I’m writing this week about a gender problem that becomes particularly acute during holiday seasons. As I write this, I recognize the socioeconomic privilege inherent in complaining about holidays. The problem is that women still do way more of all the work it takes to run a household than do men, and this has profound consequences in terms of fairness, physical and mental health, and the messages we are sending to the next generation about who does what and why. This interview with feminist Silvia Federici speaks more profoundly to the question of women’s unpaid work, as does this post from the Gender Shrapnel blog. This week’s post, though, is a little more superficial in its privileged grinchiness. (We just re-watched “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” and it turns out the Grinch is 53 years old. I do think this age, especially in the era of trumpocracy, might dictate some Grinch-like feelings.)
Have you ever been at a dinner party and watched all the women do the dishes? Have you ever been at a dinner party and been one of the people doing all the dishes? These two questions often (not always) cut along gender lines. We’ve inherited some of those old gender scripts that tell us that the women do the housework while the men smoke cigars and solve the important problems of the world. This scenario is a little exaggerated at this point, but I have watched a lot of people replay these roles time and again. You might say, well, the man cooked the dinner, so the woman should do the dishes. Quite right, but what was the woman doing while dinner was being cooked? That work—salaried work outside of the home, and/or grocery shopping, taking care of the children, feeding them dinner, cleaning the bathrooms before the guests arrive—is often more hidden and less glorious than cooking dinner, and so women and men end up thinking that women “owe” more work. Then many of the women at the dinner party see the woman host doing all the dishes, and they feel obliged (whether they admit this or not) to help. Sure, we can couch this in terms of extra time to chat and catch up, but it is actually extra labor.
I’ve spent the past eight or so weeks doing holiday preparations for my family. We are atheists but come from families who celebrate Christmas. These are big families whom we really like to see. Nevertheless, the Christmas wrappings and trappings obligate us in many ways—gift-giving, thanksgiving, visits, trees, lists, wrapping paper and bows, lunches and dinners. I like the gatherings of friends and family, but I want out of the insane list-making, gift preparation, and gift-giving. This year’s presidential election has further shifted my priorities. I am spending more money donating to organizations I believe in and more time trying to be a responsible, activist citizen. And this is on top of the “day job.” It’s also on top of the regular running-around family stuff I do, like making doctors’ appointments for the kids and getting them to them, taking care of birthday celebrations, finding clothes in their sizes, helping with homework, ferrying children around, etc. These are chores and responsibilities of parents and guardians, and I am not complaining about them. I do these regular, run-of-the-mill chores pretty much happily.
But I want out of the crazy holiday-making in part because we are four people in my little family, and one of those four people executes 99.5% of the holiday preparations. I’m guessing the same is true in many families across the globe, no matter the traditions and the preparations the traditions seem to demand. In my case, these preparations include: making travel plans to see the families; calling family members and creating the specific itinerary; making sure all family members are taken care of; arranging for the pets; buying (I do not want to admit how many) gifts, purchasing tins, wrapping paper, tape, tags, and bows, plus baking supplies; wrapping the (I do not want to admit how many) gifts, boxing the (I do not want to admit how many) gifts, returning the gifts that ended up sucking; baking; delivering the baked goods; creating and sending out a new year’s card; and trying to freaking enjoy the holidays. This is all on top of my normal job, which is also, well, demanding.
I do want to add that my 99.5% contribution to holiday preparations is definitely enriched by my partner’s being a jolly person and accomplished mixmaster.
Not only is there pressure—from society, media, families, self—for us women to take care of these niceties, but there is also pressure for us to do so with a cheerful smile and maybe even a perky holiday apron on. We’re not supposed to complain that we are sick of spending money we don’t have, of shopping and wrapping. We can’t admit that our back hurts, that we need to sit quietly and just look at the tree we spent a while decorating. Our kids aren’t to catch a whiff of our disenchantment because everybody is supposed to believe that this is our natural role, that we were born to play it, and that we love every second of it. We are Mrs. Claus and all the little elves, and no one likes a skinny Santa (or something like that). And we have to make sure not to mention any writing deadlines, or other work, we have. That is not Christmas-y or sexy or motherly. We’re supposed to get our Christmas on and make sure everyone else does, too. And we’d better believe it will be our fault when someone doesn’t like the gift we bought.
I always wonder especially how otherwise feminist women and men allow women to do all of this work. Why doesn’t one person step back and the other step up? Why do we accept and repeat this extremely unequal distribution of unpaid work? We could eliminate some of the ridiculous chores and then create an explicit plan to share the rest—50/50. This would give women more time to devote to their paid jobs, if they have them, mental and physical health, and other creative or just enjoyable endeavors.
Nothing like moving towards equality to allow us all to whistle while we work—and don’t.