Gemma Hartley, freelance stay at home blogger and mom, penned an article that went viral in September 2017 titled, Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up, under the category gender equality. If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, here’s a succinct summary: Upper-middle and upper class white women — we have it rough!
As best I can tell, Gemma seems to be trying to avoid the guilt, frustration and resentment she feels for what she experiences as the drudgery of motherhood and stay at home parenthood. She does this by misapplying spurious theories from spurious academic departments at fourth tier universities, claiming her “trials and tribulations” are a form of gender inequality.
Additionally, she claims it’s a heretofore undiagnosed psychological phenomenon, “emotional labor.” As Gemma describes her husband as “a good man and feminist ally,” one presumes the decision to stay home and be unemployed-underemployed was her choice and his financial responsibility.
Harper’s Bazaar published the piece. Wikipedia describes Harper’s as:
. . . an American women’s fashion magazine, first published in 1867. Harper’s Bazaar is published by Hearst and, as a magazine, considers itself to be the style resource for ‘women who are the first to buy the best, from casual to couture.’ Aimed at members of the upper-middle and upper classes, Bazaar assembles photographers, artists, designers and writers to deliver perspectives into the world of fashion, beauty and popular culture on a monthly basis.”
Harper’s is hardly a publication for the oppressed masses, or at least what most consider oppression. It’s a high end fashion magazine that advertises consumer goods the average person can’t afford.
Gemma’s article begins with a serious complaint, so ACLU take note. She asked her full-time employed outside the home husband to gift her with a house cleaning service for Mother’s Day. Part of the gift request was that husband do the legwork and vetting of procuring a maid. Not only does Gemma want to do less housework, she didn’t want to do the work of finding a maid to do the housework for her. She claimed the emotional exertion or “emotional labor” of asking friends for maid referrals, calling housekeeping agencies, checking references and interviewing the potential maid would be too exhausting.
Since Gemma would likely be the one supervising the maid, wouldn’t it make more sense for her to find someone she likes and trusts? Unless she expected husband to manage that from his job, too? She also said looking for and hiring a maid herself would make her feel guilty about the added expense of farming out the work she elected to do when she chose to be a stay at home parent. As Gemma
controls manages the family finances, I’m not sure how she’d avoid seeing that expense indefinitely, but emotional reasoning.
What I wanted was for him to ask friends on Facebook for a recommendation, call four or five more services, do the emotional labor I would have done if the job had fallen to me. I had wanted to hire out deep cleaning for a while, especially since my freelance work had picked up considerably. The reason I hadn’t done it yet was part guilt over not doing my housework, and an even larger part of not wanting to deal with the work of hiring a service. I knew exactly how exhausting it was going to be. That’s why I asked my husband to do it as a gift.
Why ask friends on social media? So all their friends can see how much her husband loves, dotes on and worships her? So it would look like his idea instead of something she put him up to? To avoid not appearing to be unhappy and struggling as super stay at home mom, wife and freelance writer? Why not do it offline instead of publicly on Facebook?
This seems to be what Gemma and Dr. Michele Ramsey, Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State Berks, call emotional labor:
I really want a pizza, but, oh dear, then I’d have to get my phone, call Parenti’s Pizza Parlor, think about what I want, place the order, decide on a form of payment, wait for it to be delivered, answer the door and pay the delivery person. Then there’s the whole rigamarole of plating it, napkins, Chianti or water? Do I have to think about doing all the work myself!?! Why doesn’t husband realize I don’t want to cook, don’t want to even think about cooking and just know that I want him to order a pizza for me? I’ll probably have to tell him what I want on it, too. I’m so sick and tired of men getting a pass from the patriarchy. No one knows the private emotional torment I suffer. Extra cheese, dammit, extra cheese, hold the anchovies!!!
Dr. Ramsey states, “The gendered assumption is that ‘men are the problem solvers because women are too emotional, but who is really solving the bulk of the world’s problems at home and in the office?” Ramsey’s statements are every bit as sexist as if an Alt-Right person claimed the same thing, but reversed the genders. Let’s be real, Gemma isn’t solving any problems. She’s whingeing about her very white lady “problems.”
Furthermore, Dr. Ramsey is wrong. Emotional labor is an actual thing, but it’s not what she claims it is. According to Wikipedia:
Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.  More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. This includes analysis and decision making in terms of the expression of emotion, whether actually felt or not, as well as its opposite: the suppression of emotions that are felt but not expressed.
