With women in heterosexual relationships typically taking on extra domestic and emotional labour at Christmas, the 2020 holiday season is shaping up to leave women more burned out than ever.
This year has already seen the added load of housework and caring during lockdowns falling mostly on women.
In those first few months of lockdown, when childcare and education, normal paid work and every meal – as well as the extra tidying and cleaning – moved inside, numerous studies showed that, in heterosexual cohabiting relationships, most of this extra care has fallen on women, with women still spending an average of 15 hours more on domestic and caring duties each week than men.
Particularly for couples with young children, this tends to be seen as a fair division. Ask men whether they split household chores equally and they’ll often claim either that they do, or that their wives and girlfriends take on more because he undertakes (more) paid work outside the home.
In many cases though, household inequalities brought on by lockdowns are due to the same wider economic forces that have always seen women in heterosexual relationships do more of the housework. We still have a gender wage gap, which typically makes women the lower earner in relationships, in turn making women more likely to be the one to drop out of the paid workforce or take a pay cut.
My husband claims that I do more around the house because he “doesn’t care” whether our home is as clean and tidy as I like it to be. In the before times, I would often be greeted at my friends’ and sisters’ homes with “excuse the mess!| (regardless of the actual mess levels), a phrase rarely heard when their male partners answered the door.
We don’t have children yet, but just the two of us at home in those first few weeks of lockdown seemed to create infinitely more laundry, more dishes, more mess to tidy up. We both moved to full-time working from home at first, but my husband runs a hospitality business, while my day job was relatively safe. The extra household chores (like the existing household chores) fell to me.
And suddenly, December is here. While I normally love the warmth and glitter of the festive season, even in normal times I usually feel like I need another break in January to recover. In a year that has already given women more housework than ever, can we expect Christmas to give us a chance to relax?
As well as the obvious uptick in cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping that comes with the season, women tend to take on the emotional labour of buying and wrapping presents, and writing and sending cards. In previous years – when there were events to go to – we also tended to be the ones arranging the household schedule. Which relatives are we seeing, and when? Where are we meeting friends? When is the work party? And the nativity show? And how are we ringing in the new year?
While a huge chunk of that has been taken away this year – my party dresses are gathering dust in my wardrobe, and I’m already receiving calendar invites for family get-togethers on Zoom – a Covid-Christmas brings its own issues. We’re navigating which in-laws to join in a “Christmas bubble”, and negotiating the safest way to see family within the rules.
Amidst this, the pressure is on to make the interactions we can have more thoughtful. In lieu of hugs, some of the most tangible exchanges available are sending and receiving post (proper, handwritten post). Writing out names and addresses, adding personal notes, buying stamps and wrapping up to walk to the post box feels like the least we can do.
Many of us have returned to sending Christmas cards for the first time in years, and gift-giving is more important than ever this year – but this “kinship work” of maintaining family ties is typically seen as women’s work. When I was addressing cards, it was my mother and mother-in-law I messaged to find the addresses of cousins and other relatives.
My own husband doesn’t take part in the card-writing or the gift-planning, claiming again that he “isn’t bothered”. Don’t get me wrong, he gets the gifts I ask him to get, does the things I ask him to do. But it it is me who knows what we need to get, and what we already have, me who will wrap up the gifts and make sure we have stamps. As with household cleanliness, women tend to be the ones doing this work, because we’re the ones to be judged harshly when this work isn’t done.
In 2020, we are collectively experiencing more burnout than ever. We are looking for rest, for normalcy, for Christmas magic. Does it have to fall on wives and girlfriends to create that for their male partners? The emotional labour of running a household must still be done, so in this year of change, let’s flip the question of who does more housework and instead ask: who has more time to relax?
Zoe Pickburn is a freelance writer.