Taking Emotional Labour Into My Own Hands

Once I started school again in the fall I broke down a few times in tears because I was utterly overwhelmed. I debated dropping classes, paying even more for child care, or maybe going on strike from housework and child care, just so my husband could understand what I deal with regularly. I was tackling all the emotional labour that gets put onto one partner or another, and let’s face it, that partner is usually the female one (in a male/female relationship anyhow; and also likely in a female/female relationship).

Toddler, clad only in her diaper, with a pencil and notebook in hand, looking to be erasing notes on the page.
Did you know that it’s still considered plagiarism when it’s your own kid writing your papers for you? Lesson learned. Maybe not the way to lighten my workload. Let’s try something else.

Emotional labour was not a new concept in our house. Years ago, when Jim (husband man) and I first got together, I shared with him my struggles and I gradually learned that it was called emotional labour. I stumbled upon a comic strip or something and it allowed me to give a name to what I was facing.

Emotional Labour

Noun. The unseen work that goes on to keep others content and happy
Mom and daughter sitting on a couch together, taken as a selfie
Like I love being a mom, but I wish the job description would have been a little more robust

The most popular people to be exploited by emotional labour? Moms. There are seemingly endless tasks to complete to make a household function and usually, it’s that mom figure who does it all. It’s important for me to note here that I say mom figure intentionally. I know it’s not always women and it’s not always a mother who are greasing the household cogs, but the person in charge of this usually is a mom figure. It’s also important to note that emotional labour doesn’t include things like managing house work, but in the way I’m going to talk about it here, it will for simplicity’s sake.

To give you an idea of what emotional labour might look like: it might be me reminding my husband that tomorrow is garbage day so remember to set an alarm. He’s a grown ass man, he can remember that on his own. It might be turning off the oven that was left on for god-knows how long. It might look like a lot of things, but let’s refer to it as the mental workload.

When I broke down crying the first time this past September it was because I was in class (online learning in the COVID era… yay.) and Jim knew that because I was actively listening to a lecture, I couldn’t go upstairs to fetch Cecilia from her crib when she woke up so he’d have to. No big deal, he had the baby monitor and I had reminded him before I went into my lecture. When she woke up, I listened to her scream for 30 minutes, I sent Jim texts to ask him to get her (his office is next door to her bedroom, it’s not like he was down the street or anything). Eventually, I unpluged my laptop, abandoned my notes, and carried the computer with me up from the bottom level to the top of our split level home to get Cecilia from the crib and bring her downstairs with me.

I knew that part of going back to school now was that I was going to have to do a little juggling, manage some multitasking, and I was ready, but I was ready with the understanding that I had support (and I do, just to be clear, it just didn’t feel like I did). My lecture ended and I cried. I cried as I carried our daughter up the stairs, opened the door to Jim’s office and asked what the hell happened.

He had forgotten. He put on his noise cancelling headphones and didn’t hear her cries, or see my messages.

The second time I cried was after a 10am-5:30pm school day where I ate some Doritos and tea for lunch, while I cared for and entertained an energetic 16 month old, then was expected to make dinner, but the kitchen was a disaster so I couldn’t really cook. I think I ended up ordering pizza because I was so overwhelmed.

Education while you have kids is not for the faint of heart.

Image of the book "fair play" by eve rodsky
Look for this book! It might offer some help!

This is when I went to my local Facebook mom’s group and pleaded for help. I knew I wasn’t the only one facing the emotional labour that seems so much more cumbersome during a pandemic. I wasn’t. Among the many suggestions, most of which were already tried, someone pointed me in the direction of the Fair Play book and cards from Eve Lodsky. Looking through the cards I realized what a helpful idea it was but these particular cards didn’t quite work with my family, our schedules, etc. Which is why I came up with my own.

The basic concept of Fair Play is a system to divvy up the work it takes to run and manage a household and remove some of that anxiety around who’s doing what. I find my interpretation of the deck also allows for tasks we do regularly but that are unseen to be seen and acknowledged by our partner.

Partner. Important word, folks. My husband and I are partners. We are equals. There is no hierarchy, no one person who is in charge, we are a team and in order for our lives to function, we need to work on that team. Jokes are made about “happy wife, happy life” and “who wears the pants in your marriage?” but this is all utter bullshit and I invite you not to but into it.

Partner

noun. A person with which you share your life equally

I went into my craft supply-filled office and pulled out a bunch of que cards, you know those little guys you make flash cards with? Yeah, those. I had a pack with 4 colours in it, and I started making our deck. I assigned a colour for foods, one for cleaning, one for baby related things, and the last “suit” was for odd items that didn’t fit into any particular category.

On each card I wrote out the job at hand, usually the days of the week they apply to, and specifics of that job.

