Girls run the world, but should we have to? What writing a novel taught me about emotional labor

  • 6 min read
  • Aug 03, 2022

Girls run the world, but should we have to? What writing a novel taught me about emotional labor

My husband calls me boss. For example, if he’s asked to change a shift at work, he’ll say, “I’ll have to check with the boss. We might have something.” One might think that the freedom of not knowing one’s calendar is reserved for celebrities or high-powered businessmen with personal assistants. But apparently that list includes my husband. And many husbands and boyfriends of my friends.

I know I’m supposed to see this as a good thing: that deferring to me as the boss gives me power or control. But in a relationship, having that control also means bearing the burden of responsibility. It means being the one who remembers everyone’s birthdays and buys them Christmas presents. Someone who books a doctor’s appointment, arranges a remortgage on an apartment, and checks for cheaper car insurance. It means writing a “research will!” or “Get new passports!” At the top of your to-do list every week. And that means owning the guilt that comes when you inevitably never quite manage it.

To be honest, I’d rather not be the boss. This is boring as hell

I was amazed at how many women in particular had a history of partners – especially men – expecting their person to “fix” them. . . Why are women often in this position?

Now, I know what a privileged position this is, especially compared to the way heterosexual marriage has worked until recently. “Traditional” marriage in the 1950s put women in a complete back seat. We couldn’t even get a credit card without our husband’s address until 1974. So, sure, one might argue that having power is a preferable dynamic now that, as every superhero movie tells us, “with great power comes great responsibility.”? Is this a drastic overcorrection for centuries of false gender norms? Or yet, is it possible that it’s always been this way – to paraphrase My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that women really are marital necks and turn heads as they please?

I admit, I am partly responsible for this. I longed to be Wonder Woman, to “have it all” and “do it all,” out of a desire for the strange independence I’d won if I didn’t ask for help or admit I was overwhelmed. I’ve always prided myself on being organized and responsible, and it’s hard to separate that from the person I am regardless of my relationship status. But it’s a lonely position to be in, because being in charge requires you to sacrifice your independence for others: be the one pulling all-nighters, or stay up worrying about whether the bills will be paid. or not, or if you’re saving enough in your pension, or if your niece’s birthday is this week or next week. (And who can you ask because he’s definitely seven years old and you should know his damn birthday by now?)

And I know I’m not alone. As has become clear during the pandemic, women have taken on a disproportionate amount of responsibility in their home and family lives. Not only do we take on the majority of childcare while working remotely, we also take more time off and lose our jobs than men. The PwC report “Women at Work 2021” found that women now spend 7.7 hours more per week caring for children, indicating that “Covid-19 has increased the unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work on women. kill, has intensified.” In addition, experts fear that the pandemic will also negatively affect progress towards gender pay parity.

Of course, this does not mean that men do not contribute to their relationships. My husband is super strong and was super strong before I met him. I could tell you hundreds of great things about him and my friends’ partners. This is not to say that this imbalance of responsibility always exists between men and women—the opposite is certainly true, especially when considering same-sex relationships or relationships in which one or more partners identify as non-binary. become But the more I talked to my friends about their relationships and began to reflect on my own relationship history, how many women in particular had a history of partners—especially men—who expected their person to “fix” them? , I’m surprised. . To be a manic, bright-eyed dream girl hanging on their every word as they waxed lyrical about the Smiths and grappled with the very serious business of being a teenage boy and later a grown man. Why are women often in this position?

As I began to write my novel, The Fixer High, the seeming universality of this experience weighed heavily on me. The film focuses on a 30-year-old woman who gives more energy to her relationships than her own life and – after seeing how her past partners profited from their time together – starts a business that supports women. slows down and “equips” his partners and takes on this emotional labor. From their side I knew first hand what this (all too familiar) experience might be like for people in their 20s and 30s. I still didn’t know the “how” or “why” of it. But as I worked through Aly’s story, the logic behind her experiences and my own habits became clearer.

Writing a character very much like myself came about to see how my approach to relationships was unstable and forced me to put myself more first.

Women have been socialized to believe that self-sacrifice is the only way to ensure you are loved. That you are first needed, then appreciated, and then, if you do all your duties properly, you may be lucky enough to deserve love. This is certainly true of my modus operandi, and has unfortunately been with me for most of my life: friends I never wanted to say “no” to, for fear of letting them down. To an ex-boyfriend who insisted we rent an expensive London flat together because his mental health couldn’t cope with moving home, even if I had to work two jobs to pay for it (and I could happily live at home). Or to the group of male friends who throughout my life wanted a motherly figure to pat them on the head and tell them they were smart and lovable and misunderstood. People who sacrifice immensely in relationships aren’t just out of the goodness of their hearts: they do it because they have an unbridled and unfulfilled desire to be loved.

This can be a tough pill to swallow and an even tougher habit to break. Even now, in a loving, committed relationship, I know how socialization to long for love has affected our dynamic.

And adding children to the equation—if you choose to do so—only exacerbates the situation. Case in point: For most of my life, the one thing I didn’t sacrifice was writing time. Writing is how I make a living, but it’s also my creative outlet and catharsis, and so it’s become my immobile frontier. But then I had a son, and suddenly a new man entered my life whose needs around the clock required me to give up my bodily autonomy, my sleep schedule, and my understanding of who I was before his arrival. the world. His arrival brought a whole new wave of responsibilities into our home life – from vaccinations, baby groups, nursery visits, developmental milestones, play dates – responsibilities that I now handle single-handedly.


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Of course, parenting requires this kind of self-sacrifice that romantic relationships do not. However, when I began to negotiate the reduced parameters of autonomy that come with new motherhood, the experience of writing a novel about the unequal division of emotional labor was like “The Fixer Upper.” Which made me even more desperate to create even the tiniest space in my life where I was still “me”. Where caring and organizing and “fixing” problems were not all my defining characteristics. Ironically, writing a character very much like myself came about to see how my approach to relationships was unstable and forced me to put myself more first.

Many women long for the idea that we can “have it all.” We are told that we can be entrepreneurs and writers and mothers and students and wives and everything else. And not only we can, but we ShouldWe Should. But I worry that we feel like we have to “have it all” at once: as a generation of Wonder Women, we’re constantly trying to show how much we’re capable of, and thus constantly feel like we have it. They fail again, and we’re afraid to be honest about it because, while we work so hard to hold everything and everyone together, we give so much of ourselves to others in the process that we fall apart at the seams. to spray

I don’t really have an answer because when you’re spinning all the pages, just letting them break doesn’t seem like an option. But I know I want that little bit of time back for me so that I don’t have to write a book with one hand and when my son grows up he doesn’t rely on it by default. In one partner for everything.

I’m asking for a demotion from being the boss because I don’t want to fix anyone or anything anymore. I just want to be one of two people in the same boat, each with an oar, rowing in the same direction.

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