What Is Work? The Unpaid Labour That Always Defaults To Women

In our early days of parenting I remember my husband and I fighting a lot over what I called 'logistics' and what he didn't even realise existed. I now know there is a word for it (and a whole body of academic feminist literature!).


Most of us know now that cleaning and childcare are mostly done by women, even if we work for money too. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Emotional Work

Emotional work includes:

  • Remembering birthdays and related cards, gifts and phone calls

  • Keeping in touch with friends, organising play dates for the kids

  • Planning date nights, faking orgasms and birth control

  • School excursion permission slips, parent-teacher meetings and classroom volunteering

The list goes on and on and on. 

The concept of unpaid emotional labour is not new, it's been taught in academic circles for decades, but it's simply not changing our day-to-day lives yet. Women are still expected to do it all, and many men are not even aware what 'it all' is. It just happens, as if by magic.

The truth is there is nothing wrong with traditional roles as a way of dividing labour in a team. It does save time and energy to allocate a whole genre of tasks to one or the other partner. The problem arises when the roles are gendered and completely unconscious.

If you enjoy working in traditional roles than feel free to continue. But if you feel overwhelmed, exhausted and resentful it's time to acknowledge why.

In my favourite mothering book of all time, Naomi Stadlen writes about "What Mothers Do - Especially When It Looks Like Nothing." It's time to start talking about what we do, and better still, sharing the load.

If you do approach your partner about sharing some of the unpaid emotional labour, it's likely he won't have a clue what you are talking about.

Keep Talking About It.

The most common rebuttal is that women are just better at this stuff. Women are more in tune, intuitive, emotionally intelligent...

I acknowledge that women's brain works differently than men's, especially after childbirth. (Learn more about baby brain here). But the truth is it's always 50:50 nature and nurture. Many studies show that men can learn, all it takes is practice. Men who co-sleep, for example, have lower testosterone levels. Men who take more parental leave are more likely to be actively engaged in parenting for many years after.

In our house, we've managed to iron out our expectations and now we split unpaid work and paid work fairly evenly. It makes us really happy, and research shows it can improve your sex life too. ;)