When Michelle Obama says what she says about relationships and “discomfort,” it does not come from a woman who is unfamiliar with what she is saying, it comes with all the gravatas that being a Black woman in her late 50’s who has spent a considerable amount of time in the national imagination affords her. On her book tour for The Light We Carry, the former First Lady is doing a lot of reflection on both her marriage and relationship with one Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America; what she is saying is absolutely resonating with the lived experiences of Black women everywhere and a cursory scroll through Twitter reveals this. I asked Anthony Boynton III, a Black Queer scholar and Project Lead on the 4:44 Syllabus, a living text around the complexities of Black masculinity, about why the reaction seems so visceral and this is what they had to say: “In feminist spaces, there is a term used that describes the underappreciated or discredited physical, emotional, and other labors required to maintain a relationship or household called ‘the invisible load‘”
Often associated with nuclear families and experiences of motherhood, there are gendered expectations around who is to manage things like household chores, scheduling appointments or outings, and caring for loved ones. These responsibilities that keep a relationship or family going are often laid on women. So when Michelle Obama says that couples should expect “long stretches of discomfort,” certainly cis-het women are responding with the personal and generational knowledge of who often bears the invisible load.”
The McKinsey Institute does a yearly “Women in the Workplace” report, and this year’s report, similar to past reports, shines a light on the extra work that women, particularly Black and Latina(ine) women have to take on in the workplace. Inevitably, and disappointingly, that extra work also extends to the home life of those women.
To that point, men are often not expected or socialized to perform household labor like women are, due in no small part to the system of Patriarchy which undergirds so many of the problems that the Women in the Workforce report diligently explores. In addition, women actually take on more responsibility domestically as they climb the ladder, an arrangement that men do not have to contend with. It is also an arrangement that Mrs. Obama critiques in a clip that made the rounds on Twitter.
Essentially, when it comes to raising children, the division of labor is skewed incredibly hard in the favor of cis-het men, an issue that men need to correct. Men, it can be argued, are socialized by both patriarchy and capitalism to simply allow women to do double the work because it leaves time for us to do the tasks that both of those systems assigns us: make as much money as possible to position ourselves as good and productive members of society and our sex. However, those assignments put us in a strange position as it relates to our home lives, the women and children we are supposed to “protect and provide” for are sacrificed for more money while we lose time with the ones we love as well as burdening women with entirely too much work and not enough benefit from it. Men would be in a better position if we would simply stop trying to do what we have been socialized to do and be better and more equitable partners as opposed to trying and failing at being self-proclaimed leaders and “heads” of households.
As Boynton III related to me when I asked about cis-het men adopting a more egalitarian approach to family-building: “Our perception around men’s involvement in child rearing and family building is in dire need of a shift. The current paradigm not only expects that women do the majority of the labor, it stalls their social mobility and presents unnecessary anxiety. Meanwhile, men are either offered outsized praise for their involvement, or their involvement is expected to be minimal or, worse I think is worse, altogether unacknowledged.”
That shift that Boynton describes is wholly on men to adopt, we cannot seriously expect for any woman to love or commit to us on any level if we are willing to sit idly by and watch her do double the work. We are making it hard for women to be and stay in relationships with us particularly when we refuse to do the work on ourselves or the work of raising children and or creating an atmosphere that is conducive to cooperation and not competition. The way that men often look at successful women suggests that most men are afraid that a successful woman will somehow overshadow or render them as incompetent, when the reality is that too many men are already wallowing in incompetence and hoping that a woman can look past that and love them anyway. It don’t work like that, and quite frankly, it should never have worked like that; but again, it is the triple evils of capitalism, patriarchy and misogynoir which even allowed that arrangement to work.
Men have to do our share of the work around creating a more equitable environment, both in the workplace and at home; the era of both allowing and expecting women to do it is over. If women are going to be modern women, it is beyond time that men stopped clinging to systems that stunt us and our growth as men and become modern men. Women should not be out here having to raise children and men, we should be pulling our equal weight and not burdening the women in our lives with problems that we create for them. We have to be better men than this, for their sakes and our sakes.