In a Harper’s Bazaar essay last week, writer Gemma Hartley recalled an argument she had with her husband after she asked him to take charge of the household managing duties she thanklessly completes every day. For her Mother’s Day gift, she wanted him to hire a cleaning service — not only to make their bathroom floors sparkle, but so she wouldn’t have to expend the mental energy of hiring one herself. “The real gift I wanted was to be relieved of the emotional labor of a single task that had been nagging at the back of my mind,” Hartley wrote. “The clean house would simply be a bonus.”
Hartley’s husband didn’t hire a service. Taking time to find the right one was too hard and hiring one at the last minute was too expensive. Instead, he cleaned the bathrooms himself, leaving his wife to spend Mother’s Day watching their children and picking up items he had left on the floor. All of this is frustrating, even for the reader — but it has nothing to do with emotional labor, a concept Hartley fails to adequately define.
“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,” she wrote. “Delegating work to other people, i.e, telling him to do something he should instinctively know how to do, is exhausting.” Later in the essay, Hartley describes the “random emotional labor duties” she does for their family: updating the calendar, “keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry.”
Hartley is pointing out a real problem, even if she’s giving it the wrong name. Emotional labor is not just labor that is “frustrating” or marginalized, as Hartley defines it — it’s labor that requires the commodification of one’s emotions. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term emotional labor in her 1979 book The Managed Heart, in which she described how the shift towards a service-based economy forced certain workers to sell not only services, but also themselves and their feelings — and how women were typically the ones doing this work. This phenomenon isn’t specific to the service industry; women working in typically male-dominated industries must do another form of emotional labor, one that requires them to both prove their femininity and assert themselves as competent workers. In all of these situations, though, emotional labor is the commodification of emotions.
Hartley’s problem is almost the inverse of this: instead of being commodified, the labor she does in her home is completely devalued. The problem isn’t that women do emotional labor in their homes; it’s that the labor women do in their homes isn’t recognized as real labor, and calling it emotional labor only exacerbates this.
Just 16 percent of fathers were stay-at-home dads in 2012, compared to 29 percent of mothers, according to the Pew Research Center. A 2015 New York Times analysis of data from the American Time Use Survey showed that men who don’t work outside the home generally do less housework and childcare than their female counterparts. Among working men and women, the differences are more stark. There are more American women in the workforce now than ever before, but the daily work of managing a household after coming home from a long day at work — what Hochschild referred to as the “second shift” in her 1989 book by the same name — remains highly gendered. Calling this work a “second shift” reflects the fact that women’s work is more than an expenditure of emotions; it’s real work, and it should be treated as such. On a typical day, nearly half of all American women will do housework, compared to just 20 percent of men, according to the 2016 American Time Use Survey.
The most harmful effects of the devaluation of women’s labor are felt outside the home, often by a demographic Hartley barely acknowledges in her essay: women who do domestic work not only in their own homes, but to make a living. Hartley’s essay focuses on herself, her family, her labor; the cleaning service her husband never hired is an afterthought, and more importantly, referred to only as a cleaning service.
The fact that a person — most likely a woman, since 95 percent of domestic workers are women — would be providing this service to Hartley is never mentioned. A 2016 survey by Domestic Workers United found that 23 percent of workers were paid below their state’s minimum wage, and 70 percent were paid less than $13 an hour. Just 4 percent receive health insurance from their employer, and 65 percent have no health insurance at all despite the fact that over a third had been injured on the job.
Hartley’s essay echoed the second-wave adage that the personal is political. Her argument with her husband was about more than a clean bathroom; it was indicative of a devaluation of female labor that begins in the home and is felt most acutely in the service sector. But her solution to this problem, her idea for a more equitable relationship — hiring a cleaning service — would have only pushed that exploitation and devaluation onto another woman. At its core, Hartley’s essay isn’t about emotional labor; it’s about class difference. Hartley wrote about the ways men marginalize and devalue women’s labor without even realizing that they’re doing it. Perhaps without intending to, she also wrote about the way all of us — women included — marginalize and devalue the labor working-class women do every day.