How to Share Emotional Labor as Parents (AKA, How to Get Your Partner To Care About the Little Stuff That Keeps You Up At Night)

Are you always the parent who makes sure the kids’ homework is done every night? Schedules/attends/follows up on all the kids’ doctor’s appointments? Referees the sibling rivalries? Buys holiday gifts for teachers? We’ve talked about being the default parent and about mommying your husband before, but we thought we’d have a discussion focused on ways to share emotional labor as parents — AKA, how to get your partner to care about all the little stuff that keeps you up at night (and take on some of it). Do you find yourself performing a lot of emotional labor and noticing that your partner doesn’t do their share? What are you doing about it, if anything? Has anyone set up a family kanban board or some other method?

If you need a good definition of emotional labor, try this one from Everyday Feminism:

Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using — and often draining — our emotional resources.

It’s also helpful to read the now-classic essay by Jess Zimmerman that was published at The Toast: “‘Where’s My Cut?’: On Unpaid Emotional Labor.” Here’s a sample line: “Housework is not work. Sex work is not work. Emotional work is not work. Why? Because they don’t take effort? No, because women are supposed to provide them uncompensated, out of the goodness of our hearts.”

One more bit of media to share with you to start a conversation: Jonathan Mann’s YouTube video, Marriage and Feminism,” in which he admits that he wasn’t pulling his weight at home when his son was a baby (while his wife was breastfeeding all the time), wasn’t prioritizing his wife’s job, and was generally acting like a “shitty, shitty feminist.” (Just do yourself a favor and do not read the YouTube comments. Sigh.)

Here are the tips for couples that Mann shares in the video: 

  • Talk about what’s not working, and listen to your partner.
  • Divide up household chores together.
  • Have a weekly date night. 

It’s not groundbreaking, but it worked well for the couple, who set up a kanban board on the wall (Mann calls this method “extreme”) that lists each of their household responsibilities and their to-dos for the week. (Another way to do this would be to use Trello, which, like a kanban board, helps you see everything at once to more easily make a plan to share emotional labor as parents.) You can hear more about how they worked through their issues by listening to their (short-term) podcast. (Or, ooh, an entire blog called KanbanKid about using a kanban board to manage kid/house stuff.)

How do you share emotional labor as parents? How specifically do you divide up chores and kid-related responsibilities? Have you let go of any optional tasks because neither of you have the time to (or want to) do them? Does the issue of emotional labor lead to arguments in your relationship? 

Further Reading:

  • ‘Where’s My Cut?’: On Unpaid Emotional Labor [The Toast]
  • Emotional Labor: The MetaFilter Thread Condensed [Google doc]
  • The Default Parent [Huffington Post]
  • ‘Women Are Just Better at This Stuff’: Is Emotional Labor Feminism’s Next Frontier? [The Guardian]
  • The Year We Wondered If Emotional Labor Should Come with a Price [Slate’s Double X]
  • Are You Doing Your Fair Share of the Emotional Labour? [CBC Radio]
  • Marriage and Feminism — Jonathan Mann [YouTube]

Social media image credits: Fotolia/liubomirt and Fotolia/iconimage.

If you feel like you're the parent doing everything, you need to read this post -- great advice from working moms on how to get your husband to care about the little stuff!

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  1. This is an interesting topic in the context of having a stay at home husband. I’m not sure what exactly to say about it – it’s both harder and easier, I think. There’s a lot that I would probably feel obligated to do if I were the primary parent that he would see as unnecessary (if he even thought of it at all). And there are some things that I think we both agree should be done, but he doesn’t get to and I can’t (or I guess I could, but don’t, but really think that he should) and I sometimes have to sort of make myself not to worry about. But, at the same time, things that really need to get done get done, the kids are happy and healthy, and I’m free to do a more demanding job with less stress.

  2. We just set up a family Google calendar. Setting it to remind both of us about upcoming social engagements and appointments, goes a long way towards taking the burden of emotional labor off me!

    I’d be curious as to how this dynamic plays out in same-sex couples.

