The first to coin the term 'emotional labour' in a viral feature about women's invisible workload, writer Gemma Hartley's new book Fed Up is a wake up call for us all. Starting with Christmas...

Monisha, a mother of two, tells me a story that is intimately familiar. The stress of her day-to-day emotional labour is tough enough on its own, but it compounds to the extreme when she takes on the invisible elf-work of the holiday season. She describes to me the process of ordering family Christmas cards and all the boxes that must be checked. First, there’s choosing the perfect picture, sifting through family photos to find the one that is just right – everyone smiling, looking at the camera, flattering angles, or at least as close as you can get to that ideal. Then the actual card must be chosen. For some it can’t be too religious, or too silly, or too this, or too that. The address book has to be updated, and you must carefully consider who may need to be added to the list from the previous year. You have to track name changes, address changes, divorces, deaths. Then there is the actual sending of the cards. The envelope licking. The stamps and address stickers to be bought. The little bits of personalised writing required in each card. It’s an exhausting process, and the task is only one relatively small blip on the Christmas radar.

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She also describes the holiday shopping and considering what everyone wants – not just her own two daughters or her side of the family, but also her husband’s side of the family and their kids. What should we give the teachers and neighbours? What gifts should be from Santa? What gifts should be from the parents? If we’re spending Christmas away from home, how do we transport Santa’s gifts? Both sets of grandparents come to her to ask what the kids want for Christmas and what she and her husband would like, and perhaps she could throw in some ideas for other nieces and nephews and daughters-in-law while she’s at it. Monisha says this often leaves her in the difficult position of giving away her best gift ideas and having to start brainstorming again from scratch.

“This ends up equating to literally hours of thoughtfulness,” she says. “Thoughts about what other people want or need or would like, and then giving it all away.”

She delegates some gift wrapping to her husband, plans holiday get-togethers with the help of the other sisters-in-law. But my goodness, she could really use some more help. I can’t help but laugh when she tells me all of this. It sounds exactly like my life up to this point. I ask her if she (like me) is also the “decoration organiser” who knows where every last nostalgia piece must be displayed for the season, with a system for putting everything away at the end of the holidays.

“Naturally,” she says.

The harried holiday mother is a role I know all too well. (I also have the added joy of planning my son’s mid-December birthday, as well as planning for my nephew’s and dad’s Christmas birthdays.) For the most part, I enjoy a lot of the holiday magic making. It’s joyful work. I want to do it. But I’ve also long wanted a partner who would help me with this work. Just a little help. Why couldn’t we make that work?

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It only recently dawned on me that this sentiment was exactly why our conversations kept going in circles, making things better for a little while and then reverting back to baseline after a few weeks. I would tell Rob I needed help.
I would even tell him that I needed him to help without me asking. Then he would think of ways to help me. He would work on noticing the things I usually handled as a way to lighten my load. He packed for our day trip to the pumpkin patch. He did a full load of laundry. He called his mom to babysit when we needed her. He asked me for a list and did the grocery shopping. He would do really well for a while, but when I started to seem less stressed, he’d step off the gas. He only helped when it looked like I needed help. And a lot of the time, I didn’t look like I needed anything. I am so used to doing this work all on my own that I create the illusion
of being 100 per cent fine with being in charge of all the emotional labour, even when I’m not.

The root of the problem was that I was asking for the wrong thing. The truth is that I don’t need “help” – I need full partnership. There is a difference between the two. Helping means “this is not my job.” Helping means “I am doing you a favour.” Helping means “this is your responsibility.” Helping implies that the helper is going above and beyond, while the responsible party is falling behind. Why is only one of us responsible for our shared life? Full partnership, on the other hand, means not having to delegate and micro-manage. It also means significantly shifting our perspective on who is expected to do what – who is expected to be in charge. It means turning away from the idea of help entirely and taking on responsibility in an even manner. It means dismantling the hierarchy in the home, even when I desire that control, because what we need more than my perfect system is for us to be on even ground. We need to be clear about what we are asking when we initiate the conversation about emotional labour, because “help” isn’t it. “Help” is a bandage on a broken bone. We need a total reset. And that doesn’t just mean changing our partners’ perspectives; it means changing our own too.