For the last nine years, I’ve rented a summer house in upstate New York with the same group of friends from college. For five days, we hang out by the water, drink until we fall asleep, and eat lots of food. And during that time, almost all of that food is prepared by me and other members of the group who identify as women. Every year it's the same: The women cook, while the men lounge in the den playing cards.
The guys do sometimes offer to help — one of them loves to be the sous-chef (#NotAllHusbands). And occasionally, the others look up from their phones, peek in the kitchen, and ask if there’s anything they can do. But for the most part, they — our friends, our husbands, our “allies” — don’t volunteer to take on the big stuff like meal planning, writing out shopping lists, driving to the store, or preparing enough paella for 12 slightly drunk adults. To be frank, they tend to sit out anything bigger than cutting up an onion. And when they do cut up onions, they often do it wrong — chopping for a salad instead of slicing for a stir fry. Most of the time, it’s easier for us just to do it ourselves, rather than accept their "help."
The women in the group steel ourselves for this scenario every August. We are millennial women with our own careers and identities, who were raised to believe we could do anything. We married our husbands for love and partnership, not for financial security or because we felt like we had to, and we chose our other male friends because they’re good people. As a group we hail from a wide spectrum of races, religions, cultures, genders, and sexualities, and share very liberal values. We are are not a bunch of sexist, old-fashioned monsters. But, every summer, it's like we all drop acid and take time machine back to 1955. None of us know how we got into this mess, and sometimes it feels like it's too late to turn this wacky ship around.
Gender stereotypes, especially in the context of dividing emotional labor (planning, organizing, prepping, and cooking), are so pervasive that even the most well-intentioned people have difficulty escaping them. A 2016 study from the Indiana University found that men and women still divide up housework based on gender, regardless of their sexual identities or who earns more money in the relationship. This means that no matter how self-aware or “feminist” any of our male partners are, they’re not inclined to volunteer for what is typically considered “women’s work.” So, this sexist cycle perpetuates itself, and the women keep getting better at chores while the guys just, you know, stay the same.
As women, we are also aware that the daily tasks we have been socialized to be “better at” — grocery shopping, planning social events, preparing nightly meals — usually take up more time, and thus the time we spend doing them adds up more quickly. On average, women spend twice as much time doing housework than men. Every single week. Add that to the time women spend doing the work they actually get paid for and it leads to an alarming end: An Ohio State University study found that women who work more than 60 hours a week while juggling responsibilities at home are three times more likely to develop early-onset diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and certain kinds of cancer than women who work a more reasonable 40 hours. Men who worked more than 60 hours a week were more likely to develop arthritis, but none of the other aforementioned diseases. The study’s authors attribute this to the fact that when men clock out at the end of the day, they aren’t putting in a grueling second shift at home.
Emotional labor also has a way of slowly scraping us from the inside out.
My female friends and I are only in the first decade-and-a-half of our adult lives, and we’re already on this dangerous path. We're just launching into the most crucial stages of our careers, which suspiciously coincide with the beginning of our journeys as committed partners and mothers. A break is going to be necessary. Not just from our desk jobs and the slog of daily life, but from having our gender determine our domestic output. Otherwise, not only are we destined to turn into our mothers, but we are also pretty likely to drop dead at the kitchen sink.
This year, when my husband, Geoff, and I returned home from our trip upstate, I had had enough. I had spent so much of our time at the shared summer house thinking about food and chores and other people’s needs that I literally could not make one more decision without having a meltdown.
When Geoff asked, “So, any dinner thoughts?,” it wasn't surprising that I burst into tears.
Emotional labor isn’t like other work. It’s not the same as being in an office, waiting tables, or conducting a classroom — it literally never ends. There’s no comparison to the feeling of failure a woman has when her “work day” is done and she comes home and the house is a complete mess. I’ve never seen a man lose his mind over a dirty countertop, but I have seen and heard many women pour their hearts out on the issue (and I have definitely been one of those women). And that’s OK! I don’t think a woman should ever apologize for wanting things to be tidy or to look a certain way. But, emotional labor also has a way of slowly scraping us from the inside out. As generous as some of us are by nature, it can feel like we are chasing our tails for no one when our time- and brain-consuming efforts are taken for granted.
The evening we returned from the upstate house — after I dried my eyes and ordered us a pizza — I realized I needed to stage a coup. If I wanted to survive — not just have a less heteronormative marriage and feel more comfortable telling my male friends to get off their lazy butts, but really survive in this patriarchal bullshit world — I needed to demand some emotional labor for me. I needed to find a way to eliminate gender norms from my to-do list, and dinner seemed like a good place to start.
I thought I’d get one decision-free pity meal, and by Thursday we’d fall into our old routine.
Geoff and I came up with a “hack.” On even-numbered nights during the workweek, he would provide dinner for us. He could cook, he could order takeout, we could go out to eat — the decision was totally up to him. The only rule was that he couldn’t ask me for any insight, preferences, or cravings beforehand, and I couldn’t make any suggestions or provide any opinions before or during the meal. I would just arrive home and dinner would be there for me, and I would have to eat it whether I liked it or not. On odd-numbered nights of the week, I would do the same for him. We shook hands on it, and decided to start on Monday — an even-numbered night, so Geoff’s choice.