    • I have the same curiosity about same-sex couples, especially for same-sex couples that do not have a birth mother so that from day 1 there is at least the potential for completely equal division of responsibility, without b-feeding and birth recovery complicating matters.

      FWIW, we tried the Google calendar thing and it was an utter failure. I was the only one that updated the Google calendar or looked at it, so it was just creating a lot of work for me without any family benefit. Now, we have a gigantic paper calendar in the kitchen (largest one I could buy on Amazon) and it is updated and referred to by both of us. It is working much better for us to have the paper calendar.

    • Just one experience — I’m a woman married to a woman, and I would say that “emotional labor” is evenly divided in our house (whether “emotional labor” is defined as logistical tasks or truly emotional work). Obviously we both have strengths and weaknesses, so we’ll sometimes gravitate towards certain tasks over time, but overall it feels like we have a good balance and it was easy to get there. Which is nice — there are plenty of other parts of parenting that remain hard!

    • We share our google calendars with each other and it is so so helpful!

  3. Anonymous :

    I don’t think housework, family organization, etc. really fall into the category of emotional labor. As defined above, emotional labor consists primarily of making people feel good–for example, maintaining a cheerful persona when confronted with rude customers, demanding clients, or cranky patients. Making dental appointments, creating menus, paying bills, and keeping track of kids’ shoe sizes is different. These tasks are logistical, not emotional. Many women get saddled with emotional labor at home as well as at work, especially those whose husbands struggle with mental illness, but emotional labor is separate from household management.

    • I agree with this. They’re related (in the sense that there’s a gender dynamic and they are often taken for granted), but not the same.

    • Thank you for this. In these terms, DH does most of the emotional labor in our family, while I do most of the logistical/organizational labor.

    • Yes and no. Making dental appointments is not emotional labor, agreed. But knowing when they need to be made, when the pediatrician appointments need to be made, what the issues at stake are re various vaccines, whether a developmental pediatrician is warranted, whether an OT evaluation is warranted, what the best day to pull kids out of school for appointments is – all of that is very much emotional labor.

  4. This may be controversial, but marrying the right man is the one single thing that helps the most in ensuring my household has a fair division of emotional and household labor. My husband works very hard, he is a feminist, he believes in equal responsibility in running the household, he respects my desire for a career, and he genuinely loves being a father and participating in the care of our child. If there isn’t some baseline to work with so that the couple can share a goal for fair household responsibility (e.g., you are married to a sexist guy that doesn’t mind a messy house, is lazy, doesn’t want to do childcare, and has no recognition or respect for invisible/emotional labor), then all the tips in the world will not help on this issue.

    • Anon in NOVA :

      Very true. I’ve lived both. However, it is hard to know what you want/need on the partner and parent front until you live it. I was able to go into my second marriage VERY aware of what I needed and what as important, as well as the experience to articulate it. I wouldn’t have been able to do that prior to having a child and living through the day-to-day logistics of it.

      • I guess I was “lucky” in that I had a truly terrible father and pretty much tried my best to marry a person that was the complete opposite of him in every way. It may be my own personal baggage (I would be turned off by guys who even liked the same music genre as my father did, which was probably a bit much), but I love my husband and our little family.

        • Oh, and I meant to add that this is something that I will try to pass on to my daughter (i.e., what to look for in a partner), and I would be teaching my son how to be a good partner if I had a son.

    • Anon in NYC :

      Same here.

    • Yup. For all it’s faults, Lean In got that right – having the right partner is the key.

    • In my experience, it’s hard to know if you’ve married the right guy until after kids are in the picture. My husband seemed like a feminist when we were dating and early in marriage. But once we had kids, it was clear he wanted at least a 60/40 division of responsibility (with me of course doing more), got grouchy if things were close to 50/50, and truly upset if he ever did more than me. I realized that his own parents’ VERY traditional relationship was a psychological default of sorts for him.

