The emotional labor of women heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic

Back in May, The New York Times published a story about how women are the worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. They wrote that the pandemic has “exposed gender fault lines” in numerous ways, and that the “next-to-invisible but overwhelming burden of unpaid labor, the bulk of which is shouldered by women in every country in the world,” has been even more painfully unmasked by the virus taking over our lives. Men have this erroneous perception that they contribute equally to the household work and child-rearing; women are in total disagreement about this — men say they are doing half of the homeschooling; only three percent of women agree with this. The worst part about all this is that it’s not necessarily the housework per se that women do more of (there’s no doubt we do more of this and yes, that is also a problem) that is the problem; it’s the fact that all the planning, the remembering to take care of tasks such as stocking up on household essentials like fresh fruit, vegetables, knowing when things go bad, keeping to a bathroom cleaning schedule, that are the unpaid burden of women that men fail to recognize, even men who consider themselves progressive and feminist. The most enlightening article I read on this was published in Harper’s Bazaar about two years ago entitled, “Women aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up: Emotional Labor is the Unpaid Labor that Men Don’t Understand.” What the author’s experience is here is how I feel and how I’ve felt for a long time, but it’s been massively exacerbated by shelter-in-place. I also started thinking about this in the context of my own parents and how my dad used to accuse my mom of nagging. It’s men’s favorite thing to complain about: their wives being “nags.” It’s another way of men gaslighting women, to call them nags. Why? Because if you call your wife a nag, then the onus is on her to change, not on you to change. You are not the problem; she is. And thus, the status quo of the inequality of housework along gender lines continues. I still have my paid day job, luckily, but in between meetings, calls, and work tasks, I am doing what my 100% female remote colleagues tell me they do all the time: between calls, they will sweep the kitchen floor, empty the dishwasher, defrost meat, cook rice, load up the washing machine. My 100% male remote colleagues? Not a single one of them has ever mentioned the idea of being able to better “multi-task” in the house with their remote work situation. EVER. There’s bigger magnifying glass on these feelings now because all we are doing now, given COVID-19, is spending more time at home doing everything – working, sleeping, cooking, eating, and cleaning. CLEANING. My female friends and colleagues have brought up their feelings on this on multiple occasions. Cleaning that used to happen every now and then, maybe every two weeks, like dusting, sweeping, and cleaning countertops, the oven, the stove, and even the mirrors, has to happen far more often now because we’re here more and using all these things more. And when you use things more, they get dirtier faster and need to be cleaned more frequently. For some reason, men do not seem to understand this. They say they don’t expect the women in their lives to take care of these things, but simply by never thinking about these things or taking care of these things unless they are right under their noses, they are indirectly giving the message that the other person has to do it.

The most common male response to a woman getting mad about his not cleaning or picking up after himself is, “You could have just asked.” But as this Harper’s Bazaar article concisely makes the point — the point is that we should not have to ask. We should not have to ASK you to clean up your crumbs, clean the bathroom, sweep the floor, dust the tops of dressers or drawers. You should know to do this automatically, and if you do not, set a schedule to do all these things the way women have already been doing for hundreds of years.

There are a lot of terrible things about being a woman in a patriarchal society, even in 2020. Emotional labor was not an issue I ever consciously thought about until a few years ago. And when I read about it, I had a mind-shattering moment. And that is very, very disturbing — because that’s exactly what the world doesn’t want us to think about in order to keep the status quo.

This particular part of the article resonated with me:

“Even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labor becomes emotional labor. It gets to a point where I have to weigh the benefits of getting my husband to understand my frustration against the compounded emotional labor of doing so in a way that won’t end in us fighting. Usually I let it slide, reminding myself that I’m lucky to have a partner who willingly complies to any task I decide to assign to him. I know compared to many women, including female family members and friends, I have it so easy. My husband does a lot. He does dishes every night habitually. He often makes dinner. He will handle bedtime for the kids when I am working. If I ask him to take on extra chores, he will, without complaint. It feels greedy, at times, to want more from him. 

Yet I find myself worrying about how the mental load bore almost exclusively by women translates into a deep gender inequality that is hard to shake on the personal level. It is difficult to model an egalitarian household for my children when it is clear that I am the household manager, tasked with delegating any and all household responsibilities, or taking on the full load myself. I can feel my sons and daughter watching our dynamic all the time, gleaning the roles for themselves as they grow older.

When I brush my daughter’s hair and elaborately braid it round the side of her scalp, I am doing the thing that is expected of me. When my husband brushes out tangles before bedtime, he needs his efforts noticed and congratulated—saying aloud in front of both me and her that it took him a whole 15 minutes. There are many small examples of where the work I normally do must be lauded when transferred to my husband. It seems like a small annoyance, but its significance looms larger.

My son will boast of his clean room and any other jobs he has done; my daughter will quietly put her clothes in the hamper and get dressed each day without being asked. They are six and four respectively. Unless I engage in this conversation on emotional labor and actively change the roles we inhabit, our children will do the same. They are already following in our footsteps; we are leading them toward the same imbalance.

“Children learn their communication patterns and gender roles (kids can recognize ‘proper’ gender behavior by age three) from a variety of people and institutions, but their parents are the ones that they, in theory, interact with the most,” notes Dr. Ramsey. So if we want to change the expectations of emotional labor for the next generation, it has to start at home. “For parents, this means making sure that one spouse does not do more of that type of labor than the other. Speaking in terms of how emotional labor is currently divided, girls will hopefully learn not to expect to have to do that labor and boys will hopefully learn not to expect females to do that labor for them. Children watching parents share that emotional labor will be more likely to be children who expect that labor to be shared in their own lives.”

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