Over the last few years, the phrase “emotional labor” has gotten a lot of attention. It’s a concept that mothers know well but that didn’t have a name until recently—a phrase that explains how in heterosexual relationships, women perform the majority of the care- and home-centered tasks. These tasks include everything from remembering your mother in-law’s birthday to having the kids’ extracurricular schedule memorized. Basically moms are pretty much walking encyclopedias of their entire families lives.
"Despite now sharing the burden of supporting the family financially with their male counterparts, little has changed in what is expected of women at home,” explains Vermont-based psychologist Lindsay Jernigan. “This leads to the pattern colloquially known as the Wonder Woman Complex: the feeling many women have that they have to ‘do it all.’ This includes the mundane, repetitive domestic chores such as laundry, cleaning, meal planning, and cooking; the unexpected bumps such as picking up a sick kiddo from school, taking the lethargic dog to the vet, and calling the post office to stop the mail before vacation; and the task of anticipating, recognizing, and remembering all of these domestic and familial needs as, or even before, they arise.”
But there’s hope on the horizon. Paid paternal leave, for example, is becoming more common, allowing fathers to be home with newborns to assist and more men are stepping up. Men are recognizing that there’s more they can do and women are handing over the reins on things that have traditionally been considered women’s work. But it’s not happening quickly.
A recent survey from Boston College found that while more men are taking paternity leave than ever before, not much has changed regarding who provides the majority of the care. Around three-quarters of respondents (76% of the men and 74% of the women) said household responsibilities should be shared more equitably, but what should happen and what actually happens aren't the same thing. About half of those surveyed say that women still do more.
According to Jernigan, there are several reasons for the split in what is ideal and what is really happening in American homes.
“For starters, just like the gender expectations are changing too slowly for women, so are they changing too slowly for men. Even though the male gender role is less rigidly macho than it used to be, the transformation is incomplete,” Jernigan explains. “Men are still judged negatively at work for taking paternity leave, and they have few role models for being domestic contributors and emotionally accessible partners. One result is that men lack the skills, or often just the confidence in their skills, to show up the way their female partners would like.” Feeling less than able to perform home-centric tasks can lead to avoidance—no one likes doing things that make them feel inadequate.
And sometimes, women aren’t comfortable giving up control of some of their tasks. “Women who desire to have their male partners as domestic equals sometimes struggle to cede domestic power. If being in charge on the home front has been a source of self-esteem or satisfying autonomy, that can be hard to give up,” says Jernigan.
And possibly most frustrating for women, men may not even realize that something is a thing that actually needs to be done. “Because men aren’t yet conditioned to feel responsible for domestic and emotional tasks, they don’t 'see them' and therefore can’t respond,” Jernigan says. “This doesn’t mean they are consciously simply expecting their wives to pick up the slack; instead, they may simply not be conscious of the task, at all.”
The good news is that these traditional gender roles are changing. Paid leave is becoming more common, allowing men to take an active role in family- and home-centered tasks. Now, what they do with that time is another story, but hopefully, the trend toward more egalitarian domestic tasks continues picking up steam and women in heterosexual partnerships can finally take a break...and maybe a nap.