  5. I’d start by picking apart some of that list. Kid doctor appointments? Actually have to happen. Gifts for teachers? not actually a requirement. I think the priorities on some of these things are going to be different unless or until expectations change. If a mom forgets a teacher gift, I feel like she’d be judged more harshly than a dad who does. I feel anxiety about a messy house because I feel like I’m going to be judged for it (by other women) while my husband literally cannot imagine being judged for messiness (dirtiness, yes, at some level, but not just toys strewn around the living room). So on one level, yes, male partners should recognize that their female partners feel anxiety about some of these things — and that while a woman might overestimate how much she’ll be judged for something, it would be unrealistic to think she won’t be judged at all — and should help to alleviate that. But I also think that women should be realistic about how much these things matter to their male partners (i.e., often not at all). And then take them on only because they want to.

    • Further, I think we should consider whether “I’ll be judged” is really a good enough reason to do any thing. Obviously sometimes it can have negative impacts (I’m thinking about a poster recently who used a daycare at her work and therefore felt obligated to be a standout daycare parent) but how can we expect society to change if we don’t push back against these expectations and judgements, especially when they come from other women–often women who theoretically care about us?

    • “Gifts for teachers? not actually a requirement”

      This is age dependent. Daycare age ‘teachers’ – not a big deal and kids don’t/barely notice but I can guarantee you that my 6 year old would have been very upset if she didn’t have a teacher gift to give her teacher on the last day before Christmas break.

      • I respectfully dissent re daycare teachers. They are paid horribly, even compared to the worst-paid first-grade teacher you can imagine, and they’re caring for a more vulnerable & helpless population of little ones. Holiday gifts (cash & gift cards) are so important. Of course not a “requirement” but I wouldn’t dismiss it easily at the youngest ages.

      • Anonymama :

        Do you not have the room parent collecting money for the class gift? I feel like this is better for everyone (except possibly the room parent): teachers get cash/gift card instead of one million tchotchkes, parents can contribute whatever they want, and not feel like they are giving a gift that will possibly be a pain in the butt for the teacher, kids can make a special card if they are want to do something.

        • Anon in NOVA :

          i LOVE the years when it works out this way. Last year the room mom made a gift card wreath for the holidays, all we had to do was send in the gift cards. Made my life so much easier.

      • We had a room parent email us about the optional and anonymous class gift for my son’s daycare teachers. Then they set up an envelope for cash, to be equally divided. I talked to DH about how much to contribute and then just stuck money in the envelope one morning after pickup. It was a perfect system for everyone, and I hope (unrealistically, perhaps) that it never changes.

      • Anon in NOVA :

        I want to second that elementary schoolers WILL care if you don’t contribute. Same goes for at least signing up to send in something for the class party, etc. Do I think it’s truly a priority? no. But I know my son will ask why other mothers were there and I wasn’t, and I need to be able to say “because I sent in the supplies for the fun craft you guys did! some mommies help in person, other mommies bought the stuff, we all worked together!”

        • Legal Canuck :

          What we did this year was got each child draw a picture of why they liked their teacher. The room parent collected $5.00 from each student and we bought gift cards for the teacher and gave her the pictures in a nice Jar.
          The group gift is so much easier to do.

  6. Anon in NOVA :

    After one failed marriage where I lacked the insight to voice the importance of sharing labour- particularly mental/emotional labour, I sought it out in my second marriage and it has been wonderful. We don’t have an official “list” but we did discuss household chores before getting married, I did make sure it wasn’t a relationship where we “kept score”, and the rest of the stuff worked itself out based on what makes the most sense (with commutes, work schedules, etc.)
    Not all-inclusive, but larger areas I can think of at the moment:
    -Mornings (breakfast, lunch packed or remembering if it’s a lunch buying day, getting kid dressed, daycare drop off)
    -Garbage, mail sorting, recycling, arranging curb pickup for larger items
    -“clean outs” of rooms/closets/attic/basement etc.
    -Dishes (loading/unloading dishwasher, putting away)
    -Cooking for self if I haven’t made family dinner plans
    -Child’s dental appointment planning, taking to appointment
    -Covering routine medical appointments for child (he has way more leave)
    -Child’s laundry, towel laundry, changing/laundering bedding
    -Grocery shopping
    -Straightening up (minus dishes)
    -Mopping, vaccuuming, dusting, cleaning windows, cleaning floorboards, etc.
    -Cleaning the bathrooms/toilets
    -Daycare pickup, child’s homework, making child’s dinner
    -Picking out and procuring things that are decor-related (new blinds, new drapes, etc.)
    -Social things (ours as well as child’s)
    -enrolling child in activities
    -finding childcare (before/after school care, summer camp, etc.)
    -purchasing clothes for child
    -Remembering if child needs purple shirt/superhero costume/whatever for school, when school projects are due, signing up and buying stuff to contribute to the class party
    -Groceries from trader joe’s (it’s closer to where I work than it is from home)

