When I married my husband the summer before I graduated college, I thought that we were starting on truly equal ground.
We had both worked our way through college, sharing one small apartment after another without growing tired of each another in our cramped quarters. We never talked about how we would divide the labor in our home, but it seemed to be working. We’d vacuum the small square of carpet when it needed vacuuming. We’d switch off doing dishes. We’d grocery shop together. Melding our lives and what little money we had at the time was not a particularly harrowing endeavor. We were living largely separate and independent lives between our jobs and college courses, and we were simply happy to have another person to come home to at the end of each long day.
I assumed that as we grew up together our life would become a bigger and better version of our shoebox apartment scenario, with a naturally equal division of labor. We’d each do our fair share like we always had. We’d build our life together.
Yet when my college career came to a close and I gave birth to our first child, things began shifting noticeably. I stayed home, unable to afford even the most unsavory childcare on our retail salaries (not to mention the impossible hours we were each working). Instead of us building a life together, I began building a life for all of us.
Before long, I was the one who was unequivocally “in charge” of the home. I did all of the emotional labor – all the unnoticed work that kept everything humming along. I was the only person who noticed when things needed to be done, from dishes and vacuuming to doctors appointments and preschool registration. While my husband helped out around the house, it was always just that: help. The responsibility to make sure everything got done was solely mine. I was the calendar keeper, the chore delegator, the present buyer, the mental list, the constant reminder, the nag.
The mental load I carried around with me all the time made it hard for me to focus. I felt like I always had a million tabs open in my mind, switching from one to the next, always worried that I would forget something necessary — and knowing there was no safety net, no one who would remind me of what needed to be done if my mind failed me.
That feeling of overwhelm bred resentment as our family, and therefore my responsibility, grew tenfold. I was responsible for everything and everybody, including my husband. He would often come home and drape his coat over the back of a kitchen chair, kick off his shoes on the floor, not even thinking to put them away. He would ask me questions, like what were we having for dinner, or whether I knew what time we were supposed to go to his mother’s house over the weekend.
Eventually the burden of all the emotional labor I was doing became too much to bear. We finally had a conversation about how exhausting it was for me to be the person who always had to notice, always had to remember, always had to delegate. I told him I wanted him to take equal initiative and equal responsibility instead of being another person in the home whom I had to care for. I needed a true partner.
Where many men would have become defensive or dismissed emotional labor because it’s too difficult to understand, my husband immediately gave it an honest go. He began doing the laundry without being asked. Tidied without being asked. He took the kids out of the house during my work hours without expecting anything in return. He started keeping the calendar with me, planning meals with me, communicating with me instead of expecting me to run the show. He began checking homework and going grocery shopping and keeping a running list when he noticed we were low on things. It was amazing.
As I started becoming accustomed to the new balance of emotional labor in our household, I felt like my brain could finally work at full capacity again. Soon after, I started in writing a book on emotional labor, an endeavor I never could have taken on if I didn’t have a husband who was so ready and willing to take on his fair share. When I asked him why and how he rose to the challenge with so little effort, his answer was simple: he was doing it for me.
While I may have taken on emotional labor because I was raised to subconsciously believe it was my job, he was able to take it on out of love. He did it not only because it was the right thing to do, but because he wanted our relationship to be better. Coming home to find that the laundry has been folded and put away is more than a nice surprise. It’s an act of love, one that reminds me that I’m not in this alone. I have a partner, a true partner, who’s willing to put in the work necessary to build a life together.