There are so many jokes about nagging wives with long “honey-do” lists who just won’t let their husbands relax after a long day at the office. Frankly, those jokes are as tired as most women are these days. There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that women shoulder the bulk of what’s called “emotional labor” and have for years. Emotional labor is the stuff that most people (men) take for granted—remembering birthdays, bringing food to ailing neighbors, putting together grocery lists, getting the dog walker a spare key, knowing who has clean pajamas, and who likes buttered toast and who prefers dry. It’s the stuff that women tend to do, not by choice exactly, but because someone has to do it and no one else is stepping up to the plate.
A report from the United Nations found that women do 2.6 times the amount of unpaid work than men, noting that, "vital jobs like taking care of the children and the myriad tasks that come with them, like picking them up from school, caring for elderly parents, managing household expenses and completing chores like cleaning and cooking," become women's responsibilities. So all that nagging wife stuff? It’s not nagging, it’s exhaustion and a cry for a little help shouldering the burden of being an adult.
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The idea isn’t a new one. It was first introduced by Professor Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. In a 2005 academic article on the subject, sociologist Rebecca Erickson looked at data from 355 employed and married parents found that women take on the bulk of emotional work at home, on top of child care and housework. Lately the idea has been popping up again in articles and in debates on social media networks as women try to figure out why they are so tired all the time. Turns out we’re tired because we’re busy doing unpaid work that few people notice enough to appreciate.
To make a frustrating situation even more frustrating, women are frequently considered incapable of making decisions when we decide things all the time. "The gendered assumption is that 'men are the problem solvers because women are too emotional,'" Dr. Michele Ramsey, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State Berks, told Harper’s Bazaar in the viral article Women Aren't Nags—We're Just Fed Up. "But who is really solving the bulk of the world's problems at home and in the office?" If you run your household, planning meals, shuttling kids, and managing schedules and budgets, you may solve more problems in a day than an office worker does in a month. Speaking of office workers, studies show that emotional labor isn’t confined to the home, but follows women into the workplace, too.
So how do you prevent letting this emotional labor get the best of you? It all comes down to setting boundaries. Figure out what your priorities are at home and in the office and focus on them. If caring for your community is an important goal, go ahead and make a casserole for a grieving neighbor or put together a welcome basket for a family that has just moved to town. Focusing on what makes you happy—and letting some of the other stuff fall to the way side—may feel strange or even a bit frightening at first (will anyone remember that Junior doesn’t like buttered toast?), but in the long run it should make your life a little less stressful and perhaps a little less tired.