    A lot of things vary more based on the day and how the other is clearly feeling or what they have going on at work.. such as who takes the “lead” for bedtime routine, who covers an unanticipated child sick day, etc. These responsibilities also evolve based on different factors. He used to handle the morning and afternoon drop off/pickup when my commute was much longer than his.

    Can I just give a shoutout to the fact this is a stepdad doing all of this?? I’m so lucky to have found a partner who jumped in 110% to this parenting thing!

    • Yay for equal partners!

    • Anonymous :

      Thank you so much for sharing this. I was widowed suddenly with a 1 year old and have been pulling our life together the last couple years. As a normally very high-functioning person, I feel it is almost easier to make all the decisions myself (and therefore stay single) but I really should eventually try to recouple so my LO has a model for a good relationship. Having found one “unicorn” (kind, feminist, willing to divide labor to the point of WAHD, etc) in my late husband I am not optimistic about my chances to do that again… But I am so encouraged to hear that you have found a great stepdad who is a great partner. Maybe there will be someone out there for me when I am ready.

      • Anon in NOVA :

        I am so, SO sorry that this happened to you and your family. I can’t even imagine.

        I also understand the desire to just stay single. For me, I had always done it all myself anyway, so why take on the “burden” of someone else? I was very determined I would never remarry, but that perhaps some day I would have a gentleman friend I would travel with and we would return home to our separate houses. Clearly life had other plans :)

        My husband was raised by a single mother until he was 11. I credit that when it comes to a lot of his positive traits. I also credit his stepfather who modeled for him that a child doesn’t have to be biologically yours for you to love them.

        It sounds like your LO has a great woman for a mother! Regardless of where you end up relationship-wise, I’m sure they’ll come out with the knowledge that women are strong, successful, capable, equal human beings, which is important regardless of their gender. :)

        • Anonymous :

          Thanks so much. You know, everyone has their losses to deal with and honestly despite being heartbroken about it, I can still very much look at our lives and be so thankful for what we do have– a strong support network of family/friends, our health, my continued ability to support our family and provide for LO. It is just an odd place though, I feel like there are/were two separate realities.

          Thanks for sharing about your husband’s background, and your thought process too! It helps to know I am not the only one out there. And maybe when I do think about things, someone who has personally experienced a loving single parent household sounds like they would have a lot of empathy for our situation. Funny how I never thought about that, but it is completely obvious after you say it!

          Best of luck to you and your family, thanks for the inspiration. :). Your LO is very lucky to have you too.

  7. Legal Canuck :

    We share the “emotional” and logistics. We both share appointments (depending on what we have on the go that day).
    I do mornings, he does afterschool care.
    We split laundry, cleaning, etc.
    It used to stress me out that I was doing everything. When it blew up and I started yelling at him that he never helped out, he said “you didn’t ask, you just did the chores”. So I asked, and he does. Honestly he can so oblivious that he doesn’t notice what needs to be done. He also tends to the outside chores, & vacumming. I do the cleaning. We split laundry, and tidying up . Also get the kids involved. The kids need to learn to help mom and dad with chores (at age 2 & 5 they put clothes in the laundry, bring their dishes to the sink, and tidy up the play room.

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