Gemma’s husband didn’t get her a housekeeping service for Mother’s Day. He called a service and, hearing how expensive it would be, asked Gemma, whom you may recall controls the finances, if they could afford it given freelance work is not steady income. This next passage doesn’t sound like emotional labor. It sounds like petulant passive-aggressive behavior.
I was gifted a necklace for Mother’s Day while my husband stole away to deep clean the bathrooms, leaving me to care for our children as the rest of the house fell into total disarray.
In his mind, he was doing the thing I had most wanted—giving me sparkling bathrooms without having to do it myself. Which is why he was frustrated when I ungratefully passed by, not looking at his handiwork as I put away his shoes, shirt and socks that had been left on the floor. I stumbled over the box of gift wrap he had pulled off a high shelf two days earlier and left in the center of our closet. In order to put it back, I had to get a kitchen chair and drag it into our closet so I could reach the shelf where it belonged.
“All you have to do is ask me to put it back,” he said, watching me struggle.
It was obvious that the box was in the way, that it needed to be put back. It would have been easy for him to just reach up and put it away, but instead he had stepped around it, willfully ignoring it for two days. It was up to me to tell him that he should put away something he got out in the first place.
“That’s the point,” I said, now in tears, “I don’t want to have to ask.”
The crying, the snapping at him—it all required damage control. I had to tell him how much I appreciated the bathroom cleaning, but perhaps he could do it another time (like when our kids were in bed). Then I tried to gingerly explain the concept of emotional labor: that I was the manager of the household, and that being manager was a lot of thankless work. Delegating work to other people, i.e. telling him to do something he should instinctively know to do, is exhausting. I tried to tell him that I noticed the box at least 20 times over the past two days. He had noticed it only when I was heaving it onto the top shelf instead of asking for help. The whole explanation took a lot of restraint.
Was husband supposed to care for the kids (so Gemma didn’t have to), put them to bed and then scrub the tub? There’s also an unreasonable expectation that husband be a mind reader, that Gemma shouldn’t have to explicitly ask for what she wants. I chuckled at how she describes husband as “[stealing] away” to clean the bathroom, as if he were off to a nightclub. This is the very chore she feels oppressed doing! What exactly did Gemma expect being a stay at home parent raising a family of four on one income and her occasional freelance gigs would be like?
Again, this seems like a whole load of convoluted, pseudo-intellectual hogwash to redefine Gemma’s unrealistic expectations about marriage, motherhood, stay at home parenting and I guess we’ll call it a career, her refusal to take responsibility and avoid her guilt for being disappointed and angry about her life choices and her passive aggressive behavior. Instead, she turns it into a gender oppression issue and new female psychological malady. Emotional labor isn’t a real thing; it’s a contrivance to avoid dealing with the real issues. She’s pissed that life isn’t whatever utopian fantasy she had envisioned it to be and that needs to be someone else’s fault.
Gemma, meet Chelsea:
For decades, women complained that men didn’t help enough or at all with household chores or the kids. Research shows that men are doing more work at home, but women still say that have it harder. The data doesn’t support that women in dual income households have it harder, they just feel like they do. This is due to an expectation gap.
In other words, people feel resentful when reality doesn’t live up to their unrealistic expectations. Realistic expectations are one of the keys to happiness. Gemma seems to have some pretty unrealistic expectations about what her life, marriage and family should be like as opposed to what it is. And it is what it is because of choices she makes.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a woman, too. I’m neither a feminist nor a MRA. I’m an egalitarian. Accountable adults being accountable together! The time is now! I chose not to have children, a decision I don’t regret.
In addition to running a full-time psychology practice, writing books (the second one is nearing completion) and content for my websites, managing my business social media, etc., I also cook, clean and care for my home and my two dogs single-handed.
Unlike Gemma, I don’t have a partner who cheerfully assists, explicitly asked or not, with daily household duties. When I lived with my former partner, I had a weekly housekeeper whom I found on my own. It didn’t feel like an emotional burden to do so. I felt fortunate to have the resources to be able to afford the extra help, which, by the way, I paid for with the money I earned by working full-time.
Sometimes I don’t feel like doing the dishes or picking up dog poop in the yard –because we all have days like that. I wouldn’t, however, claim to suffer from emotional labor as a result. If something needs to be done, I do it. Which leads me to wonder, is emotional labor a psychological condition only financially privileged married women suffer?
Would I suddenly resent doing all of the things I currently do for myself if I had a partner who was willing to do these things for me? Furthermore, would I resent asking him for help if I wanted or needed help, if he didn’t guess the things I wanted him to help me do or do for me?
