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Ok, But Have You Ever Met a Truly Relaxed Woman?
On the gender exhaustion gap and the cost of trying to ‘do it all’
A few weeks ago I came across a quote by writer Nicola Jane Hobbs that’s been stuck in my head ever since:
Growing up, I never knew a relaxed woman. Successful women? Yes. Productive women? Plenty. Anxious and afraid and apologetic women? Heaps of them.
But relaxed women? (…) I’m not sure I’ve ever met a woman like that.
Well. I’m not sure either.
When I try to think of a relaxed woman I might know, someone who prioritises rest, takes time to slow down and breathe and all that, I can’t think of a single one.
My mother, grandmothers, aunts, female friends, and acquaintances always seem, or seemed, busy. Because there’s always things to be done and meals to be cooked and laundry to be hung and appointments to attend and something to be replaced and someone that needs them and this and that.
Does a ‘relaxed woman’ even exist, or is it just an oxymoron?
Or did they go extinct around the time it stopped being cool to spend your days gathering berries, doing cave paintings and dancing around the bonfire?
But, of course, if you consider all of the labour women are so often expected to do on account of being women it should hardly be surprising that a relaxed woman is so hard, or impossible, to find.
A woman’s work is never done
There’s even a name for it now: the gender exhaustion gap.
According to a recent survey among more than 10,700 workers in six countries, women are 32% more likely to experience burnout and stress than men. One in five women also believe it’s harder to achieve a work-life balance now than 20 years ago.
And while this is in part due to the rise of ‘hustle culture,’ it’s also caused by the fact that while women’s place in the world has indeed transformed over the last 50 years, we haven’t managed to do so well when it comes to transferring responsibility for the more ‘traditional’ women’s duties.
Domestic labour, child care, and elderly care still rest primarily on women’s shoulders, even if they work full-time or are the primary breadwinners.
But it’s all ok. We’re women, after all. We’re better at multi-tasking and powering through, and, if need be, we can just put on our ‘superwoman’ costume. Or so the society tells us, at least.
That’s hardly the whole story, though.
Yes, juggling the demands of our careers with household responsibilities — the so-called ‘second shift,’ as sociologist Arlie Hochschild called it — is already exhausting. But there’s also the burden of all the emotional labour. And we carry it disproportionally both in the workplace and at home.
We remember others people’s birthdays and dietary requirements and orchestrate activities and plan vacations and make sure everyone’s needs are met and provide emotional support and a shoulder to cry on and regulate others emotional responses and — oh, we’ve already run out of coffee?
Let’s make a mental note to buy it tomorrow.
And then there’s also the arduous task of the aesthetic labour. A man existing in his natural state is still a man. But a woman existing in her natural state has ‘let herself go.’ She’s given up. She is probably sick or depressed or just went through a break-up.
Paradoxically, to be considered ‘feminine’, you must eliminate or conceal many of the things that often come with being a woman by default — all the body hair and cellulite and belly fat and, when we dare to no longer look like a prepubescent girl, also all the wrinkles and soggy skin and grey hair.
And, of course, stay thin. In particular if we want to have a shot at being successful and financially stable.
Here’s the tricky part.
A lot of the above labour is hidden. Invisible, almost.
And it’s not only the opposite gender and society at large that doesn’t seem to take note of any of that, whether purposefully or not.
Why women feel the need to ‘do it all’ — and what it costs us
My mother would rarely just watch a movie. She had to be doing something while my father, my brother and I watched it. Like peeling potatoes. Mending clothes. Sewing buttons. Writing a grocery list.
And it’s not like she didn’t enjoy watching movies. She did.
But she always said there were so many things to do that she’d feel guilty for sitting back and relaxing like the rest of us. (Mind you, she worked full-time, had a part-time job on the weekends for a while, and still did most of the work around the house.)
The guilt of not ‘doing it all’, as we think we should, likely plays a massive role here. But that’s rooted in the belief, still echoing through our society, that all of this work is simply a ‘woman’s job.’
And there’s ample evidence to show that this unfair burden of domestic and emotional labour, and normalisation of it, starts very early on. By preschool age kids already develop ideas that it’s normal and fair. (And that’s based on a study published this year.) By nine years old girls already spend more time helping around the house than boys. By 13, that gap is even more pronounced.
From an early age, we’re also often taught that to be a woman is to be a self-sacrificing, nurturing, agreeable and accommodating creature. And it’s this ‘tyranny of niceness,’ as journalist Helen Lewis once called it, that then stops us from pushing back and drawing boundaries even when we really should. To the point that all that hard work blends inwith our identity, and we feel guilt or shame for failing to live up to an imaginary ‘feminine’ ideal.
