Like many of the two billion people (yes, really) who read Gemma Hartley's Harper's Bazaar article - "Women Aren't Nags - We're Just Fed Up," I found myself nodding along ferociously...
In the piece, journalist Gemma Hartley gave voice to the frustration and anger that countless women put into the hidden, underappreciated, and absolutely draining mental work that consists of keeping everyone in their lives comfortable and happy. Here’s a snippet that might resonate a little, when Gemma spoke about the tiny tasks she undertakes every day, and how she might go about explaining these to her husband … “If I were to point out random emotional labour duties I carry out—reminding him of his family’s birthdays, carrying in my head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit the kids when we go out, 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…” Sound familiar? With her viral piece, Gemma brought light to the emotional labour that takes place at work, at home, in relationships and of course, in parenting. Diving into this topic deeper in her new book, Fed Up, Gemma’s feminist manifesto empowers women to transform their inner dialogue while giving us the courage to ask for what we most want, without shame, guilt or emotional baggage. With her own lived experience, alongside hundreds of interviews with women around the world, we knew we had to speak to Gemma about her insights and her practical advice on how to wield emotional labour, so we can all live more full, calm and equal lives. If too, you are just a little (or a lot) fed up, Gemma’s interview will certainly not disappoint.
When you first wrote the article, "Women Aren't Nags, We're Just Fed-Up," did you expect the reaction that it received? Had you discussed that theme with your friends and family - realising that you were on to something so collectively problematic?
I absolutely did not expect the big reaction that it got! However, I had talked to friends and family about it and it was something that I had been mulling over for a while as a recurring theme in my life. But I figured it was just, you know, something that I experienced and that my friends experienced because we had very similar backgrounds. I had no idea that it would resonate so widely. When I went back to it as I was writing the book, trying to figure out what it was that really struck that nerve, I think it was that we finally had a word to describe this frustration of the combined mental and emotional work that goes into emotional labour.
How did your husband react to the article and the consequent world-wide conversation around emotional labour?
I’m sure it was a bit uncomfortable for him at first. I don’t often write about my husband and so, of course, the first time that I do, and I say anything remotely negative … It goes absolutely viral! So that was a really weird experience. At first, he was really worried that people would read this article and think he was this really bad guy. And I was like, “No, I think when people read this, what they are going to see in it is themselves. They won’t even be looking at you.” Which was really the case. And he has been so supportive. Once he got over the initial shock of what was happening! We talked about how I was going to write this book and I was going to draw a lot on our personal experiences and some of the not so great parts of our marriage. He has been on board, 100%, the whole time. So it’s been really wonderful to not have to hold anything back while writing this book.
Traditional gender roles still do exist in some households. Do you think the mental load that women take on in these circumstances is more of a necessity than a choice? For example, is it that they simply have more time at home to make the phone calls, organise appointments and schedule activities?
I think when there are traditional gender roles in place it’s hard to say, “Let’s get this to 50/50.” But the problem I was seeing was that it was closer 100/0 – with women doing all of it, and I don’t think there is any relationship in which that makes sense. So I think it’s not about getting to that elusive 50/50, it’s getting to a balance that works and does not completely exhaust and deplete one person.
The mental load that women carry can often obviously lead to frustration, anger and resentment. And when those feelings begin to arise what have you found throughout all of your research, what's the best course of action to have an open discussion rather than seething with resentment or having an argument with your partner?
I think this one is really hard because it does often come up when you reach that boiling point, and that’s sort of the proof that I describe in the article. I had reached that point of exhaustion and frustration and we didn’t have a very productive conversation about it when that happened. What changed things for us was when we started talking about it a lot. It just became a common conversation, when we would talk about emotional labour. We’d break it up, making it a more common conversation than this really fraught argument, and I think a lot of that had to do with approaching the conversation from a cultural perspective. Really talking about the different ways that we were raised, why our signals were getting crossed, and why we weren’t understanding each other. I think that takes a lot of the blame out of it when we assess the culture as the thing to point to and blame, rather than pointing at each other, and blaming one another for that.
