A few weeks ago I wrote about emotional labor, and how women partnered with men found themselves involuntarily tasked with doing the majority of it, while those men, often despite being good, kind, generous people, had no idea what they were even talking about.
This email led to getting the book recommendation for Fed Up, by Gemma Hartley, which explains emotional and domestic labor with a clarity I had never heard before, and immediately made it to the top of my “mandatory reading for all humans” list. (Seriously. Read it.)
Emotional labor refers to the work done mostly by women, including managing domestic tasks and childcare, organization and scheduling, maintaining the health of social and intimate relationships, making other people comfortable, listening and empathizing, and of course making it all look effortless so that other people can just enjoy the labor without feeling guilty.
I had an insight while reading the book that I wanted to share today, about my own semi-intentional incompetence at the vast majority of domestic duties.
My domestic incompetence is something (I’m a bit embarrassed to say) I’ve been cultivating since childhood. It was very clear to me even back then that there are “girl chores” and there are “boy chores,” girl expectations and boy expectations. For example, my brother was asked to mow the lawn while I was in charge of babysitting my little brother; my mom was in charge of everything at home while my dad worked.
It seemed incredibly unfair to me that labor was so unfairly and arbitrarily split, that girls and women were clearly saddled with way more work, and that anyone would assume I be “good at” boring domestic stuff just because I was a girl.
Not down with sexist bullshit, I started rejecting traditional gender roles in every way possible as far back as I can remember. One of the ways I did that, I realize now, was to refuse to become competent in anything relating to girl-stuff, care-taking, or domesticity.
I hated dolls, and I never participated in cooking or cleaning unless forced to. When I played house with my friends I wanted to be either the baby or the daddy. Babies and daddies don’t have to do jack shit, I knew. Mommies have to do everything.
As I grew up, my cultivated incompetence got worse.
I refused to learn how to cook until literally last year, and even now it’s a grim situation. I didn’t know how to do laundry until my late twenties, when I left NYC and could no longer hire people to do it for me. I have never, to this day, fully scrubbed a toilet.
But more so than just cultivating incompetence at domestic chores, I actually cultivated ignorance to their value and their very existence, because that is the world men live in.
It was a misguided and unconscious stab at equality: if men don’t have to pick their clothes up off the floor because they don’t notice or care about messes, then I won’t notice or care about messes either.
And honestly, I don’t.
I leave every single cupboard door open at all times, and only patch-clean my apartment based on emergencies, like realizing that the space around a particular shampoo bottle is black and sticky, so I half-assedly wipe it down with a piece of toilet paper when I get out, or picking up tumbleweed-like hairballs from the corner of a room and throwing them away. I don’t care if dishes sit in my sink for weeks, and until my nephew came along I took a strong stance against anything relating to kids (or pets) saying I just “didn’t know how to do it.”
Honestly I think my entire type-b personality is a result of saying “fuck you” to the gendered expectation that I be clean and organized, cheerful and nurturing, taking pride in my home and tying my self-worth to my perfect home life.
If men don’t have to be perfect, nurturing, or clean, then I don’t either.
Make no mistake, this is how men do it– refusing to be helpful is a dick move, no matter what gender you are. But simply not knowing how to help? That just forces the more competent people around you to pick up the slack and say “I’ll just do it myself.”
On some level, I was determined to not be helpful.
If I don’t know how to cook or clean or do laundry, then no boyfriend would ever expect me to do those things for him. If I don’t know how to nurture, or talk to children, nobody would turn to me for emotional labor, or recruit me for help with care-taking.
And more importantly, if I simply didn’t notice or care about any of this shit, nobody could call me out for petulantly refusing to actively participate in “adulting.” (Note: a lot of this adulting is unfairly tasked to women.)
In this way, I think I understand more than most women where men are coming from when they feel put-upon by their female partners about stepping up in the domestic sphere. To be sure, emotional labor is about way more than just chores and care-taking, but I do understand in this one area. It’s kinda like… why do I have to help you when I’m not the one who wanted a clean house, or kids, or dinner?