I didn’t have any grand illusions. At most I thought I’d get one decision-free pity meal, and by Thursday we’d fall into our old routine and I’d be scrolling through Seamless on the L train, fatigued and at a loss. (Pessimistic, I know, but can you blame me?) But, I was curious if the other women in my life had found successful ways to lessen the gendered emotional labor in their marriages, so I reached out to a few female friends around my demographic to see what, if anything, has worked for them.
Jen*, a busy mom with a very creative and time-consuming day job, said that any “gender hacks” she and her husband tried were focused on two things, “outsourcing contested labor (like housecleaning) and using open source tools.” She noted that her husband was really consistent with shared Google calendars and the several different spreadsheets they keep for things like when the babysitter or cleaning person is coming and who needs to pay her. But, she said, “the actual scheduling is all on me and I am still running around the morning our house cleaner comes to ‘clean before she cleans,’ which my husband thinks is crazy.”
Another friend, Lucy*, said that though she has been with the same guy for over 10 years, he didn’t start pitching in until two years ago — after they tied the knot. She admits that part of this was her fault. She would do what many of us are normalized to do — resent the fact that he wasn’t helping and then feel even more resentful when he didn’t complete the task up to her standards.
“I would get frustrated when he half-assed it, do it myself, then he would get mad because I didn't appreciate his efforts,” she told me. “Finally, I said to him, ‘May I just show you how to clean?’ He was very gracious about it. I think he realized he'd have a much happier life if he just did things thoroughly.”
Surprisingly, these anecdotes actually made me feel better about the evolution of heterosexual relationships. Every woman who responded to my query about gender hacks had a husband who was game to try them — to varying degrees of success, maybe, but that’s still slightly better than what our mothers or grandmothers had to deal with (progress is never as swift as we need it to be). None of the women I spoke with said their male partners refused to help or expected them to do more work around the house because they were women. And some — like my friend Anna*, whose husband “butters” her toothbrush by putting toothpaste on it on the nights she gets their two young children ready for bed (they trade off) — even have partners who try to meet the pitfalls of emotional labor head on.
“Sometimes I’ll find [the toothbrush] much later and realize I’ve been wrangling the kids and haven’t paused to take care of myself even for a second,” Anna told me. “The toothbrush with the toothpaste already on it reminds me to breathe.”
When I got home on Monday night, Geoff was in the kitchen making tacos. His cooking skills have always been an issue for us (OK, more so for me). When we first started dating, he made one thing — a red sauce — which he cooked a pound of pasta for and brought to work in Tupperware every single day. I encouraged him to mix it up, so he tried to make a stir fry, with only mushrooms and onions. One time he cooked a steak “low and slow” because he saw a video of Chrissy Teigen making eggs that way (bless his heart). So, as you can probably surmise, over our eight-year relationship, the responsibility of feeding us has primarily fallen to me. But this night his tacos were OK! On Wednesday, he ordered us Chinese. The following week, he made eggplant Parmesan twice in a row because he wanted to perfect the recipe. Occasionally, he’d forget to check an expiration date and we’d have to toss half his meal. But the important thing was, he kept trying.
I forgot it was my turn, so at 9 p.m. I ordered suspicious flatbreads from a bar in Long Island City.
I bit my tongue a lot. If I had Thai food for lunch and he ordered Thai food for dinner, I would eat Thai food twice in one day without telling him. It was hit or miss, but I couldn’t complain. Like, I literally could not complain. And that silence was a game changer — as was my attitude. Even when the food was kind of meh, I made sure Geoff knew how much I appreciated his efforts, and this paid off in spades (and pasta). Regardless of gender, compliments and encouragement are the oldest "hack" in the book.
And I had all this extra space in my brain! When I left work at 6 p.m., I wasn’t stressed about managing our dinner. In fact, I was comforted knowing there’d be a meal ready — that someone else was taking care of me. When I got home, we would sit and eat and talk and then do the dishes together. We did this before our experiment, too, but I was just generally nicer to him about everything now. Plus, he felt more like a provider, which was, go figure, something he had been craving all along.
As for me, the nights I was in charge of dinner didn’t exactly nurture any culinary revelations. Though I do enjoy cooking, I mostly utilized our experiment as an opportunity to slack off. One night, I forgot it was my turn, so at 9 p.m. I ordered suspicious flatbreads from a bar in Long Island City. Another night, I just fried us a couple eggs. To be honest, the only good thing I’ve made since we started this journey was a risotto, and that was on a Sunday, so it doesn’t really count. My thoughts and energy have been elsewhere, which was exactly the point. And Geoff doesn't mind; I'm more relaxed these days, and that’s all he really cares about anyway.
It’s been over two months and our “hack” is still going strong. Geoff now realizes how much work, both mental and physical, goes into making just one meal. He’s gained a new level of confidence in the kitchen, which he will tell you about often (we can save the topic of men needing to be praised for doing basic stuff for another time), and he’s stepping up in other ways to try to make our marriage more equitable. And I’ve stopped micromanaging and making assumptions about who can or can’t do what chores well. Perfect is the enemy of the good, and honestly it’s just great not having to decide what’s for dinner. Clearly this is not an “a-ha” moment for men.
Which brings me to next August, and my thoughtful, handsome, feminist-ally guy friends...
Hey, dudes, thanks for reading this to the end! Just a heads up, next year at our summer house, I am going on vacation. You should start meal planning now. <3
*Names changed at the request of the sources.
Correction: A previous version of this article included the incorrect name for Indiana University. It has been updated.