Women, and in particular mothers, have a lot of moments where they get fed up. How do you suggest that we get to the root of the issue before those feelings of frustration and anger start to consume us?
I think one of the most important things that we can do as women is to really start reevaluating our priorities when it comes to emotional labour and setting some boundaries. Once we start to do that, it will become easier to pinpoint exactly where the frustration lies. So we can have those conversations and not have this really overwhelming feeling like there is a mountain of work that we’re never going to get through. So I think it’s really important that we really evaluate the work we’re doing and why we’re doing it and make sure that what we’re doing makes sense for us. Before we bring it to our partners from this place of frustration.
Emotional labor is all of the planning, prepping, doing, going and organising that makes up the big picture of our daily life - all of those things that need to get done for things to just run smoothly. This also, as we know, often leads to burnout. How do we change that? Do you think that we're just wired differently to take on more of that mental load?
When I started writing the book, I did think that. I thought the research would tell me that I was just “naturally better at this”, but that was not true at all. It turns out these are learned skills and they are ones that women are just culturally conditioned to do from a very young age. And so, it feels natural, but it’s really the byproduct of our social conditioning. Which is really good news! Because it means that there’s a lot of hope for change. Men can absolutely learn these skills and rise to the occasion just as well as we can. Even if that seems hard to believe. It’s just a matter of learning, for the first time, how to notice what needs to be done. How to emphatically relate to people and how to take these emotional labour skills and apply them to your life. It’s natural for women, only in so far as we’ve learned to make it a part of our lives.
In your article for Harper's Bazaar, you spoke about boys and men needing praise and acknowledgement for some of those everyday tasks that girls and women do all of the time - without even thinking about it. How do we stop that gender imbalance from creeping into our lives? What can we do for our sons and our daughters?
I think the biggest thing we can do is to model the equality we want for our children. And so that means having these conversations about emotional labour. It helps to talk about how you want these changes to affect your children and their view of the world, and how we want equal partnerships for them when they grow up. My husband and I have had a lot of conversations about the need for praise. We came to the agreement that we either both needed to thank each other a lot more for the work that we were doing, or we needed to just go ahead and do it. We decided to praise each other a lot more, which means we value the work we do more. I think this is really nice because it’s hard to keep your head down, doing the work, without recognition. I think we all want that praise. The problem is – we’re only giving it to our partners because they won’t do the work otherwise. This is problematic.
You have three children and a successful writing career. How do you balance the daily juggle of life, kids and marriage? Has the process of writing your book led to any more balance in your home?
Yes! The book has absolutely led to a lot more balance – the writing of it was sort of intensive therapy for our relationship, which led us to a place where we are both happy and content with the amount of emotional labour we are doing. As far as the juggle is concerned, we talk about it together and we make it work for us. So while I was writing this book, for most of the time my husband was off work. And now it’s a little different. I feel like my life is always shifting, but I know that the work that I do is very important to me. So I always carve out the time for it. I make sure I make time for myself and I make time for my family. So I really just budget out my time on the things that matter most to me.
Where do we go from here? Can you see the mental load and emotional labour that we currently carry changing for our children?
I really do. I have had so many really heartening conversations, not just with women, but with a lot of men since my book has come out – which is really exciting. I think men are really coming into the space where they want equality and they just didn’t realise that emotional labour was this thing that they were shirking. A lot of men aren’t doing this on purpose, it’s just the different ways that we were raised. I think now that we have a language to talk about it, we will see change and that it will not be the same for our children.
What is the first thing that you do when you feel fed up at home?
I tell my husband. I don’t let it simmer. I bring it up really quickly and I try to stay level-headed about it. But I make sure that I don’t reach that point where I am overwhelmed, exhausted and depleted. I don’t want to get there ever again in my life! I think that I’m well on my way to never experiencing that again.