Women’s emotional labour at Christmas: ‘My husband must think Santa does it all’
If you’re a woman in a heterosexual relationship, chances are you’re doing most of the work
The UK Office for National Statistics has found that women in Britain do 40 per cent more housework and childcare than men. Photograph: Getty Images
If you’re a woman in a heterosexual relationship, chances are that you’re the one doing a disproportionate amount of the work this Christmas: shopping for presents, wrapping them, making up spare beds and decorating the tree, organising the cooking, clearing up the wrapping paper and discarded ribbons, cleaning the plates and storing the leftovers, and a thousand other physical chores in between.
The UK Office for National Statistics has found that women Britain do 40 per cent more housework and childcare than men. A recent UK poll even suggested that British men will spend 11 hours over the Christmas period hiding away from their families. One colleague remarked to me that she has no idea where her husband thinks all the presents magically appear from. “Maybe he still believes in Santa! ”
Over the past few years, however, there has been a growing awareness not just of the unpaid domestic chores that women take on, but also of the more subtle, unnoticed and unrewarded tasks: the burden of what has become widely known as “emotional labour”. At no time is this burden heavier than at Christmas.
Lucy’s mother died when she was young and, ever since, she has felt huge pressure to step into her mum’s shoes, buying all the presents for the extended family. “I do think if I’d been a boy I wouldn’t have cared as much and there would have been zero expectations. There would not have been the same pressures to fulfil a role, a void that was impossible to fill, of course.”
But alongside this “second shift” - the labour women perform at home once they leave their paid work - there is a third shift, which is less often acknowledged. This is the mental load of planning social engagements, remembering thank-you notes and praising kind teachers, keeping track of nativity plays and Christmas pantomimes and organising the logistics of travel and sleeping arrangements.
Finally, we might go one layer deeper still: to consider the emotional burden that Christmas often brings. Managing the needs of those who might be lonely or isolated at Christmas, navigating complicated family dynamics, tactfully rearranging chairs to prevent family feuds from reigniting over the Christmas pudding, managing young children’s tempers and expectations, and generally trying to keep everybody else happy at a time of year when pressure to have a “merry” Christmas is enormous.
For Sal, whose father and mother-in law are both on their own, “it’s a careful balancing act to consider everyone’s needs and ensure we spend equal time with each family on alternating years over Christmas and new year. It’s a lot of pressure and quite exhausting.”
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The sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “emotional labour” in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. She used it to define the idea that a worker should manipulate their feelings to fit the requirements of a job. “Emotional labour ... is the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job,” she told the Atlantic. “This involves evoking and suppressing feelings ? From the flight attendant whose job it is to be nicer than natural, to the bill collector whose job it is to be, if necessary, harsher than natural, there are a variety of jobs that call for this.”
Hochschild described the current usage of the term as “blurry and over-applied”, citing examples such as daily chores, or pressure to “do the perfect Christmas holiday” as “over-extensions” of its intended meaning. However, she added: “I do think that managing anxiety associated with obligatory chores is emotional labour.”
While it does stretch the term beyond the original domain of paid employment, it might still be useful to think specifically about the “emotional labour” women carry out at Christmas, which involves managing, suppressing or performing their emotions in order to secure everybody else’s happiness.
Relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam describes this as the “emotional choreography of Christmas”. She says: “In order to give out emotionally, very often women have to put their own needs so firmly to one side that they’re not even sure they have any. This is not being weak or vulnerable. Then [they suddenly realise] they’re furiously angry or very sad and thinking of earlier Christmases as happy memories. It’s a problem with anybody who is doing emotional labour for anybody else that there comes a time when you just have to look after yourself as well as looking after other people.”
Georgia has Lyme disease. “I try and spoil everyone to make up for my illness and have extreme anxiety about whether they will like the gifts or not. So I buy more and end up having money issues.” The pressure to focus on everyone else at the expense of her own feelings began at an early age. “When I was 15 or so at my secondary school we had an hour-long assembly on how a woman should run Christmas - and how her job is to make sure the family and husband enjoy their day. I think attitudes like these are the reason women especially run around shops going to extreme measures in order to make sure their families have the best days without thinking of themselves.”
For Ella, “the feelings that go with being a single childless woman at 40, no matter how welcome my family make me feel” mean that her own emotions have to be suppressed, and happiness performed, in order for Christmas to run smoothly. Sleeping in her niece’s bed, “surrounded by glittery unicorns, countless Barbies and Little Mix posters”, she has to cope with her own mixed feelings, including “the heartache that it’s not my own family ? So every Christmas I allow myself a day or so to wallow in self-pity, then I try to get over it and go and have a great time.” She continues: “Don’t get me wrong, I adore my family, but there are always strong emotions that I have to suppress to make it through and enjoy the few days.”
So, how can you take care of yourself over the festive period? Quilliam says there needs to be much more sharing of the burden of emotional work. This ultimately will bring rewards for men, she says, such as the “rewards of personal development, of being compassionate and making the connections that come with doing this labour”. She points out that she is increasingly seeing men in her practice who are keen to take on some of the emotional load, although they are not necessarily societally conditioned for it in the same way women are.
Quilliam explains: “Very early on, as soon as they can understand words and pick up non-verbal communication, men are being taught that they need not take care of their own emotions, but just fight through, and therefore that it’s not appropriate to be looking after other people either.”
This brings me back to that survey about men “escaping” the festivities. I wonder whether it is because of the selfishness implied by the coverage of the survey, or rather a failure of society to equip some men with the emotional tools to navigate periods such as Christmas, while women are overequipped to manage them. For single fathers and those in same-sex relationships, the festive period will be equally fraught with emotional responsibilities and stereotyped expectations to manage. Perhaps, for all our sakes, some serious Christmas recalibration is needed.
Some names have been changed.
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