You Deserve a Partner Not A Project: An Interview With Author Gemma Hartley


A few years ago, author Gemma Hartley wrote an article entitled "Women Aren't Nags, We're Just Fed Up." In the piece that went uncommonly viral -having been viewed two billion times, yes, that's billion with a b- she wrote for women around the world feeling frustrated due to the industrious amounts of invisible work they continuously do to run their households.

The success of this article inevitably led to her recent book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and The Way Forward (HarperCollins, 2018). In it, she expands on the subject and once again gifts us much needed clarity and language to speak about many women's emotions worldwide.

Continue reading for the fascinating interview we recently had with Gemma.

MF: What was different about the moment you decided to write the famous article that went viral?

GH: It wasn’t a single moment, I think it had all been building for a long time. One of the things that really informed the article was the comic about mental load "You Should've Asked" by French cartoonist Emma. It put some of this into perspective for me, and I had also been talking to friends about it. It had all been building in these small ways, and I think when my husband said, 'if you want me to do that, just ask me to' it clicked. I was like, 'That’s it! That’s what the problem is.' The asking is really exhausting, and then the asking in the right tone and keeping everyone comfortable, and happy, it all started to piece together. That’s when I decided to write this article.

When it went viral, where you surprised?

I was not expecting it at all. I was shocked by how viral it went, mainly because I realized that the reason it went so viral was that there were women with very different experiences from my own that were still relating to what I was saying. I had anticipated that it would resonate with women whose lives looked like mine, but the fact was women from all walks of life and from all over the world where dealing with the issue of emotional labor in much the same ways.

For the people who haven’t had the chance to read the book or the article, how do you define emotional labor?

The way I define emotional labor is the invisible, mostly unpaid work that women do to keep everyone around them comfortable and happy. This includes both mental work and emotion work. Rose Hackman had a fairly viral article in the Guardian, back in 2015, on the concepts of emotional labor. So these were really the things informing me at first. And then, of course, there’s Arlie Hochschild's work, which defined it within the academic field as the emotion work that service employees like flight attendants do to keep everything calm and keep everyone comfortable at the expense of their own emotional sake.

Where do you think the emotional labor imbalance between men and women -generally speaking- comes from?

Everything in my research pointed to this being a cultural phenomenon. This is something that we’re socialized to take on at a very young age –and men are not socialized to take on emotional labor. I think what makes this divide really different from others, is that the work is invisible, you can’t see it on the surface. You can’t point to it like you can domestic labor, or many other divides that are easy to understand through detailed statistics.

The way I define emotional labor is the invisible, mostly unpaid work that women do to keep everyone around them comfortable and happy. This includes both mental work and emotion work.

There's research coming out now about the mental load and about emotional labor, but it’s harder to pin down. So I think the fact that this work is invisible is what makes it so difficult to come to terms with, especially when we didn’t have a language to talk about it. We didn’t have the terms 'emotional labor' and 'mental load' years ago. Now that we do, we’ve started to realize that this is a force in our lives, and I’m very hopeful that things will change.

Having the conversation is such a big step forward. In your opinion, what would be the goal of this discussion?

What I’m personally looking for, is for men and women to understand what emotional labor is and how it affects their lives -and really to balance it out. We have a lot of women who are really skilled in emotional labor, and men who don’t even understand what it is. And I think this is problematic for men and for women.

Women obviously have this burden at the expense of their time, their emotional energy, and mental state. While I think for men, they aren’t fully living their lives, they aren’t attuned to the details of their life, or empathetically relating to other people because they don’t have these skills. So I think it’s good for everyone when more people understand emotional labor and how to relate to each other in this way.

You’ve spoken about “what’s in it for men,” and mention recurrently throughout the book that this is not just a conversation that will benefit women who are picking up the slack. Can you talk more about that?

I don’t think of it as a transferal of burden, I think that it really opens up the world for both men and women when everyone is balancing out emotional labor. I really do believe that it’s not just about lifting this burden for women, though that’s incredibly important and a worthy goal. I also think there’s a tremendous benefit to everyone understanding this work and really being adept at it.

Yes, it also helps make this conversation relevant for same-sex couples, couples that exist outside of the gender binary. What are your thoughts on that?

