I live in a gendered household. For better or for worse, the domestic division of labour is broken down along the standard male-female lines. I cook, he cleans up. I’m in charge of our social calendar. He is in charge of turning on the TV, finding movies on Netflix, and talking me off the ledge when I have a computer malfunction on deadline and am bursting into tears. Even though he is almost as technically illiterate as I am, I expect him to fix it.
Like most women, I do most of the emotional work. For example, I give him a heads-up when our anniversary is getting near. He knows the month but not the date. He is not quite sure of the year we got married.
Christmas is always emotionally demanding. I fret. He puts up the tree. I make lists, shop and cook, spruce up the place with festive candles and boughs of holly, and think about what to get his sister. He snoozes on in blissful oblivion until Dec. 20, when he suddenly springs to life and asks, “What should we get my sister?”
Have things changed much among the next generation? Apparently not. “Who does Christmas in your house?” I asked my friend Susie, who’s 25 years younger. “Oh, it’s 99 per cent me,” she laughed. She didn’t seem oppressed, but she might be if she read more progressive journalism.
“Holiday Magic Is Made By Women. And It’s Killing Us,” reads one headline on a 2017 piece by Gemma Hartley, who wrote an entire book (Fed Up) on the underappreciated emotional labour of women.
“I have yet to send out my Christmas cards this year, but the various steps necessary to complete this task have been weaving through my mind for months,” she wrote. “I booked a session with a photographer at the end of August. I picked out and shopped for outfits for the entire family in October. In November, the actual photo shoot took place, but not before a flurry of back-and-forth emails deciding on time and place while factoring in the weather.”
Oh, come on. Who does those things? Hasn’t she ever heard of e-cards? This woman’s problems are entirely self-inflicted. She doesn’t need less patriarchy. What she needs is a good shrink.
Still, there’s a good question here. Why, after 40 years of feminism, has so little changed? The feminist explanation is that patriarchal oppression extends its stranglehold down through the generations. My explanation is that too many women are masochistic perfectionists. The Christmas juggernaut isn’t spread by men. It’s spread by women’s publications and by Pinterest, which bedazzle you with images of Stepford wives dressed in hand-knit reindeer sweaters decorating cunning little Christmas cookies.
Let’s face it. Men are indifferent to many women’s interests, and efforts to change the men will often come to grief. When I was young and naive, I imagined that I, too, would have a 50-50 household where everything was equal and the man helped wrap the presents. When I moved in with my future husband, I even had a ledger to keep track of who did what, so that I could remind him when he fell short. You can imagine how that went. The ledger soon went out the window.
For several years I gnawed on my resentments. I blamed my husband for not getting it. I suspected him of learned incompetence – of doing tasks so ineptly that he’d never be asked to do them again. I blamed him for not having the same standards I did, or caring about what I cared about. In other words, I blamed him for not being a woman. Gradually, we compromised. We’re still at it.
I also realized that I am almost as complicit in gendered behaviour as he is. Toilet backed up? His problem. Tire blown out on some godforsaken back road in Spain? I curl up into a ball while he changes it. If there is a burglar downstairs (or even a noisy rodent), we both know whose business it is to protect us.
Relationships are trade-offs. The point isn’t equality in everything. The point is enough fairness so that you believe you have a reasonable deal most of the time. Some men don’t do much emotional labour but work long hours. Some work in dirty, dangerous jobs where they are sometimes killed. Nobody writes books about how mistreated they are.
If you too are oppressed by the patriarchy – or the pernicious legacy of decades of Martha Stewart – you can give yourself the gift of liberation. Do you really want a tree? Maybe not. Hate cooking Christmas dinner? Get someone else to cook it for you. Give people the same thing every year. (Scotch and cigars work at my place.) Stay away from Pinterest. Never wrap a gift again. Use bags. Remember: Woman is born free; and everywhere she is in chains. Don’t be her.