It’s no secret that most fundamentalists place a strong emphasis on complementary gender roles – essentially, “women nurture, men lead.” In the homeschooling subculture I grew up in, women were entirely responsible for home and kids while men supported the family financially. And as part of “training up a child in the way they should go,” girl-children were considered moms-in-training and were assigned duties accordingly.
I’ll admit, I learned a few useful skills. I can change a diaper and heat a bottle. I know 18 different variations of Old MacDonald guaranteed to distract a crying toddler in a verse or two. I can cook, clean, budget, and run a household.
Most importantly, I know how to do it all with a smile and make my own contributions seem effortless. Invisible, even.
Perhaps the most important part of being a good wife and mother, I was taught both implicitly and explicitly, was knowing how to not make other people feel bad. A good woman makes her work seem effortless, so no one feels guilty about all she does. Her grace and charm put all around her at ease, and her home is a soothing, calming oasis where you never feel anything is being demanded of you, and cool (or warm) beverages magically appear before you even know you want one.
People joke about the Magic Coffee Table or the Cleaning Fairies, but I was trained to be one.
It seems a bit ridiculous now, but in one of my highschool extracurricular groups, a young male student admitted that whenever a leader asked someone to volunteer for even mildly unpleasant jobs, he would wait a split-second before raising his hand, because he knew a girl would volunteer first.
That was our job – to ease the burden for everyone else and not make anyone feel bad about it. If we did it right, no one would ever know.
I’ve left most of my fundamentalist upbringing behind. But this, the idea that I am responsible for making everything happen, and happen smoothly and quietly, has been harder to shake. It’s partially because I’m good at it. I notice the dirty sheets and the dog hair on the floor and when other people are getting overwhelmed or feel overlooked. But my natural inclinations were also constantly rewarded and reinforced – and any lapses were quickly chided, by authority figures, by our limited media, and by my peers.
This is no accident, and fundamentalists aren’t the only ones peddling this version of womanhood. Women’s work hasn’t disappeared; it’s just been hidden under the paid jobs we’re now also working and the veneer of a corporate-style feminism that tells us we can “have it all” if we just “lean in” – expectations that frankly sound ridiculous when applied to men. And still, women spend their free time trading tips on how to better manage this never-ending invisible workload (and our thigh gaps, too).
Devotionals and magazines tell us the secret is out there, in the Bible or fancy products, instead of helping us question the whole system. We’re stressed and exhausted because of the never-ending lists we keep in our heads, the never-ending calculus that tries to balance everyone’s happiness except our own. We don’t get to take advantage of “flow” the same way others do, because we’ve been told that multitasking is our badge of honor and our special gifting. We make the coffee and take the notes, even when we are leading the meetings, because we know it will make life easier for others (and, probably, no one else will remember to do it if we don’t, and we’ll have to fix that problem too).
Under this system, men lose out on the chance to experience the interpersonal and social benefits of nurturing others and noticing their needs. Men who are drawn to caring professions and who work to develop emotional intelligence suffer when their gifts and efforts are not acknowledged or reciprocated (or actively demeaned as “soft”).
When we keep silent about the invisible work we are trained to do as women, we rob everyone of the chance to practice the skills that would make their world a kinder – and, frankly, a more efficient – place.
Unpaid emotional labor is a particularly insidious expression of patriarchy, and it hurts everyone. Nurturing is a real and worthy skill. It is hard work, and it can be rewarding. But when these contributions to the smooth functioning of the world aren’t recognized or appreciated, let alone shared equally, resentment builds, and shame at not being “enough” to manage it all naturally locks us into silence.
It’s a tangled knot to untie, but simply noticing these invisible contributions is a huge step forward. Valuing them comes next, and then, hopefully, spreading them out more equally across society and within our own homes.
Sharing our hidden burdens is a vulnerable act that can even be immensely connecting and rewarding, because everyone benefits when we don’t hide the cost of bringing kindness and beauty into the world.
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Elizabeth Hinnant lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her partner Neal, their dog Heidi, and a chronic illness called POTS. She loves food, science, knitting, and dismantling the patriarchy.