Foods and Yums

  • Lunch, 1 card for each day of the week
  • Dinner, 1 card for each day of the week
  • Hosting meals and snacks, when we actually get to host. The card holder keeps this card until they do the task, then they pass it onto the other person
  • Meal planning and grocery shopping, one card

Cleaning up

  • Dishes/kitchen tidy, one card each for M-F, one card for Saturday and Sunday combined
  • Sweeping, one card for Mon/Tues, one card for Wed/Thurs (implying we’re both responsible each other day of the week if it needs to be done)
  • Hosting clean up, when we actually get to host.
  • Recycling (monitoring the indoor and sorting it to the outdoor bins)
  • Garbage (has to put out the garbage, green, and recycling bins on allotted day)
  • Laundry (and you have to do a minimum of one full load, folding the household laundry and baby laundry)
  • Diaper pail – the person who empties the diaper pail for the week
  • Living room/den clean-up for the week
  • Reading nook clean-up for the week

Baby stuff

  • Organizing childcare for the upcoming week
  • Keeping the diaper bag stocked for the week
  • Child minder, one card each M-F, responsible for the kid(s) after 5pm. They can ask for help or support, of course, but they’re the ones who have to put energy into it

Others

  • Packing – excursion; if we go out for a day trip, this person is responsible for packing all the things needed by the group as a whole, themselves, and the kid(s). They also are responsible for getting everyone out of the house on time
  • Packing – overnight; same as day trip, but for overnight.
  • Fridge clean out, once a month
  • Estate and will planning – basically supposed to look at our end of life document for our trustees. It a long work in process, but this way we chip off at it a little every week.

I also wrote out some rule cards, and really, the rules are simple:

  • Cardholder is responsible for getting their card complete, however, if they need help, they can ask for it (and if the other person cannot help, that’s okay too)
  • Person not holding the card should not make the job harder. Call them out if they are
  • If cardholder does not complete their duty, their punishment is knowing they let down their partner/family
  • Card holder had complete autonomy over their jobs. It is their responsibility and theirs alone. They will not be reminded or prompted to do their job. They will do it to their own level of perfection. If their work does not live up to the others’ expectations, a conversation should be had and an agreement of completion should be stated in writing on the card

When I brought these to my husband, he didn’t question it. I told him if we want to be able to thrive, not just survive, as a couple, I needed this. I needed him to see the work I did and take on some of his own without me having to ask to fill the damn dishwasher. We implemented it immediately.

There was a little bit of a learning curve. We had to remember which cards we had every day, and remember to re-deal the deck every Sunday for the next week. We have to let things slide if someone doesn’t or isn’t able to complete their work, and learn to feel accountable to the other for getting our tasks done.

One year old in yellow top and tulle skirt, with cake on and in her hands and on her face, and a large sheet cake is in front of her. Child has an expression of "wow" on her face.
Shit, who was supposed to be watching Cecilia?
photo cred to the wonderful Mariel Nelms

We also discovered a lot of holes in the system. It’s by no means perfect. We just added 4 new cards with the new year, and we’ll probably add more as time goes on. But since we started using these homemade DIY cards, my mental health has increased significantly. I am able to sit down and focus without feeling like I have to go running anytime Cecilia screams because it’s not my night to worry. It also serves as an important reminder of the work the other person does. My husband gets the garbage card every single week, because he’s usually up that early, but it serves as a reminder that he has a job and does it. Every time, without fail, I have the meal planning and grocery shopping card, mostly because it’s work I enjoy, but Jim remembers that “hey, Breanne’s got this task to take care of that’s essential to our household’s function, I will not take that for granted.”

Family of three sitting in couch/chair in front of a decorated christmas tree. The parents are wearing matching blue pjs with llamas on them and the toddler in their laps is wearing a dark holiday dino onsie.
I loved taking a matching jammy photo on Christmas, but the no-man’s land in chores that surrounded it had to go.

We missed it sorely on the weeks where we didn’t divvy up the cards, and over the Christmas break where I was recovering from surgery, then a surgery complication, then spending days at the in-laws, we didn’t use them and it was a weird, lawless time where I’m not sure anything actually happened. I don’t recall eating. Anyway, the point here is when we aren’t using them, we aren’t functioning as a household, at least not in a sustainable way.

The most important lesson I can deliver from my journey with learning about, acknowledging, understanding, and tackling emotional labour is you HAVE to talk about it. You’re not discussing it to make anyone feel guilty, it’s a term you need to use to communicate what your needs are. It’s a normal experience for at least 50% of the population and if we don’t talk about it, we can’t make changes to make it better. Emotional labour is like mental health; it’s not just going to go away and get better if you don’t talk about it; it’s going to fester and attack you when you’re in a weak spot. If you’re not sure if you’re experiencing emotional labour, you may not be, but your partner might be dealing with it. Regardless of if you feel it or not, talk about this mental load with your partner, ask them if there’s anything you can do better, or ask them for help. If you don’t ask for help, you probably won’t get help. Maybe purchase the deck yourself, or if the cards don’t quite fit with your lifestyle, make your own.

Meme of Michael Scott of NBC's The Office sitting in front of a white board that says: 
"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. - Wayne Gretzky" -Michael Scott
I leave you with this very important quote that lives on with the Michael Scott Paper Company
(Credit to NBC, I believe! Though it is a popular meme these days)

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