Does Gemma’s husband experience emotional labor from having to consider Gemma’s emotional labor? Again, I wonder is emotional labor a condition exclusively suffered by married women or can married men suffer from it, too? If so, does Gemma’s husband suffer emotional labor when he thinks about his work responsibilities and financial responsibilities for Gemma and their children and all the mental and physical exertion required, so Gemma can write freelance articles about her emotional labor?
Or, when Gemma’s husband has these kinds of thoughts, is he just being a patriarchal problem-solver? If nagging is really emotional labor when women do it, what do we call nagging when men do it? Is it still nagging, or is it male privilege? Emotional labor?
Let’s say Gemma’s husband and son develop psychic abilities and can intuit Gemma’s wants before she has them, will that become another source of emotional labor? Aren’t male assumptions about what women want or need without asking them another form of patriarchal oppression and another potential source of emotional labor? This is really confusing!
I’ll share one more quote from Gemma’s article that’s really just priceless:
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.
Parenting 101: Sometimes children require positive reinforcement, including little boys, to motivate them to do chores, homework, etc. Some children are extrinsically motivated and some are intrinsically motivated. This is not a gender issue. It’s a parenting issue. Perhaps Gemma might consider encouraging her daughter for doing chores instead of being relieved that she doesn’t have to praise her for behaving well. If she does, maybe the girl won’t grow up to become a passive-aggressive martyr. Also notice how Gemma’s assigning patriarchal oppression motivations to her young sons. That’s actually pretty fucked up.
If she’s really concerned about modeling non-normative gender roles for the kids (I think that’s what it’s called — me no gender studies), perhaps she ought to consider allowing husband to be the stay at home parent and she can enter the work force full-time. Just a suggestion.
Furthermore, no one is expected to elaborately braid their daughter’s hair. Halo braiding is an expectation Gemma’s placing on herself and could easily cast aside. To claim her daughter’s plaits are causing emotional labor is like Louise Linton claiming disability benefits for carpal tunnel sustained from counting the money at Fort Knox. Gimme a f-cking break, please.
I could continue to pick apart Gemma’s self-pitying navel gazing, but I actually need to hit Trader Joe’s, the local feed shop for dog food, Fed-Ex, tidy up, make some din-din, pour myself a Scotch and binge watch 10 hours of The Man in the High Castle. Oh, the emotional labor! Paging, Dr. Ramsey! Paging, Dr. Ramsey, stat!
Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.
Want to Say Goodbye to Crazy? Buy it HERE.
I know you don’t like trigger warnings, but perhaps one would have been appropriate before laying that Mother’s Day gift story on us. Some of us may not have been prepared for the trauma of Ms. Hartley receiving exactly what she asked for, but not in the manner she would have preferred.
The pizza things cracked me up. It is parody, but almost exactly echoes an “emotional labor” complaint made in a letter to Samantha Rothman — http://www.drpsychmom.com/2017/10/17/can-help-husband-understand-concept-emotional-labor/ — wherein she counsels a woman whose husband “instantly and pleasantly” does whatever she asks him to do, but doesn’t do so instantly, and asks for her preferences when doing so. (To her credit, Dr. Rothman took a stand against weaponizing this concept. I’m also curious what the response would be if this guy brought home dinner, but it was the “wrong” thing).
Dr Tara Palmatier says
That Dr Rothman has legitimized the concept, never mind not weaponizing it, causes her to lose credibility. To be clear, emotional labor is bullshit.
When mental health professionals humor this nonsense — legitimizing the disordered behaviors and thinking — they’re not promoting good mental health. They’re facilitating abuse.
Thank you for processing Gemma’s drivel. Hopefully scotch helps slow the loss of brain cells from reading her nonsense.
I find your discussion of emotional labor intriguing.
Oddly, it seems the family law system is pretty far behind you in this regard. In considering the situations of former spouses after a dissolution, they focus on monetary income from market labor. They do not account for the benefit one spouse was receiving from the disproportionate amount of emotional labor the other spouse was performing during the marriage. Given that the goal of alimony/maintenance is to ensure that each spouse is as close to the living standards they enjoyed while marriage, this seems to be glaring omission.
I’m curious if there are movements you are aware of to remedy this, and what I can do to help. Because if this is as real a thing as you make it, I think that putting actual dollar figures on it, and regarding it as a real benefit would be an important step in wider recognition.