The buzzphrase ‘emotional labour’ has recently been catapulted into public consciousness in a viral article by a female journalist for Harper’s Bazaar, who employed it to refer to the domestic duties that typically fall to women as ‘household managers’: cleaning, childcare, remembering their husband’s family’s birthdays. My wife introduced me to the term; I forget in what context, but probably the birthdays thing.
The phrase was originally coined back in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild specifically to describe the suppressing of true feelings in a professional capacity. This isn’t to dismiss these unjustly gendered domestic duties; if anything, the description ‘emotional labour’ does them a disservice. Cleaning, childcare, remembering birthdays – these things are work. A lot of work. And women do a lot more of it than men: 60 per cent more, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), or 26 hours a week versus 16.
The ONS puts the total value of this unpaid work at £1.01 trillion a year – 56 per cent of the UK’s GDP. That works out at £166.63 for the average man, or £259.63 per week for the average woman. Not only do women ‘shoulder the responsibility’, to use the ONS’s phrase, but they also do the higher-value unpaid work – chiefly, childcare. An average mother on maternity leave spends 37 unpaid hours a week engaging with her child. When you factor in cooking, housework, laundry and transport, that total rises to 60 hours, worth £762.75. If she got paid for it, that is.
‘Childcare is undervalued as an occupation, by society generally and men particularly’
It never fails to bemuse me that childcare gets lumped in with cooking and housework, as if nurturing an infant is no more vital than scrubbing a potato. But then childcare is undervalued as an occupation, by society generally and men particularly. Of 400,000 Early Years educators in the UK, 98 per cent are women. Two in three of the councils that provide nursery services don’t employ any men.
A report by NatCen, which conducts the annual British Social Attitudes survey, said that while support for traditional gender roles has declined, ‘substantial support remains for women having the primary caring role when children are young’. This is despite women’s participation in the (paid) labour market increasing. But then when do you ever see the phrase ‘working father’, or a professionally successful man asked, ‘How do you have it all?’
The assumption is still that childcare is a woman’s job, even if they have one and the man doesn’t. Data from the American Time Use Survey showed that men who became unemployed didn’t increase the amount of childcare they did, whereas women doubled theirs. In my extended network, I know of only two dads who have shared parental leave. At least one dad in our NCT group wasn’t sure that his boss would even let him take the statutory two weeks: he couldn’t legally stop him, but he could discourage him.
‘The assumption is still that childcare is a woman’s job even if they have one and the man doesn’t’
As a freelance journalist who can manage my own time, I’m in a uniquely privileged position. My wife leaves for work at around 7am every day so I give my daughter breakfast, get her dressed and take her to nursery. This morning, as I pushed her buggy, a delivery driver addressed me: ‘I love to see the father taking control,’ he said. ‘It’s fantastic.’ While I appreciated the sentiment, it shouldn’t be that remarkable in 2019. As my wife, who does pick-ups, pointed out, no one would think to praise a woman for pushing a buggy.
I’d love to pretend that our division of labour is entirely down to my enlightened attitude. The economic reality is that my wife makes more money than I do, so it’s just good financial sense for me to take any earnings hit. I also have the flexibility of being able to take a day off when my daughter contracts yet another Victorian illness from her nursery (seemingly weekly).
Admittedly, it took time, and some ego-massaging, to accept that I wasn’t making as big a contribution to the household monetarily. But now I take pride in looking after my daughter for a few hours in the morning or five nights while her mother is at a conference in Seattle, without having to get my mum round to help. I want my daughter to see that men can be nurturing, and that women can have careers beyond the cooking, cleaning and childcare that girls’ toys condition them for practically from birth. I want to have it all; to cook, clean and co-parent equally, even if it means more work for no more pay. Because the benefits – being closer to my daughter and having a happier partner – are great.