Hi. I'm excited to be here today with Gemma Hartley who is a journalist and author specializing in feminism, pop culture, health and wellness, and more. She has been published in Women’s Health, Glamour, The Washington Post, Redbook, and other publications. Her article in Harper’s Bazaar called “Women’s Aren’t Nags - We’re Just Fed Up” was viewed two billion times -- that's billion -- and sparked a national discussion about emotional labor. Her book Fed Up, a follow-up to the article, comes out November 13th. Gemma lives with her husband and three children in Reno, Nevada.
Welcome to Gemma.
Gemma Hartley: Hi. I'm happy to be here.
Zibby: What did it feel like to write an article that got viewed two billion times? That's insane.
Gemma: It was. It was nuts. I had no idea it was going to go viral. You don't really have a sense of those sort of things. It blew me away when it was shared a half a million times within a week. I didn't even know articles could do that. It blew my mind. I wrote this thinking it was just going to reach a small number of women that looked just like me, have lives like me, and would relate to me. It struck a chord in a really big way.
Zibby: To back up, I should've started by saying the article and the book -- the article’s premise, why don't you tell it?
Gemma: The article revolved around a Mother’s Day incident where I had asked my husband to get a cleaning service for me. In doing so, I wanted him to call around, get references, do all of that invisible work that I normally do, and to see how that feels. Of course I didn't tell him this expressly. He did not get that from me asking him to do this. He called one service, decided it was too expensive, and that he could just clean the bathrooms himself on Mother’s Day while I took care of the house and the kids. All of this pent-up resentment started coming out. I noticed that there was a gift wrap box in the middle of our closet. It had been there for days. He had gotten it down to wrap the present that he got me since he didn't get me what I had asked for.
I broke down and was like, “Why do I have to tell you to do everything? Why do I have to tell you to put this away? Why don't you just notice it yourself? Why am I the one that has to be responsible for everything that happens inside the house?” When we were having that conversation, obviously it put him on the defensive. It was then me managing his emotions while we were in the middle of that fight. It was this ah-ha moment that I was doing a lot of this invisible work that my husband had no idea was happening.
Zibby: You turned it into this amazing article. Did it get posted first on the Harper’s Bazaar website? I'm looking for the mechanics here. I need to replicate this with something I write.
Gemma: I don't know how on earth anyone could replicate this because I had no idea going into it. Yes, I had pitched it right after Mother’s Day. It didn't publish for another six months or so. Then it just blew up. I thought it would've been past it’s time. No one wants to read a Mother’s Day article at the end of September, but it blew up.
Zibby: The views, did you find that people relate to it, mostly Americans or all throughout the world?
Gemma: I got messages from people in India, Chile, the UK, Australia. It was so many different places. Obviously, in America was where I got the most response. That was where it originally published. That was really where it seemed to strike a chord because our culture really has a problem with acknowledging emotional labor.
Zibby: I was going to ask, why do you think it struck a chord in America? You think that this is some previously unspoken thing that went on, that women just picked up the ball and ran with it? That’s just what you do. It didn't even warrant a conversation almost until you threw this into the forefront. So many people have this dynamic in their relationships.
Gemma: The term emotional labor was coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild. It was just describing the emotion work that you do in the service sector. In recent years, it had been expanding. I took the term in the way that it had been expanding since around 2015 and ran with it with this more umbrella type approach that connects all these things that didn't really have that connection before, the emotion management work while also the home management work. Having language that described that phenomenon was a really big part of why this went viral. We didn't have language for it before.
Zibby: You totally summed up emotional labor for me when you wrote in the book, “Taking out the trash is great, but taking the responsibility to notice when it needs to be emptied is where it’s really at.” That's the difference.
Gemma: Yes. It’s not the division of physical labor. When I look at my marriage, my husband did half the work at least, but I was the one reminding him to do all of that work.
Zibby: Right, like he was doing it for you.
Gemma: Yes. He was helping me, which makes all of it my responsibility. It was this dynamic where everything in the home was my responsibility and anything that he did was helping me instead of sharing in the responsibility of our life.
Zibby: I'm usually like, “Would you mind doing this?”
Gemma: “Could you help me out with this?”
Zibby: “Could you do a quick favor for me?”
