Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “This Feed Is on Fire: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Reclaim It” will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
After two years in which many dialed back celebrations during the Covid-19 pandemic, this holiday season likely will be supersized. Many of us are making up for those missed opportunities with more celebrations with more people.
Behind all these celebrations are often some very tired women. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, among married heterosexual couples who both work full time and have a child under age 18, mothers spend nearly double as much time as fathers on housework, food preparation and cleanup, and purchasing goods and services — the primary forms of work involved in hosting people or exchanging gifts around the holidays.
It’s time for all people, regardless of gender, to step up to divide the labor that goes into the holidays more evenly.
Still in many 21st century homes, there is “the taken-for-granted notion that a mother is in charge of the tracking and the knowing and the thinking and the planning and the feeding and the caring and the checking and the doing unless she has worked to make other arrangements (which then entail more knowing and more thinking and more tracking and more doing),” Darcy Lockman writes in “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership.”
This kind of often unnoticed work is known as emotional labor. “Emotional labor, as I define it, is emotion management and life management combined,” Gemma Hartley writes in “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.” “It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.”
Hartley points out that the widespread expectation for women to be primarily responsible for this labor in heterosexual relationships is part of what sociologists call the “stalled gender revolution.” While women have made progress in recent decades toward achieving equality with men in areas such as business and politics, there has been a marked lack of progress in getting men and women to share the emotional labor that happens in homes equitably.
Women carry this unequal burden year-round, of course. But things really come to a head for us around the holidays, when we’re often the ones to schedule the holiday celebrations and plan child care for when schools shutter for the holidays — not to mention make gift lists, think of gift ideas, order and wrap them, and then deal with customer service when they arrive broken.
All of this is on top of the emotional labor we’re already doing on a daily basis — keeping track of birthdays and school picture days, filling out forms to sign our kids up for extracurricular activities, scheduling babysitters and managing the family calendar, for example.
And it leaves us utterly exhausted. “It takes a great deal of time and energy to perform this type of labor — and it is never fully shut off in our brains,” Hartley writes. “And it costs us dearly, using up untold reservoirs of mental capacity that we could be using in ways that serve us, our careers, our lives and happiness.”
Because so many moms are already stretched so thin, we don’t have the extra time in our lives for this additional holiday work, so it can take an especially big toll on us. For example, among married heterosexual couples who both work full time and have a child under age 18, moms spend nearly two-thirds more time than fathers on caring for and helping family members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
I spent the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend getting partially ready for just one of the three extended family celebrations over the holidays, which involves coming up with stocking stuffers for every family member and their partner. By the end of the day, when I called it quits because my toddler had begun to unwrap gifts at a faster pace than I could wrap them, I had managed to wrap 28 stocking stuffers — but not take a shower. Worst of all, I was struggling to come up with ideas for partners of family members whom I don’t know well. I had to carry around that mental load on top of the countless other things I track, plan and worry about for my family every day.
To be fair, if my husband had been around, he would have helped. (He is an emergency medicine physician and worked the entire weekend.)
Of course, I suspect that, if families divvied up work more equally, they would decide to eliminate some of this labor altogether. We should all consider whether we can get rid of unnecessary gift exchanges, for example. For me, at least, relief from some of the time and emotional labor that goes into them would be a far greater gift than anything someone could wrap for me.
Family members and friends should also recognize how overburdened so many mothers are — year-round but especially at the holidays — and be sensitive to small things that can make a difference. If you can spare it, now is a great time to offer to play with your nephews or grandchildren so parents can get ready for the holidays. If families with small children are coming to visit, ask if there’s anything you can do to make them more comfortable. Often small things can make an enormous difference — such as having milk and other perishables that kids need or relieving mom of the burden of finding a nearby convenience store that will be open on Christmas afternoon.
The burden of planning this year’s supercharged holiday celebrations — and all the other emotional and other forms of labor that happen in families — shouldn’t just fall on women. If people of all genders recognized and pitched in to take on this work, we’d truly have something to celebrate.