in the know, emotional labor is equal to all the invisible work women (it’s almost always women) do to keep households running. For me, right now, that looks like a constantly running to-do list encompassing everything from contacting a lawyer to draft our will, to making sure the bathroom doesn’t smell moldy when we have guests, to remembering daycare vacation dates. Even if I’m not actively pursuing any of these things at the moment (though, to be clear, that list is real and was just today), the emotional labor exists in simply being aware that things need to be done.
So for all that I may claim a feminist marriage (and for the most part, it is), I am still a human woman living in America, married to a cis white man. Which means, yeah, I do a lot of the emotional labor in my home. And like many human women living in America, that work also includes educating my husband about what the fuck emotional labor even is. I’ve sent him articles on the subject and cute cartoons; I’ve attempted to explain the concept nicely over dinner. But none of it ever seems to stick, for several reasons including 1. Stubborn, 2. Listening, and 3. Sometimes I think the concept is so foreign, it’s like trying to explain what time is to someone who’s never owned a clock.
Changing It Up
So earlier this year, I decided to take a different approach. I started thinking about the emotional labor problem through the lens of the workplace. What was causing the buildup of responsibilities in my marriage? Where did the imbalance originate? And what I realized is that one of the core issues with emotional labor is that it expects women to be both the CEO of the marriages and the operations manager. And in no business are those two jobs ever done by the same person. Because you can’t be calling the shots and running the show at the same time. So I shifted my approach, appointed myself CEO of our family, and started delegating. And while I would love for my husband to gain a deeper understanding of emotional labor and to want to fix the problem himself, right now I’ll just settle for having less shit to do.
But it wasn’t as simple as telling my husband what needed to be done and (magic!) having those things taken care of. Like training any employee on new workplace protocol, delegation has been equal parts teaching, protecting egos, and trusting the process. For me, it looks something like this:
1. Get Outta My Head
Let’s talk about this exchange:
You: I did all the things, and you didn’t help at all!
Your partner: Why didn’t you just ask me? I would have helped you!
You: I don’t want to have to ask you. I just want you to do the things without needing to be asked!
See also: this cartoon. A lot of the work of undoing the burden of emotional labor in my home is about making my partner aware of the labor that needs doing. Like so many of my female friends, my husband is not the designated worrier. He doesn’t know about my mental to-do list without me telling him (yet), so I’ve stopped expecting him to magically be aware of the things that need doing in our lives. Instead, I’ve done the opposite and started keeping a written tab of all the things that are going on in my brain at any give moment. We have a whiteboard on our refrigerator, and that’s where all the big picture to-do list items get dumped. Things like schedule the dog’s surgery, figure out a plan for daycare vacation, book flights for your mom’s visit out to see us, reconcile that bill with the doctors office, etc. Once it’s on the white board, the responsibilities become communal property. They are no longer the burden of my brain. Because here’s the thing: figuring out how to make a more equal division of emotional labor starts with opening my partner’s eyes to all the things I’m already doing to keep our household running smoothly. And if it only ever exists in my head, there’s no way to confront it. Plus, this step is easily the least confrontational (you’re not accusing your partner of anything! It’s just a list!). So I found it a helpful place to start.
2. Put On Your Big Girl Pants
There’s a step between making your partner aware of emotional labor and actually… getting shit done, and it requires some (wo)manning up. In my house, there’s always a bit of pushback against the emotional labor list. Why does the house need to be clean before guests come over? How come we have to get the dog spayed this month? Translation: I don’t want to deal with these things, so how about I just invalidate them? It’s not a malicious practice on my partner’s part. I don’t think he even realizes how deflection can feel like invalidation. But I did have to do some internal work/therapy/coaching to train myself not to listen. Why does the dog need to get spayed this month? Because the vet and the trainer said so, and if you want to argue with them about it, you are welcome to become the person in charge of talking to the vet and the trainer. But otherwise, you’re going to have to take my word for it.
In short, I bossed up. I was not elected CEO of our marriage; I voted myself into power. And in doing so, I have been able to eliminate the (additional) emotional labor of managing my partner’s feelings in and around our household chores.
3. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
The truth is, I could probably get more emotional labor off my plate if I was willing to be more confrontational about how much I’m managing, or if I drew a harder line in my marriage about what I expect out of my partner. And there are times when I do that. But I also understand that it’s hard to get humans to do what you want if you’re yelling at them. And undoing thirty-something years of social conditioning is a marathon, not a sprint. And egos are real. So I’m trying to find baby steps toward reducing the mental load, and making our division of labor more equal without burning out and resorting to martyrdom and/or doing it all myself. And that’s where the delegation comes in.
First, it has helped immensely to break up our chores so that each person is the king or queen of their domain. Michael is HBIC of dish washing, and I make sure we eat every night. He vacuums and does the budget and makes sure the baby isn’t going to eat more dirt than he should, and I make phone calls, schedule appointments, and pack the baby’s lunch. It’s definitely a fluid distribution, and we’re constantly renegotiating. But it’s helpful to know that there will never be any resentment over the fact that the dishes haven’t been washed, and is he expecting me to do that too?!
But then there are the times when I have to delegate on the fly, or call into question the distribution of labor because it’s tipped unfairly in my direction. And that’s where things can get sticky. No one likes being told they aren’t doing enough. And much as my partner protests, “You should have just asked me!” turns out… he doesn’t actually love being asked to do things. Turns out, he often thinks he is diong plenty, thanks. So in the interest of transparency, I will tell you I tried at least half a dozen ways of asking for things before finding a script that worked (because see above: stubborn).