The other thing I thought was so great -- I was like, “Is she watching me in my house as she's writing this?” -- when you started chapter three with the quote, “Just let me do it.” I say, “Just let me do it,” about a hundred times a day. I complain about it. “Oh, my gosh. I have all these bills. I have all this to do.” My husband says something like, “Give me something to do. What can I do?” I'm like, “I’ll just do it. I got it. It’s okay. I just wanted to complain about it.” I don't know why I say that.
Gemma: It’s absolutely something that we do. We’re really efficient at doing this work because we've been practicing it our whole lives. It takes a lot of work to hand it over to someone else because they're learning these skills for the first time. Handing it over to your partner isn't automatically switching the balance. You're still holding a lot of that weight while they're learning how to do this work.
Zibby: You had mentioned you saw that even when your son and your daughter were four and two. Your son, you'd have to be like, “Amazing job picking up your clothes.” Your daughter would just put it all in the hamper. That's just what she did.
Gemma: I think they really pick up on that. They can't verbalize what they're seeing in this dynamic, but they're internalizing it. It’s really interesting to see how early those dynamics can start playing out, how those beliefs are getting set.
Zibby: I kept asking myself this question as I was reading your book. Do women do this because it’s our competitive advantage? Is this something that we just do better and therefore we do it more often? Is it just that it’s fallen in our laps for so long that we didn't question it? Do we have a better ability? I'm very open about my strengths and weaknesses. I'm not bad at managing all this stuff and keeping a hundred details in my head. I am pretty bad at other tasks which maybe are more stereotypically in the husband’s arena, not to start going into full-on gender stereotypes. Is it that, or is that beside the point?
Gemma: I really think it’s beside the point. All the research that I looked at showed that we don't have this hardwired male/female binary. We don't have these specific skill sets. We’re taught them from a very young age. It seems really natural to us because we've seen it done for so many years with our peers, with our parents. Everyone is reinforcing this idea that women are good at this and men are not good at this. It’s just not true. I talk to other men. I talk to people in queer relationships. These dynamics play out all over the place. It just generally falls into that gendered stereotype because heteronormativity is a real big cultural influence for us.
Zibby: Heteronormativity, I have not heard that before. That's a good one. Is that bad of me living under a rock?
I loved how you were so open about your particular relationship, which is great. It’s harder sometimes when you're reading nonfiction to only take the facts and the research. When an author, like how you did it so well, weaves in his or her own personal story, it really makes all the messages hit home more. When you were talking about your husband and you were figuring out how to bridge the gap and solve this problem, if it’s anything solvable, you realized that part of the problem was your own. I was like, “Is part of the problem mine too?”
This is what you wrote in the book. “The truth is that my constant meddling and unintentional undercutting were exactly the things holding Rob back from taking on emotional labor with confidence.” Even though you would like your partner to jump in and be an equal partner, not just a helper, not an assistant, but a true partner, which is what you wrote about, you have to be willing to then not have them do it your way. They have to do it their way too. Were you saying it’s not you, it’s me? I have to change too?
Gemma: It’s both. There is a meeting point in the middle. When I say that I need to take a step back and let him do it, that doesn't mean that we don't have the same shared standard in what we want our life to look like and how we want things to run, how we want the house to look. We can agree on those things. He can get there a different way. Both men and women have to do the work to bridge that gap. There definitely were deeply held biases that I had. Even while writing the book and researching it, I still thought, “Maybe I'm just better at this stuff. It’s not hard wired, but I have that natural advantage,” which I don't think I do. If I'm logical about it, I know that’s not true.
The more that I have stepped back and let my husband take over, I'm like, “Oh, no. He’s as fully competent as I am in this realm. He’s just learning it for the first time.” It’s been about a year now since that article came out. We've been talking through this and working through it in our marriage. It’s a night and day difference. I have a lot of hope for other couples. A lot of people ask me, “Do you have any hope? Is it totally hopeless?” I have a lot of hope that now that we’re going to start talking about it, that we have more specific language for it, that it’s going to be easier to bridge that gap.
Zibby: What is your specific advice? There are listeners out there, they're thinking, “Oh, my gosh. I can totally relate to this too. Now what do I do?”
Gemma: It’s going to be different for everyone. Just opening up communication about it is really important. I spent a lot of time resenting my husband in my head and not actually talking through this with him. I thought it was too much work to talk through it and make these changes. It is. It’s a lot of work. It’s a long process. That's the first thing. What really helped with me and my husband was I was writing this book and so I was looking at all of the underlying cultural roots of this. That took the blame out of the equation. It’s not like you're doing something wrong or I'm doing something wrong. We've been raised to think this way. We need to unlearn all of that internal biases that we've been raised with.
