Many of us, especially women, take emotional labour as something that we just do. Wash dishes, pick up toys, book doctor’s appointments, cook dinner – all of these things are unpaid, emotional labour that we take on because otherwise it won’t get done. If all unpaid domestic labour in Australia was paid, it would be worth 33.9% of our GDP. That’s a lot of cash, and Gemma Hartley knows it. After her viral Harper’s Bazaar article, and with the launch of her book Fed Up last year, we sat down with Gemma for a Brisbane Writer’s Festival x Orenda Magazine Interview.
Following the viral popularity of Stop Calling Women Nags – We’re Just Fed Up, were you surprised to see the global response to what you had to say?
I was very surprised, not only by how far-reaching the article was but also by how many people were profoundly affected by it. I had no idea there were so many other people struggling with this same frustration, and I feel very humbled that I was able to put it into words that resonated this widely.
Can you talk to us about what prompted you to delve further into the concept of unacknowledged emotional labour to form Fed Up?
The overwhelming response I received from my Harper’s Bazaar article is what set me firmly on the path to writing this book. It was obvious from day one that I had scratched the surface of something much larger than I had originally intended, and I was eager to look beyond my personal experience and figure out why the imbalance of emotional labour was such a widespread problem.
I had no idea there were so many other people struggling with this same frustration
The book is incredibly reflective of your own life. Did you find it difficult to critically look at the situations in your life that frustrated you and address them in the book?
Because of my experience writing personal essays, it wasn’t terribly difficult to take a critical eye to my personal life. It was, however, a very different experience in the sense that I was involving my husband and our relationship. The Harper’s Bazaar essay was about the first time I had ever written anything remotely negative or intimate about our marriage. Then suddenly I was about to write a book which I knew would rely heavily on our story and would highlight a lot of the less rosy aspects of our relationship. The process was made much easier through my husband’s support, who told me in no uncertain terms that I should write the book as I saw fit without holding back for his sake. Knowing I didn’t have to tiptoe around his ego made Fed Up real, raw, and unapologetically honest.
Do you have a standout reaction to the book so far?
I don’t have any single reaction that sticks out in my mind, though a few have been exceptionally memorable. What I am most overwhelmed with is the sheer volume of response I have received, and how largely positive the feedback has been. I read, treasure, and try to respond to each message I get because they truly make my life as an author feel so full of purpose.
What effect do you envision this book will have for people at different stages of home life, say early on in relationships and in more established home structures?
I think the earlier folks read this book the better. There is a lot more challenge in shifting roles which are already so deeply ingrained. That being said, I don’t think it’s ever too late to change. When we know better, we can do better. We can raise our expectations of our partners, re-evaluate our expectations of ourselves, and live in a way that makes more sense for us. If I didn’t truly believe that, I don’t think I would have written this book.
When we know better, we can do better.
This book comes at a time where the conversation on women’s frustrations and anger is coming to the forefront, where does Fed Up fit in with this broader discussion?
I think Fed Up fits right into the middle of this broader discussion about women’s anger and frustration, especially because the expectation for women’s emotional labour dictates that we will not let our anger show, that we will not make things uncomfortable for others, that we will sweep things under the carpet rather than “make a scene.” I think the success of Fed Up, and the reason this resonated with so many, is that we’re at a cultural turning point where we finally feel emboldened to say when enough is enough. We’re done making everyone else comfortable at our own expense.
In the GirlBoss™ Era, why is evenly splitting emotional labour so hard to talk about? And why does it receive so much defence when we bring it up to the men in our lives?
There are many reasons why this is hard to talk about, most of them leading back to the cultural conditioning we have received all our lives about who is responsible for keeping the peace and keeping life running smoothly (largely women). But I also think it’s hard to talk about because though the frustration is not new, the language to talk about it is. A lot of folks I know are having these conversations about emotional labour for the first time – that’s a steep learning curve for both parties.
As for men becoming defensive, I think most men don’t want to believe they have unwittingly added to their partner’s mental load or emotional labour burden so they try to avoid it. Defensiveness should be a speed bump, and not the end of the road (or conversation).
The frustration is not new, the language to talk about it is.
What is there to be gained in evening out the emotional labour for both parties?
Emotional labour really helps connect us deeply to our lives and those around us. It’s a fantastic skill that everyone ought to be well versed in, the trouble comes when one person is expected to do the lion’s share of that work. So in balancing emotional labour, women generally gain more mental space, time, and emotional energy and men generally gain a deeper and more authentic connection to their lives and partners. Of course, it’s not always divided so neatly along gender lines, but that’s all the better. We should all have ample mental space, time, emotional energy and authentic connection in our lives. Everyone wins.
What is your best advice for managing and talking about emotional labour in new co-dependent relationships, be it romantic or in the workplace?
I think drawing boundaries upfront and keeping communication honest and open from the start is the key to balancing emotional labour from the start. Balance looks different for everyone (I rarely, if ever, think it looks like a 50/50 split), so it’s important to lay down your expectations so you don’t end up shouldering too much emotional labour and consequently resentment.