For me, the most straightforward ask (without blame or accusation) usually does the trick. Things like, “Hey, I need you to make sure all the bottles are washed tonight, or else I’m going to have to do them by hand in the morning before daycare.” Or, “I’m spending two hours in the morning getting myself, the baby, and the dog ready, and I can’t be solely responsible for that routine. You can either make his lunch at night before bed, or be responsible for the dog in the morning, but I can’t be on the hook for the morning routine just because you’re not here.” It puts my partner in the position of having to either accept or deny my needs, which is much harder to do than deflecting an accusation of blame. And because it’s a proactive mention, I can avoid the part where I ask for something, my partner pushes back, and then I defensively say, “I’m already doing XYZ, can’t you just do this one thing?” And then cue him telling me how much he already does, and the ensuing standoff.
4. Lower your standards
Have you ever tried shifting responsibilities at work? It is a mess. Mistakes get made, too many questions get asked. And all too often, it can seem easier to just do the damn things yourself than try and get your staff member up to speed. But that is bad bossing! No one’s life gets better that way. So sometimes you have to suffer through mistakes and extra work for the payoff of having to do less work that’s coming down the road. And the same goes for marriage. Sometimes the only way I win the emotional labor battles is by standoff. Who can live in squalor longer? What happens if I just stop doing the things I “should” be doing. It requires patience, and slightly lower standards, but I find it really helpful when my partner becomes aware of the stuff I see every day (dirty laundry, unpaid bills, the list goes on). Just the other week, we were supposed to book flights for my mother-in-law to come visit while our kid is on summer vacation. I researched flights, Michael spoke with his mom to confirm her travel dates, and then… no one booked tickets. By the time I remembered, three days later, prices had gone up $300. When I told Michael, I got the expected response.
Him: I thought you were going to book them! You were looking at tickets on your phone.
Me: Why would you expect me to book them? Why was it my job to do that?
Him: I just thought you were going to do it.
Me: Cool, can you just do it now? You’re going to have to get on the phone with your mom anyway to see if she’ll fly a different airline, so there’s no point in bringing me into the mix.
And that’s what we did. It ended up costing us extra time and money to get his mom across the country, but also? Lesson learned. Don’t assume Maddie is going to do the work, and if you do, prepare for it to cost more, take longer, or not get done. I’m busy.
Further Managerial Tricks
Some other executive tactics I employ in my marriage include:
- Don’t middle man if you don’t have to: A few weeks ago, Michael took some time off to watch our baby while he was on summer break, but his job scheduled meetings during his PTO. He asked if I could come home early on those days (I couldn’t), so I suggested hiring a babysitter and reached out to one of our primary caretakers to see if she was available. And when she said yes, I put both of them on a text message and let them work out scheduling directly. Because you know what I don’t need to be on top of CEO of our house? My partner’s personal secretary. So if part of your emotional labor includes taking on responsibilities that straight up have nothing to do with you, you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself.
- Call out the injustice: Sometimes when it seems like a more subtle approach isn’t working, I’ll call out the unfairness of women’s work really plainly. For example, when we were putting together our baby registry, I didn’t want to be responsible for it just because I’m a woman and I am supposed to know about these things. So I put out a call on Facebook for product recommendations and signed up for a registry service I liked, and then approached Michael. I told him I’d already done those two things, and it didn’t seem fair for the registry to fall squarely on my shoulders, so I’d like it if he could do the follow up research and actually fill out the registry itself. While he gladly obliged in this case, when he does push back, I’ll ask him to defend his position. So just to clarify, I need to do this by myself, yes? Why? And I find that having to back my question up with a reason makes it obvious to both of us that there isn’t one. (I’m also fond of, “Is there a reason this is my responsibility?”)
- Just straight up say what’s going to happen: Sometimes I don’t have time to do the thing that is going to save my partner’s ego. Which means sometimes I just have to say, “Yo, I’m doing a lot in the mornings and it’s too much, and I need you to start taking care of the dog before you leave for work.” That said, I still tend to phrase those things in a way that puts me in a position of authority. I need is a really powerful statement, and it goes a lot further in our house than Can you. And my partner is much more receptive to a statement about my needs than a statement about what he’s not doing.
Progress, Not Perfection
Sometimes I wonder if the distribution of labor in my family will ever truly feel equal, especially now that we have a baby. With no family nearby or friends within a twenty mile radius, I acknowledge that part of the problem is that my partner and I simply don’t have enough support. We work demanding, full-time jobs. We commute. We have a dog and a baby. So while I may be objectively doing more, I know both of us feel fried. And at the end of the day, I care as much about my partnership as I do the feminist ideal of an egalitarian marriage. So sometimes, I just gotta let shit go. One of the mantras my life/business coach has given me this last year is that you should be striving for progress, not perfection. So while I’m proud of the work we’ve done over the last few years to make our house a more equal place, it’s far from perfect. On the other hand, I haven’t felt like a martyr in years. And I haven’t even wanted to murder my partner in a really long time. So that’s progress, right?
P.S. If reading this makes you think that I’m doing a lot of emotional labor so I can avoid doing emotional labor, you’re not wrong. But until I can fix the patriarchy that we’ve all grown up swimming in, I’d rather put my emotional labor toward coming up with a solution instead of just letting the problem grind me down.
How do you deal with emotional labor in your house? Do you have tips and tricks that have helped shift the burden off of you? Have you found any shortcuts to just making sure your partner gets shit done, and you don’t have to worry about it? If you do, we all want THE SCOOP.