‘All I want for Christmas is not to choose my boyfriend’s mum’s present’

Across the world, women are steeling themselves for the emotional labour required to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas. Here, author and writer Gemma Hartley reflects on the season of unacknowledged work

Charlotte Green had planned extensively for the arrival of her twin daughters, but she wasn’t prepared for them to arrive seven weeks early − a month before Christmas. Still, she was determined to create the perfect first festive season together as a family. She bought presents online between night feeds and changes, which she wrapped while masterminding an itinerary that left nothing to chance, even arranging three separate meals involving her parents, her husband’s parents and their own family for Christmas Day so that no one felt left out. It was idyllic. For everyone except Charlotte. ‘I hated every minute. It was the most stressful day ever ,’ she says.

Like millions of women, Charlotte is silently gearing up for more of the same this year, as she quietly shoulders the lion’s share of the preparations. Christmas demands an extra, hidden level of emotional labour − the invisible work women perform to keep everyone happy − as I discovered while interviewing countless women for my book, Fed Up: Navigating And Redefining Emotional Labour For Good.

‘My older brother is very happy to say to my sister and me, “You choose your present, just tell me how much it costs,”’ says Victoria Thomas, a 26-year-old law graduate whose experience is typical. ‘This year, he outdid himself, suggesting he bought some flowers for our mother and split the cost between us, despite earning more than us combined. He took the cash, then forgot to buy the flowers.’

Helena Lewis, 45, confesses to a similar burden, despite having a full-time job with the same hours as her partner. ‘I carry emotional responsibilities for my son, my brother, my ex, my boyfriend. Basically, name a man in my life, and I have responsibility for him. As a result I have a huge box of spare cards and gifts, and a calendar full 
of dates no one else will bother trying to remember.’

My own experience is similar. My book came about after I asked my partner to order us a cleaning service for my Mother’s Day gift. Disappointed that I hadn’t given him a more straightforward gift he could click and order on Amazon, he shrugged off the invisible labour involved (researching firms, asking for recommendations, etc) and instead scrambled to clean the bathrooms himself as I realised the true impact of emotional labour on our own everyday life. I wrote about this epiphany and it went viral − sparking a long overdue conversation about the ways emotional labour is split between men and women. 
At Christmas, the additional responsibilities, from decorating the house to RSVPing to parties, has a stultifying effect on women. They spend nearly twice as much time tending to domestic work and childcare than their male counterparts, according to research from 
the Pew Research Center, Washington, and the Office for National Statistics. Even when men are taking up their share of tasks, we can rarely (if ever) relax because we’re doing the background work to keep things running smoothly − plotting what needs to be checked off the to-do list, delegating chores and tending to the emotional needs of others.

‘I even buy my own gifts 90 per cent of the time,’ 31-year-old Gretchen Bossio told me. ‘That way I don’t have to send ideas, follow up and, inevitably, return the gift. My “agreement” with my boyfriend is that he writes a card with a full paragraph of nice words for me. I take care of the rest myself.’

So what’s the solution? Talking is a good start. ‘Your home life will be happier and work productivity will be healthier if emotional labour and its hidden costs are brought into the light,’ says Dr Michele Ramsey, associate professor at Penn State Berks, Pennsylvania. Our careers will benefit too, as Sheryl Sandberg says, ‘The most important career decision you make is who you marry – pick a man who will share the domestic burden at home and you’ll be freer to pursue your dreams.’ It’s something to bear in mind for more content Christmases to come.

Fed Up: Navigating And Redefining Emotional Labour For Good (£14.99, yellow kite) is available here

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