It’s a similar story when it comes to aesthetic labour.
Just like some believe that women are born knowing how to scrub toilets or remove stubborn stains, there’s this conviction, especially among the straight and male part of the population, that it doesn’t take much for women to attain the mainstream beauty standards — which have only become more and more difficult to achieve — and that we just wake up with gold eyelids.
But the ‘natural look’ we often hear praises for takes a lot of work. And yes, even for the lucky few blessed with incredible genes and metabolism.
It also takes a lot of work to do all these things women are believed to be just ‘naturally’ better at than men. Contrary to widespread belief, women aren’t better at multi-tasking. Nor do we have an additional storage space in our brains for people’s birthdays or dirty socks recognition expansion software.
Instead, we learn how to do all the things expected of us, try to do it all, and, eventually, we might not even realise how hard we’re working. And there’s, unfortunately, a cost to that.
The guilt of not doing enough leads women to feel bad about taking time off. According to a recent study, women are 20% more likely to feel this way and are more prone to leave it untaken than men.
Women also have significantly less leisure time than men. According to a report in the UK, men spend more of their hours on leisure time in almost every single category, including hobbies, games, physical activity, watching TV and eating out. And as the report concluded, ‘when not in leisure, women were more likely to be performing unpaid work.’
Even when it comes to holidays, women don’t seem to be able to get a break. A recent poll in France uncovered that 53% of women said they felt stressed at the end of the holiday, as opposed to 39% of men, because they were the ones who had to do most of the washing, cleaning, cooking, shopping and tidying up. 70% of women also said they ended their holidays… tired.
It’s not ‘selfish’ for women to prioritise themselves
All this burnout, stress and emotional exhaustion combined with less time for rest are also bound to impact… who we are.
As writer Anne Helen Petersen points out in one of her recent essays:
To embody ideal femininity is to serve others at all times, of course — but it is also to aspire to self-annihilation. The absence of desire, the absence of needs, the absence of resistance as you hollow out the self and replace it with the desires and needs of others.
Not all women might self-annihilate in the process, but far too many in the past did. And some still are. Because all of those expectations for women, whether in the professional environment, personal relationships, or at home, didn’t go away.
I’ve met a couple of men during my single era who claimed they wanted a relationship ‘just like their parents.’ At first, I found it cute, only to discover that what they mean by that is that their mothers did everything for their fathers and their families on top of having a great career and contributing to everything financially.
Well, of course, men want a relationship like that.
Who in their right mind wouldn’t? Half of your bills paid and most, if not all, of the work required to keep the house done by someone else while you can spend this time on leisure?
I think everyone, given the choice, would like to have a wife. (In the ‘traditional’ sense of that word.)
But that’s why I’m surprised at how many people are surprised that so many young women resent the idea of marriage and having children. It was already tough enough for our mothers, so many of whom worked outside and inside the home, and the world hasn’t changed that much since. Perhaps it even got worse in some ways.
However you want to slice it up, women are still always kept busy. We have go to work to, you know, survive. And do most of the domestic labour because that’s a ‘woman’s job.’ And emotional labour because we’re ‘just better at it’ and besides, if not us, then who? And aesthetic labour if we don’t want to become invisible, irrelevant or lonely.
It really shouldn’t be controversial to say that women don’t have to do all that. And that we don’t have to spend our lives in constant servitude to others and pursuit of impossibly high standards men are almost entirely exempt from.
It also shouldn’t be considered ‘selfish’ for women to prioritise themselves, focus on self-care and enjoy free time.
But it largely still is.
Just last month, a video of a single and childfree 29-year-old woman talking about her Saturday went viral and sparked quite an outrage among the conservative parts of the internet. Why? Well, she slept in and spent the rest of the day lounging around and watching TV.
I know, I know. How dare she?
What’s the most ironic about all of this is that there’s also this notion that women live life in ‘easy mode.’ Because it’s men who are the main ‘providers.’
But another way to look at it is that women provide men the opportunity to have careers, socialise with other men, join clubs, play sports, and have hobbies through all the unpaid, and often unnoticed, labour we do.
This isn’t to say that men don’t work hard. Plenty of men do. Plenty of women do, too. But as opposed to men, we don’t spend as much time recovering from all that hard work.
Because our partners fail to do their fair share of household chores. Or because we don’t think we ‘deserve’ to take a break. Or both.
And even if we do prioritise rest, we’re called ‘selfish’ or ‘lazy.’
It’s no wonder why I’ve never met a truly relaxed woman.
But to paraphrase the ending of Nicola Jane Hobbs’s quote, I sure would like to become one.