It was really helpful to approach it from that standpoint, a more cultural standpoint, than saying, “You're just not pulling your weight. You're not doing your job.” We’re conditioned to do things a certain way. Maybe it’s not serving us. Let's look at how we can make our relationship better. It really does. Having my husband do more emotional labor has really brought him into our life more. It used to be that I was running his life for him. He didn't have that really deep connection with me or with our kids or with our life at home. It opens up a whole new world for men when they take on a more active role.
Zibby: You don't think about the satisfaction that they might be missing out on.
Gemma: There is. We talk about emotional labor a lot as a burden. Women are usually shouldering all of it. That is burdensome. It’s exhausting. It eats up our time and our emotional energy. Then when you give some of that up, it really balances it out for both people. You can both enjoy it more. Another thing that you really enjoy is having a partner who understands you on this new level. I didn't even realize that it was part of the equation until it happened. Now when he comes from work, even if he hasn’t been around, I know that he understands my life in a way that he did not get at all before.
Zibby: My husband, he’s a stepfather to my kids. He really did not know what he was in for at all. He’s been so amazing about picking up the slack and doing stuff. I shouldn't say it that way, I guess. I have to fix all my language now about this labor situation. At the end of the day the other day, he was really helpful. He was in it all day from start to finish. At the end of the day he was like, “You did it.” I was like, “We did it.” It felt like such teamwork. I was so much less angry and tired and frustrated than the days where it wasn’t like that, which I guess is an obvious point. Letting him know that I saw it, then he felt good about it, as opposed to just being like, “Yeah, it was a really long day.”
Gemma: I talk a lot about, “Don't ask for help. Don't overpraise.” Now, we both say thank you to each other a lot. We see each other for what we’re doing. That's a new thing in our relationship. I would always have to notice when he did something before. “Oh, my gosh. The kitchen looks so amazing.” Now, he doesn't expect or look for that validation. That's really changed things for us, not feeling like if I don't validate his work, he's going to stop doing it. That's a fear that a lot of people have. I had a friend that was like, “My husband did the laundry. I must have praised him five times. I want him to do it again.” That’s doing it from a place of fear, being like, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I really, really want you to do this again.”
Zibby: Behavior modification. It’s like what I do with the kids sometimes. Catch them being good. Make sure they notice that you notice. “Look how nicely you're sitting at the dinner table.”
Gemma: Which is fine to do with children because they're learning and they need that. When you're talking about your partner, you should be able to expect a certain level of shared responsibility without having to go over the top praising them.
Zibby: Your husband was cool with you writing all this about him? There were times where I was like, “Is he going to like this?” I don't know your husband. He seems like an amazing guy. There was so much about the things he didn't do at the beginning, the contrasts that you drew. I know you said at the end he’s an equal partner now. He’s in it. He’s totally supportive of the book and the article and everything. I'm sure that's the case.
Were there any stories that he had an issue with? Was he on board the whole time?
Gemma: He was on board the whole time. I didn't have to ask his permission or ask for him to support me in this. He was there the whole time. Part one, which really draws on most of the difficult parts of our marriage, I had him read before I sent it off to my editor. I'm like, “You need to tell me if you're not okay with any of this.” It goes pretty deep into our relationship. It brings up some uncomfortable stuff. He brought it back and he was like, “You're a little bit too nice right here. You're a little bit too forgiving right here.” My editor made the same note. I was like, “Yup, he's doin’ fine.” He didn't read the rest of the book until it was all the way written. I'm like, “You need to finish this book. It gets better. It’s not just all me being mean to you. I promise.”
Zibby: That's really funny. You got engaged when you were nineteen. You got married when you were twenty. You had your children when you were twenty-two, twenty-four, and twenty-six. In fact, you wrote this great Redbook article. It was called “Stop Saying I'm Too Young to Have Three Kids.” I want to randomly read this quote because I thought it was so awesome. “Instead of telling a young mother that she must have her hands full, tell her how well-behaved her kids are or how beautiful her family is. Tell her she’s a warrior. Tell her she’s doing it right.” That's awesome for all moms, any comment that people give you.
Gemma: In general, don't make shitty comments to moms.
Zibby: Yeah. That's always nice. Do you think -- maybe this is hard to say because you're in it and this is your experience -- you got married at twenty. A lot of people out there get married at forty and start having their kids much later with twenty years of double the life experience before they go into a marriage. Do you think that the age at which you entered into this gave you a different viewpoint than older people going into a relationship? Do you think it’s colored the way you see things?
