Sometimes I like to get housework done just because it’s tangible, visible, recognisable. At least, fleetingly. Unlike some of the other stuff I do around here, like:
planning birthday celebrations (including my own)
writing thank you notes
remembering family members’ birthdays
suggesting and organising ‘date nights’ or ‘mummy and daddy time’
keeping in touch with friends
making and maintaining connections with other families who have young children in our area
worrying about everyone’s nutrition and health
remembering when pets need immunisations/registration
reading parenting books and making parenting decisions
feeling responsible for parenting decisions
noticing when The Fireman needs a holiday and urging him to take one
sending photographs to relatives to keep them ‘in the loop’
writing Christmas cards
buying Christmas presents, including for the in-laws
decorating the Christmas tree and other sundry celebrational type things
inviting friends for lunch
buying gifts for friends with new babies and arranging to visit them in hospital/at home
taking Bean for health checks and nutting out the vaccination schedule (after researching said vaccinations and making decisions about them)
baking thank you cookies for our neighbour
maintaining the family calendar/schedule
attending children’s birthday parties
recording Bean’s progress in a baby book
listening to how work was, and caring
This stuff is emotionwork and as cliched as it sounds, it’s what makes a group into a family and a house into a home. It’s about forging and maintaining social and familial bonds and the importance of that can’t be overstated – connection doesn’t just magically happen. Emotionwork is sometimes called wifework or the third shift because, let’s face it, it’s usually women who do more than their share of it. I don’t know any couples where the emotionwork is evenly distributed. And when one person stays home and does most of the childcare there is sometimes a logical reason for part of the disparity. But not all of it.
The Fireman has a book aimed at fathers which even lists some emotionwork that men should do. Apparently, it’s important to know your child’s favourite colour, who their class teacher is, what their friends’ names are and whether they have any allergies. I defy you to find a parenting book aimed at mothers – even those who work outside the home – which has such a list.
That book for dads is unbearably patronising, because surely any decent father doesn’t need to be told that stuff. Right? And they wouldn’t, if it was never taken for granted that the emotionwork would be done by women.
Some people (usually, but not always, men) try to claim that women are simply better suited to emotionwork. We can remember names and dates better. We have a natural affinity for caring and sharing. We like nothing better than to talk to Nanna about her callouses and Mother In Law about how hospital corners were done back in her day. We are the best ones to make parenting decisions because we have maternal instincts and men do not. We should do the Christmas shopping because we’re naturally more thoughtful and we’re better at shopping.
The thing is, that is all actually total, utter bullshit.
Men can take an overseas client out to dinner and schmooze. They can organise a barbecue for Grand Final day. They can write thoughtful and witty cards when they want to impress a woman. They can lie awake talking and sharing with a new lover for hours.
And they can remember which perfume their Nanna likes. They can make a doctor’s appointment for themselves, or their child. They can take their child to her first swimming lesson. They can watch her do something entirely new and even cry over it. They can lie awake at night worrying about the state of their relationships. And, of course, they do.
But the bulk of emotionwork within families remains a burden that women bear. Some of the blame for that needs to lie with women themselves who, in hanging onto whatever small powers they feel able to weild, continue to perpetuate the myth that men are hopeless and oafish when it comes to finer points of running a connected household. Relinquishing this sham is essential to laying down some of the burden. But we can’t discount that traditional gender roles and the structures – especially workplaces – which continue to both support and rely on them are the main reason why women must do most emotionwork as well as other housework, whether they have paid employment or not. Like housework, emotionwork is simply not valued because it is not remunerated. It’s so essential it has become invisible.
For it to be valued, emotionwork has got to start appearing on our mental timesheets. How much have you done this week? And how much credit did you get for it? And more importantly, how much credit did you give yourself?