Some thoughts I had today.
It often seems to me as though much of the mental and emotional labor necessary to keep any relationship or household functioning still falls upon women. This is reinforced, of course, by past reading that I’ve done but also first and secondhand experience. The work of organizing, making to-do lists, remembering important dates, knowing what time something is happening and, consequently, planning what time to be there and what time to start getting ready — this is the work that must fall upon someone, and more often than not the person it falls upon is a woman.
Let’s put aside the idea of emotional labor for now, which is something that a lot of feminists have been talking about in recent years in response to the work of sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who first coined the term in 1983. Though the term has expanded in meaning (in some ways, to Hochschild’s dismay), emotional labor is currently understood as “the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy”. This in itself is exhausting. But there is a lot of mental work that is a part of that, and this is what I’ve been feeling more and more lately.
We remember it first from our mothers.
My mom is a Planner, with a capital P. A few years ago, my parents, sister, and I went on a vacation to Europe. For a trip that was to span four cities in four different countries, my mom booked our flights, lodging, and any reservations we needed several months in advance. (Who would have known that you had to buy your ticket to the Anne Frank house at least three months before your visit? Only my mother.) This took time, hours and hours of research on top of her normal job. Though it must have been fun, it was still work. For the trip, she printed out four copies of the itinerary and passed it out to each of us and said, “While we’re here, I don’t want to hear a single ‘What are we doing today?’ Check your itinerary.” Well, guess what she heard. Every day.
It wasn’t just our trip to Europe. My mother is a woman who lives and breathes pragmatism, someone who never misses a detail. To raise two children and run a household, this was absolutely necessary.
Whenever my parents plan to go somewhere together, I will always hear some version of this conversation:
“Where are we going today?”
“I told you, Fairfield.”
“What time? 3?”
“No, at noon. We had this planned all week.”
I figured it was just personality types. My dad is one type of person, my mom is another. And this may very well be true. But for me and many young heterosexual women today, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be anxious about having all this mental labor dumped on us in our relationships with men and, possibly, in the future households we might be charged with maintaining.
As a Virgo and my mother’s daughter, I am a Planner, with a capital P. I find an odd joy in poring over my calendar multiple times a day, committing my schedule to memory and moving things around like puzzle pieces, trying to make things fit. Somehow, I have space in my mind to worry about things like a 5pm social gathering two Wednesdays from now and how exactly I’m going to plan for it. I understand that this is just the type of person I am, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to expect everyone around me to put in the same amount of mental work. Or at least, it’s what I have to keep reminding myself.
I can’t deny that this is just my personality type and that there must be many type A-Planner men out there in the world. I also can’t deny this unspoken sense of obligation that must have been passed down to me by my mother, and to so many women by their mothers, women who are now mothers and wives, who have so often had to say, with an exasperated sigh, “We had this planned all week.”
The uneven distribution of unpaid labor between men and women is still considered a great source of gender inequality. If feminists are going to talk about unpaid labor in the household, which we absolutely should, we should take into account not only the work of cooking and cleaning and taking care of a child but also the mental labor of just planning and remembering.
Like any feminist, I reject the notion that women are just “better at this stuff,” as some might say. If adult women happen to be “better” at performing mental labor, it’s because we were socialized to do so. This was taught to us by our mothers, passed down by their mothers. What have fathers been teaching their sons?