If you’re a woman in a heterosexual relationship, chances are that you’re the one doing a disproportionate amount of the work this Christmas: shopping for presents, wrapping them, making up spare beds and decorating the tree, organising the cooking, clearing up the wrapping paper and discarded ribbons, cleaning the plates and storing the leftovers, and a thousand other physical chores in between.
The UK Office for National Statistics has found that women Britain do 40 per cent more housework and childcare than men. A recent UK poll even suggested that British men will spend 11 hours over the Christmas period hiding away from their families. My husband thinks all the presents magically appear. Maybe he still believes in Father Christmas?
Over the past few years, however, there has been a growing awareness not just of the unpaid domestic chores that women take on, but also of the more subtle, unnoticed and unrewarded tasks: the challenge of what has become widely known as “emotional labour”. At no time is this greater than at Christmas.
But alongside this additional workload – the one where women undertake tasks at home once they leave their paid work – there is a additional work which is less often acknowledged. This is the mental load of planning social engagements, remembering thank-you notes and praising kind teachers, keeping track of nativity plays and Christmas pantomimes and organising the logistics of travel and sleeping arrangements.
Finally, we might go one layer deeper still: to consider the emotional burden that Christmas often brings. Managing the needs of those who might be lonely or isolated at Christmas, navigating complicated family dynamics, tactfully rearranging chairs to prevent family feuds from reigniting over the Christmas pudding, managing young children’s tempers and expectations, and generally trying to keep everybody else happy at a time of year when pressure to have a “merry” Christmas is enormous.
Often women have to put their own needs so firmly to one side that they’re not even sure they have any. This is not being weak or vulnerable. Then they suddenly realise that they are angry or very sad and thinking of earlier Christmases as happy memories. It’s a problem with anybody who is doing emotional labour for anybody else that there comes a time when you just have to look after yourself as well as looking after other people.”
So, how can you take care of yourself over the festive period?
Ask for help. Share of the challenge of emotional work. This ultimately will bring rewards for men, such as the rewards of personal development, of being compassionate and making the connections that come with doing this labour. There are so many men out there keen to take on some of the emotional load, although they are not necessarily societally conditioned for it in the same way women are. Plus some of us ladies may not always like handing it over. We are good at thinking we can do it better. Share the load, it brings you closer. Teamwork all the way.
For single fathers and those in same-sex relationships, the festive period will be equally fraught with emotional responsibilities and stereotyped expectations to manage. Perhaps, for all our sakes, some serious Christmas recalibration is needed. Step back and enjoy time with family, friends with your version of perfect not society’s.
Most of all have a lovely Christmas x