The Emotional Labour of Women

I recently read an article about how men have finally discovered the hidden labour of childcare and household concerns that women have been doing for decades or even centuries (alongside the workplace). I’m tempted to argue that it is nothing new: divorced fathers discover it when they share custody and no longer have the luxury of being purely ‘fun Dad’ and asking their partner what their child likes to eat or when parents’ evening is. Of course, there have been many fictional depictions of the chaos of motherhood that fathers could have referred to, but I suppose there is a difference between reading about it (and many would perhaps not choose to read about it) and actually experiencing it for yourself.

Two of those depictions I coincidentally read this February half-term, which was actually more peaceful than many others because: a) we couldn’t go away anywhere; b) although I was working full-time, the boys didn’t have to sit glued to their computer screen for home schooling purposes many hours every day, which makes them restless and grumpy. So, instead, they learnt ‘life skills’ such as cooking, laundry and cleaning.

Marian Engel: Lunatic Villas (February in Canada read), 1981.

Harriet Ross is a divorced single mother, a freelance writer with a weekly column entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Depressed Housewife’. She lives in a Toronto street that has been gentrified, but her own townhouse is a bit ramshackle, as it has become the refuge for a ragtag assortment of children and teenagers (some of them her own, some of them fostered for various reasons), depressed sisters, random old ladies, eccentric neighbours, spiteful ex-husband and his new crusading wife and so on.

While each of the people in her life seem to have problems and demand something from her, although she is being pulled in all directions and can hardly hear herself think at times, Harriet shows a generosity of spirit that is finally somewhat rewarded when she herself falls ill and the neighbours all pitch in to help her.

For all the grim realities depicted (alcoholism, drug-taking, child abuse, mental illness, manipulation, family courts), there is a certain joyfulness in the chaos depicted here, and a lot of solidarity amidst all the abandonment and betrayal. But there is no sugarcoating of the difficulties of being the lynchpin of a family:

Mornings are precious new beginnings, every day a chance to exorcise yesterday’s and before yesterday’s sins: mostly. Harriet begins her day very carefully, without shaking it hard enough to break the thin film of semi-consciousness that keeps her close to her dreams. She scoots downstairs as soon as the alarm goes off, puts the kettle on, collects the paper: and this year, the first in fourteen, takes the coffee and the paper upsatirs again with her, the better to protect herself from reality. They are really better off without her in the morning, the mob, and as long as there are milk and sugar and bowl and spooons and four kinds of cereal on the table they consider themselves looked after. Then, in bed, pretending to read the paper that is in fact reading her, she counts flushes, scrapes, shouts, clouts, hears Sim’s gruff ‘Get on with it, you guys,’ before his great thumping exit and slam; Melanie’s ‘Pervert’ to Mick’s ‘Slut’ and the resulting clashing of spoons; piggish little snorts from the twins; Sidonia, late and serene, descending the stairs like a queen… ‘Ma, where’s my…?’ can be dealt with more easily from upstairs.

Not all of the scenes are from Harriet’s point of view, and we get many different perspectives on her household, but also on life more generally, including this delicious rant about marraige by neighbour and friend Marshallene:

Marriage is a state for which I am sublimely unsuited. I dislike housework of all kinds and am well known for scorning the culinary arts. Little dinner parties make me want to get drunk and little black dresses make me want to stuff myself and burst out of them. I am capable of walking around a vacuum cleaner left prominently in the middle of the hall floor for a week. I am past child-bearing… I am no help and no comfort to anyone. I am a writer and writers are notoriously self-centred. I do not have to look at the outside world to find my material, nor do I need to live out someone else’s life to survive…

Although the narrative gets messy and bewildering in parts (no doubt reflecting the messiness of Harriet’s life), it is a warm-hearted, often very funny book, completely unsentimental about families and friendships, very clear-eyed about the often contradictory feelings in our bosom. A slice of life which reminded me of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn, 1958.

Marian Engel’s novel portrays urban life in Canada in the late 1970s, but Fremlin’s novel takes us to London two decades earlier. With much younger children to cope with (only three instead of seven, but one of them a baby), Fremlin’s Louise is a stay at home mother, but just like Harriet, she cannot count on anyone else to help her.

Her husband is the breadwinner and expects some peace and quiet when he comes home, but, with a baby that refuses to sleep at night, Louise is completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and gradually losing her grip on reality.

This is a much tighter, well-paced book, with a very clear narrative arc. Fremlin initially doesn’t put a foot wrong in depicting the frustrations of a well-educated woman trying to be reasonable, yet feeling increasingly out of her depth. When the schoolteacher Miss Brandon moves in as a lodger, Louise initially feels judged, but then gets increasingly suspicious about this mysterious guest and her motivations. Every turn of the screw, we as readers get more anxious and suspicious as well, although we realise that Louise’s sleeplessness makes her a less than reliable witness. The only fault of the novel is that the reveal through the use of diaries does feel rather Victorian. Overall, however, there is a very grown-up, knowing and ironical tone which I find sadly missing from most of the psychological thrillers being published today.

