We Need to Talk About the Emotional Labor of Raising Adult Men
When men are boys and women are mothers
My family frequently forgot my mother's birthday.
If she failed to remind her husband or her children about the upcoming big day, we would completely ignore them. Remembering everything - from important dates, our favorite foods, allergies, to what was in the basement pantry - was her 'motherly' duty. As well as keeping everything organized and making sure everyone was happy and healthy.
Sometimes I think she 'forgot' to tell us about her birthday on purpose, just to see if we remembered. And we didn't. I'm sorry, mom.
Now, you might assume my mother was a stay-at-home mom, but she wasn't. She and my father both worked full-time, and my mother actually worked more and was more successful, but that's a story for a different time.
With two working parents, it would be natural to suppose that they both contribute equally to raising a family and keeping a house. Only my parents didn't. And many heterosexual couples these days still don't.
It's often implied that it's up to women to take care of childcare, housework, but most importantly - the emotional management that comes with keeping it all together.
Sometimes to the extent of having to raise their own partners.
I saw it happening in my parents' relationship, in my own relationships, and relationships of my friends.
But it shouldn't be a woman's responsibility to raise adult men. We are not their mothers.
'Women are just better at this stuff'
Dealing with other people's feelings is commonly referred to as emotional labor - a concept first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her famous book, The Managed Heart, in 1983. Hochschild described it in the context of women in the workplace, particularly in public-facing jobs where employees work to produce a particular emotional effect among their customers.
But now, the term is also often used in relation to the emotional work we perform at home. In its domestic sense, emotional labor is the invisible, unpaid, and often undervalued work involved in keeping other people comfortable and happy.
And in most cases, it's us, women, who perform it.
Because we're presumed to be better at this 'stuff.' It's implied to be our second nature to behave in a nurturing, warm manner and want to make everyone around us happy. But how much of this behavior is innate, and how much is it just social conditioning?
We all assume that women evolved to be more emotionally intelligent, perhaps because women tend to express emotions differently than men. Some people also argue that the differences in our neuroanatomy and brain structures are responsible for our more compassionate and empathetic behavior.
But latest scientific research doesn't necessarily agree with either of these points.
Men and women are almost equally emotionally intelligent, with some studies only recognizing a slight female superiority in emotion recognition and empathy. And the latest advances in neuroscience shattered the myth of the gendered brain for good.
We are groomed to the role of mother since childhood
If a brain scan can't tell a male from a female brain, why do we keep believing men and women are so different? Well, the answer is social conditioning - the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society.
When I was a kid, I used to envy my older brother, who got Lego and other 'cooler' toys as gifts. I never liked playing with the lifelike baby dolls I got. Not only because they looked so real they used to creep me out; I just didn't see the point. I wanted to build stuff and create made-up worlds, not pretend to be a mother.
Girls are groomed for their assumed role of a mother and a caretaker from very early on. We get baby dolls, pretend play toy kitchen, even toy vacuum cleaners. I don't think there are many - or any, as a matter of fact - similar toys intended to be used by boys. Little boys get science kits, Lego, or pretend medical sets instead.
And this leads girls as young as six years old to believe boys are inherently smarter and more talented than them, the latest research finds.
Sure, this emphasis on strict gender roles and gendered toys might slowly change since we finally realize that not all women want to be mothers. But there is no denying that this is how many of us were raised, and many still are.
Now, what happens with all this social conditioning once we grow up and enter adult relationships? Even when heterosexual couples don't have kids, women sometimes tend to behave like mothers for their male partners. And, consequently, the male partner becomes the child in the relationship, seeking the kind of care and comfort he is used to receiving from his own mother.
The problematic mother-child relationship dynamic
I've seen many couples fall into this mother-child relationship dynamic. And most of the time, I believe it happens entirely unconsciously - we might not realize it even after years of being together. It feels perfectly natural, and we accept the roles we believe we were raised to become. And if the shoe fits, we should just wear it, right?
This dynamic often starts as early as in the honeymoon phase of relationships. A couple starts dating, and a man's childlike charm and playfulness are often seen as 'cute.' And our 'maternal instinct' starts kicking in. Or at least we think it does since it's been proven to be nothing more than a myth.
It's all fun and games until we realize our partner never leaves his playfulness stage. He never grows up. He still expects his female partner to be the 'grown-up' in the relationship. To be his mother, taking care of his every emotional and physical need, the household, children, even his parents when they need it. And women often gladly agree to that. After all, this is what we think we know how to do best.
And we don't want to become that 'annoying, nagging, bitter' woman we often see in movies. The one who yells at her husband to help her out around the house and then drinks her sorrows in a bottle of wine to forget she is raising a man-child.
Yikes. Oh, no.
We don't want to become her.
We want to be a 'cool girl' as brilliantly described by Gillian Flynn in her bestselling novel Gone Girl:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don't they? She's a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she's hosting the world's biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.
Hot and understanding.
Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don't mind, I'm the Cool Girl.
I fear becoming the 'nagging woman,' too
But then time passes by, and that 'cool girl' facade doesn't work for us anymore. Our partner forgot our anniversary, again. He didn't do grocery shopping as he promised, again. He didn't listen to us complaining about something important that we just need to get out of our system, again.
We understandably grow tired of all the emotional labor we continuously have to provide without them noticing and without getting anything in return. And then that tiredness turns into anger, resentment even.
We start nagging them. Then we nag more and more. And it's not working. We might even try to explain the concept of emotional labor and how it's a lot of thankless, exhausting work - and to have to explain that is emotional labor in itself. And then they reply with 'if you want us to do something, just ask us to do it.'
But the whole point is - we don't want to have to ask.
We don't want to turn into their mothers. At least, a good amount of us doesn't. But this is what many of us become with time anyway.
And I've recently started to see this in my own relationship, too. My partner and I both work full-time, and we both try to split the household chores evenly. If I cook, he cleans afterward. If he takes out the trash, I give food to our cat, etc. But there are a lot of things that exclusively fall into my area of relationship duties. And a lot of it is emotional labor.
Recognizing the root of this behavior isn't enough
I don't think there is a point in blaming either men or women for behaving this way in relationships. In particular, since it often happens unconsciously. But it should be recognized that this mental load bore almost exclusively by women translates into a deep gender inequality on a personal level.
Latest behavior science research shows that unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population. Meanwhile, married men are shown to benefit from being in a relationship. And they benefit from it precisely because they are too often allowed to act like boys, not men.
Both men and women need to understand that this mother-child relationship dynamic stems from the femininity and masculinity dances we all learn to perform. But recognizing the root of the problem is just the first step.
I've started to talk about this issue more openly with my partner lately. I try to explain how it makes me feel when I take on the 'nagging mother' role. He listens to what I have to say and tries to alter his behavior. We express our thoughts and feelings, listen to one another, and try to make it work. We want to be partners in every sense of this word, but that requires genuine effort and time. And getting rid of all the traditional gender roles stereotypes that I don't believe have a place in many modern relationships anymore.
Now, I have not been in a decades-long relationship, and it would be silly of me to speak confidently about an experience I do not yet have. So when I look at my parents' relationship, I'm not sure how easy it would be for them to approach and solve this issue.
They are now both retired, with no kids to take care of. But my mother still acts like the glue that tries to hold the family together, remind everyone of everything and make sure we're happy. And even though they seem content in their relationship, my mother looks visibly more exhausted and older - even though she is younger than my father.
Which makes me wonder, did these traditional gender roles ever make women happy?
And if they didn't, why did it take us so long to question them?
This story was originally published on Medium.