Gemma: It’s hard to say what my life would've looked like.
Zibby: It’s sort of a bad question.
Gemma: It’s one of those opposite lives, opposite world. I definitely know that it has colored the way that I see the world and how emotional labor has evolved in my relationship. I talk a lot about that in the book. We were high school sweethearts. There has been no other major relationship. That definitely makes it interesting to look at from that perspective. It gave me an advantage in some ways. We are young. We are very able to modify our behaviors. I wrote another piece about getting married young saying that in a lot of ways it was easier than getting married when I was older because neither of us were set in our ways. We've changed a lot together over the years. A lot of that is luck. We look back at that sometimes. We got really lucky. Twenty-year-olds getting married is probably not the best idea in the world. It’s ten years later. Things are going good.
Zibby: A lot of marriage -- maybe that's the wrong thing to say. I was going to say I think there's a lot of luck in marriage. You don't know how your lives are going to unfold, both your individual lives and your lives together. Every relationship takes just a little dose of luck that you navigate together.
Gemma: It definitely does. I just think twenty takes a lot of luck because you are not a fully formed person at twenty. Your prefrontal cortex is still developing at that age. I look back at that. Wow. We lucked out.
Zibby: I was thinking, “Wow. That's early to be totally fed up.” [laughs] Imagine if she had been through this for thirty years and she’s fifty-five.
Gemma: Which is why it was really neat for me to have so many women from different generations reach out to me and really deeply relate to this.
Zibby: You're not even talking necessarily about you. It’s the cultural thing. It’s beyond just you and your relationship, which is nice.
Gemma: When I went and wrote that first article, I didn't necessarily know that. I didn't know it was across generations and across all different life experiences, which was really exciting for me when I got to write the book. Then I got to delve into all of that and see why.
Zibby: What happened? You wrote the article. Did someone call you and say, “You have to turn this into a book?” What happened? Did you go out and find somebody?
Gemma: About four people called me and asked me could I turn this into a book.
Zibby: Was it the publishers or agents?
Gemma: It was agents. I had some editors reach out to me directly as well. I ended up signing with my agent and drafting a proposal. Within a month from publishing the article, we were signing a book contract.
Zibby: That's crazy.
Gemma: It was so fast. Then I had six months to write the book. It was a really fast and furious process.
Zibby: I was just thinking that article was only last year. Now the book is in my hands.
Gemma: It’s here. It’s out tomorrow in the stores.
Zibby: So exciting. Wow. That's a whirlwind. What I thought was neat, you were so self-referential in the book because you were writing about writing the book a lot.
Gemma: I wrote a lot about writing.
Zibby: Is she talking about a different book? Is she writing about this book?
Gemma: Nope. Definitely this book.
Zibby: I was like, “I think she's talking about writing this book.” You're like, “I would be writing the book --” I'm like, “But now I'm reading the book.” That's when your husband actually had to -- you were like, “I don't have the bandwidth to deal with my house. I have to get this done.” He had to step up and do it.
Gemma: Yeah. Things worked out in a really wonderful way. My husband got laid off around the time that I got the book deal. He was at home full time for the first time in our marriage. It was for four whole months. I had to write this book very quickly. I did have to let a lot of stuff go. I was forced to, whether I wanted to or not. That really changed our dynamic a lot in those four months. Now that he is back at work, the changes have stuck. It’s not the same balance, obviously, because he's not at home full time and I'm done writing the book now. It’s a very different marriage than it was before we started this.
Zibby: That's awesome. I bet you'll be changing a lot of people's marriages out there too.
Gemma: I certainly hope so.
Zibby: What do you want to do after this? You have this book, this whirlwind. Are you going to do a book tour? What comes next?
Gemma: What comes next is just doing interviews right now. I'm actually starting to work on a next book.
Zibby: Already? Good for you. Did you sell it already?
Gemma: No. We’re in the process of getting everything together.
Zibby: Can you say any more?
Gemma: No. I can't say any more right now. It definitely popped up out of some of the research in this book, so related material.
Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.
Gemma: Thanks so much for having me here.
Zibby: Oh, wait. Last question. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors out there?
Gemma: Just keep writing. A lot of people ask me how this happened and how you can make it happen. It’s like winning the lottery if the lottery required you to write every single day. It’s a lot of luck and a lot of work.
Zibby: Thank you so much.