If you set your standards in these areas impossibly low, other people with “high standards” will eventually swoop in and do it for you.
Now, not everything got done for me, of course. I’ve lived comfortably in some absolutely filthy spaces.
But I’ve also pissed off a lot of roommates, partners, and family members due to my lack of cleanliness, and refusal to participate. My motto has really been “if you want it clean, clean it,” and I would maintain that I simply didn’t care if it got clean.
I’ve also never done things like send Christmas cards or thank you notes or anything else that women are expected to do. I’ve gone to weddings without a gift, and been a terrible host when people came over. I’ve shown up to every event empty-handed, and I’ve never offered to help at a dinner party.
I’m notorious in my family for neither cooking nor cleaning up after dinner. If they didn’t want to cook it, they shouldn’t have cooked it, I figured. I’m happy to eat dinner made with love, but I also could have just gone to Chipotle.
In short, in a lot of ways, I’ve enjoyed the privileges that men enjoy, by doing what they do: refusing to acknowledge or value emotional and domestic labor.
Due to my gender, a lot of these habits and patterns have made me come off as rude, weird, cold, gross, or (the big one) selfish, but I never minded. Not one bit. Not an ounce of guilt, ever.
I was deadly clear: these things are not my job just because I’m a woman, and the only reason people see me as deficient or selfish is because I’m a woman and I’m supposed to care about this stuff, so fuck it.
If we’re being completely honest, I still don’t mind being selfish.
Most women are taught to base their self-worth almost exclusively on how perfectly they can perform emotional labor and uphold their role as a woman in the areas of emotional and domestic labor, and I feel like I dodged a bullet.
Being dirty and selfish has freed me to up to do exactly what I wanted, untethered to social norms.
But the book Fed Up made me realize that my refusal to perform these norms doesn’t really punish or burden men; it mostly just punishes and burdens other women.
When I’m home for example, my mom cooks and cleans up and organizes and plans and does everything I ever refused to learn how to do. Letting her take care of me like women have always taken care of men isn’t equity; it’s just more work for my mom.
Likewise, just because I didn’t do my laundry it didn’t mean it didn’t get done. It just meant other women (women of color, mostly) did it, in NYC. And when I imagine the circumstances in which I would consider having a child of my own, my partner has to be a woman, so that she can do all this stuff.
I have always benefited from the women in my life who step up to fill in the gaps for me just like they do for men: they plan and pack picnics for me to just show up to, they stock the car with road-trip supplies and plan the route, they remind me about gifts and birthdays and social norms and etiquette.
This is something I think I want to change, perhaps.
I still feel anger that this job is falling on women, and men aren’t stepping up, but this is the way things are right now, and I don’t like knowing that I’m just increasing the burden on other women.
For example, I don’t want to burden my mom when I’m home, I want to take care of her for once.
But if I want my mom to come home to a meal and a clean kitchen and be treated to an evening off from the responsibility of juggling all the emotional and domestic labor for everyone, then I need to know both how to cook, and how to clean a kitchen according to the standards of someone who feels most peaceful when there are no messes.
If I want to surprise my girlfriends with a lovely day together and give them a break from doing all the labor for everyone around them, I need to know how to plan and execute and think of things like snacks, water, sunscreen, bug spray, and bringing an extra layer.
If I want to support my family in times of stress, I need to know how to confidently take care of the kids, notice when someone needs something, and step up to get it done.
The last year or so I’ve been consciously, intentionally working to improve my skills on this front, and now I’m also working to both notice and value this work when it’s done by others for me.
It’s never been my domain before, and honestly I find it really challenging. I’m always tempted to fall back on the old classic “I’m just not good at this stuff,” and sometimes I catch myself dismissing the value of the work just so I don’t have to participate in it.
But, for the sake of the women in my life, it’s worth it.
This is, by the way, something I believe men can do too: noticing, improving domestic skills and standards, and working to dismantle the internalized sexism that says emotional and domestic labor is “women’s work,” and that women’s work is inherently less valuable and meaningful.
Just sharing a snippet from my own life and processing around this stuff.
Feel free to hit reply with your thoughts!