Bother! All the eggs would be hard by now, and Margery was the only one who liked them hard. Harriet liked hers soft, and Mark liked his very soft. As to Louise herself, she had long forgotten which way she liked them. It made the housekeeping that much easier if there was one person out of the five whose tastes didn’t have to be considered. To neglect one’s own tastes was more labour-saving than any vacuum cleaner, and it was a form of neglect about which no one would call you to account.

Although the author is at pains to point out that she didn’t mean to portray the husband as a monster and that expectations were probably different back in the days when she wrote the book, she also makes the very acute observation in the preface:

Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.

Which. brings me back to the article with which I started this book, in which fathers say that they did enjoy getting to know their children better but that it also is incredibly hard work, and that they are starting to experience some of the guilt that mothers feel about never quite doing or being enough in all areas of their life. Will the concept of fatherhood and fairer distribution of household labour really change permanently, as the article asks somewhat optimistically? Or will it be more similar to my experience, when any complaints about labour not equally shared, were met with: ‘well, get a cleaner or a nanny’? (Which might make you wonder if this is more of a middle class problem, except I remember my working class and rural relatives behaving the same… and the extended family coming to the rescue in those instances.)

19 thoughts on “The Emotional Labour of Women”

  1. What don’t you get right?! Reading these reviews makes my day better by filling it with more honesty. Thank you.

  2. Brilliant piece thank you. Lunatic Villas sounds excellent, such a brilliant sounding portrait of the chaos of family. I have read The Hours Before Dawn and thought it was excellent, Louise’s exhaustion and struggle with all the childcare and house hold duties is so well done.

  3. This is excellent, as ever, Marina Sofia. Your reviews are, of course, terrific, and I am so glad that you’re teaching your sons to cook, clean and look after themselves. I’ve always been grateful that my mother-in-law taught my husband and his siblings those skills.

  4. Marian Engel ❤️ I am embarrassed that I had forgotten her writing. I read her in the 70s when I was very young. I cannot tell you what a sensation ‘Bear’ was in Canadian reading life when it came out. And I remember thinking that life, and women’s lot in life, would continue along some upward path….sharing the load of families, growing their lives separately as men had always done. Ha! I watch my 40 year old daughter struggle and I wonder why those passions for change fizzled out. I will reread her….thank you for the reminder, your grateful reader, Deborah

    1. I can imagine it must have been a shock to the system, Bear! Yes, I think there was a lull in the 1990s/early 2000s, when I was at university, when feminism almost became a dirty word and women did not want to associate themselves with that – either because they felt that equality had been achieved or because it was perceived as a negative, shrill trait… And then reality struck and they realised that girl power doesn’t work so well when you have family and children and perhaps older parents to look after etc. etc.

  5. Two very intriguing books and I’m sure many of us can relate to some things. The eighties were our busiest baby and young children years and my husband would help with anything except changing nappies. But due to my lack of career success, lack of any family nearby and the fact that he earned more and had the secure job that got us a mortgage , I was the stay at home mother – I also wanted to be at home! As a policeman doing shift work with days off often cancelled I was on my own a lot with the three children. When he was early shift the evenings were like a holiday compared to when he was late shift and of course night duty was difficult trying to keep the house quiet… The lives of our children are very different.

    1. That doesn’t sound easy at all… I too experienced a sort of equality with the first child, but couldn’t travel as much anymore and had to quite my demanding consultancy job. Then the second child came along, and we moved abroad for his job and I became a trailing spouse… and oh, boy! I had NOT expected that, having grown up an out-and-out feminist.

  6. The emotional side of what’s misleadingly regarded by many males as “women’s labour”, if not underplayed or denied by the misogynistic, is then at least willingly ignored by many men who suspected they would not be up to the job.

    As a male of an older generation I admit I was frightened of the emotional side of homemaking and child-rearing, but hope at least that I learned to share those tasks and roles more equitably over the years.

    Any fictional scenario that models how males might reduce the emotional burden on women and is targeted at males or at least a gender-inclusive readership is highly to be desired, I think! 🙂

    1. Hmmm, I wonder if books like Celia Fremlin’s (or Margaret Millar or Shirley Jackson or a number of others writing in the domestic noir genre) are gender inclusive but are just not read by men because they think ‘domestic’ is women’s prerogative and they expect to be bored. Although, to be honest, I have heard many of my friends who do not have children or husbands or other caring commitments struggle to relate to them as well…

      1. I think it’s still true, by and large, that fiction dealing with ‘domestic’ issues is seen by most men as nothing to do with them. I am trying to read more widely, but the last such novel I remember reading was by Rumer Godden, and that mostly for entirely different reasons.

  7. Great post Marina, and spot on – I have to say that it’s about time men realised how much women actually do, but I rather cynically doubt things will change. I think many will gladly try and hand back the household and child-rearing tasks if they get the chance…

    As for the Fremlin, I think it’s a brilliant book. Gripping as a thriller, but also operating as a wonderful piece of social history. It’s a bit before my time, but I can still remember how complex keeping house was before all the mod cons – and even with them, it’s still exhausting….

    1. It was the lack of intelligent conversation that got to me, I seem to remember… I mean, the children are cute and all that, but when they start telling you for the hundredth time the same stupid knock-knock joke or expect you to be as passionate about pachycephalosaurus as they they are…

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