I talk a lot about men and women in the book because that’s the way we’re socialized, in these very binary ways, but that’s not how the world works. People live outside of the binary, people live outside of the cis-hetero nuclear family. And so these are human skills we’re talking about, there is no biological determinism in place. I hear a lot that women think men just can’t do these things, but no, anyone can do this, it’s not hardwired into us. Everyone can learn these skills, women have just been practicing longer.

In your book there’s a section called “why we need to stop asking for help” –why is language a critical part of this conversation?

I’ve always been really interested in the language. Even since the article 'Women Aren’t Nags, We’re Just Fed Up,' we have a lot of different terms to describe women and to keep them in their place, and I think 'help' is this really tricky one because it has a positive connotation. However, when you're asking your partner to 'help you' it really implies that it's your responsibility and whatever they're doing is extra credit. When you’re in a partnership, there is no one doing bonus work by doing their share.

I hear a lot that women think men just can’t do these things, but no, anyone can do this, it’s not hardwired into us. Everyone can learn these skills, women have just been practicing longer.

I really like to talk about this in terms of shared responsibilities, because it's not about helping the other person out, I think that puts that onus back on women -if they want that help they have to figure out how to get it. What we want is equality, and we shouldn’t have to put up a fight for that, especially in our relationships.

Where do we even begin to find a solution?

My book really focuses on the personal. I think many things need to change, structurally and politically, this is a cultural problem that needs to be solved in the broader culture. But I think it really starts by having these conversations with our partners, talking to our friends about it, and making this an ongoing discussion.

A lot of the problems come up when we’re talking about what the other person is doing wrong, and that's usually how these discussions start. We’re frustrated, we’re carrying this load, so we’re saying 'you don’t do this,' and 'I do this,' and we have that sort of back and forth between partners. I think it’s a lot easier when we approach it from a cultural perspective. We can start by saying something like: 'you know, I’ve been reading this interesting research, I was socialized in this way, and you were socialized in this certain way, and this is why we don’t see eye to eye. We need to reevaluate whether the way that we’re operating serves us, now that we have more information.' Approaching it from that growth mindset and talking about the cultural forces outside of just blaming one and other is an essential part of it.

I also think as women, setting boundaries around our emotional labor is necessary. Finding out what our priorities are, making that space for ourselves, so we don’t burn out and use up all our emotional energy and mental space. It really needs to start with deciding what is important to us.

You’ve mentioned before how talking about emotional labor can actually turn into more emotional labor, which is a bit disheartening. What needs to go into a conversation of this sort, so it doesn’t become personal –are there any specific lessons you’ve learned that allow you to avoid frustration and silence?

Yes. I’ve definitely felt that I’ve talked to a lot of women who feel that way. It feels easier to keeps things the way they are because we're really good and efficient at emotional labor. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it to have this conversation and this fight.

I think that what we need to keep in mind is that in the long run, it's going to be easier to shift this balance and go through this challenging period. But another thing that I think is key to remember is that the onus to change this should not be entirely on women. Men need to be stepping up and putting in the effort to learn. A lot of men want this digested for them, they want their hands held through the process, and they need to take up their share of emotional labor while learning about this.

when you’re asking your partner to ‘help you’ it really implies that it’s your responsibility and whatever they’re doing is extra credit. When you’re in a partnership, there is no one doing bonus work by doing their share.

A lot of women think ‘this is so much more work for me,’ and yes in a way it is, but two people are supposed to be working on it, and if you only have one person willing to do the work, then you have a really big problem. Men need to recognize their privilege when it comes to emotional labor and really put in that effort to learn.

That’s definitely a hard part of the conversation, especially when there’s a lot of partners in relationships that don’t have the intention of learning about this subject. Of course, there's no definitive answer, but what happens when there’s really no intention from a person to check their privilege?

This certainly is something that breaks my heart. We’re really quick to dismiss men who don’t want to learn, we say, 'ok they don’t want to learn so what can I do to make it easier for me?' and I think we have to stop letting men off the hook like that, I really do. Men who do not have the intention to change, that are not willing to look at your life and consider your work valuable, are not worth your time.

I really think you need to be open and vulnerable and say, this matters to me, and what matters to me should also matter to you. Your life, your work, and the things you value should matter to your partner, and I don’t think that’s something that I have a lot of room to debate. We should be able to expect more from our partnerships than someone who refuses to look at our life and see it for what it is.