Opinion: Women carry this unequal holiday burden all year round

Editor’s note: Kara Alaimo, associate professor at the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes on issues affecting women and social media. Her book, This Feed Is on Fire: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Reclaim It, will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.


After two years in which many celebrations have been scaled back during the Covid-19 pandemic, this holiday season is likely to be overblown. Many of us make up for these missed opportunities with more celebrations with more people.

Behind all these celebrations are often very tired women. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, among married heterosexual couples who both work full-time and have a child under the age of 18, mothers spend almost twice as much time as fathers on housework, preparing and cleaning meals, and buying goods and services — the main forms the work involved in entertaining people or exchanging gifts around the holidays.

It’s time for all people, regardless of gender, to work to ensure that the work that goes into the holidays is shared more fairly.

In many 21st-century households, there is still “the taken-for-granted notion that a mother is responsible for tracking and knowing and thinking and planning and feeding and caring and controlling and doing, unless she has worked to make other arrangements (which then require more knowledge and more thinking and more tracking and more action),” writes Darcy Lockman in All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership.

This type of often unnoticed work is called emotional work. “Emotional work, as I define it, is emotion management and life management combined,” writes Gemma Hartley in Fed Up: Emotional Labour, Women, and the Way Forward. “It’s the unpaid, invisible work we do to make those around us feel comfortable and happy.”

Hartley points out that the widespread expectation that women bear the primary responsibility for this work in heterosexual relationships is part of what sociologists call the “grid-on gender revolution.” While women have made strides in achieving equality with men in areas such as business and politics in recent decades, there has been a distinct lack of strides in getting men and women to do justice to the emotional work that comes at home divide.

Women, of course, carry this unequal burden year-round. But things really come to a head for us around the holidays when we’re often the ones planning the holiday celebrations and arranging childcare when schools close for the holidays — not to mention making gift lists, dreaming up gift ideas, ordering and pack them up and then deal with after-sale service when they arrive broken.

All of this is on top of the emotional work we already do on a daily basis — keeping track of birthdays and school photo days, filling out forms to sign our kids up for extracurricular activities, scheduling babysitters, and managing the family calendar, for example.

And it leaves us completely exhausted. “It takes a lot of time and energy to do this kind of work — and it’s never completely shut off in our brains,” writes Hartley. “And it costs us dearly to deplete untold reservoirs of mental capacity that we could use in ways that serve us, our careers, our lives, and our happiness.”

Because so many moms are already so skinny, we don’t have the extra time in our lives for that extra holiday work that can weigh heavily on us. For example, among married heterosexual couples who both work full-time and have a child under the age of 18, mothers spend nearly two-thirds more time than fathers caring for and supporting family members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I spent Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend partially preparing for one of the three big family gatherings over the holiday, which involve getting stocking fillers for each family member and their significant other. By the end of the day, when I stopped because my toddler had started unwrapping presents faster than I could wrap them, I’d managed to wrap 28 stocking fillers — but didn’t shower. Worst of all, I had trouble finding partner ideas for family members I don’t know well. I had to carry this mental burden on top of the myriad other things I track, plan, and worry about for my family every day.

To be fair if my husband had been there he would have helped. (He’s an emergency doctor and worked all weekend.)

Of course, I suspect that if families shared work more evenly, they would choose to eliminate some of that work altogether. We should all consider exchanging unnecessary gifts, for example. For me at least, being freed from some of the time and emotional work that goes into it would be a far greater gift than anything anyone could wrap up for me.

Family and friends, too, should recognize how overwhelmed so many moms are – year-round, but especially around the holidays – and be sensitive to the little things that can make a difference. If you have time, now is a good time to offer to play with your nephews or grandchildren so parents can get ready for the holidays. When visiting families with young children, ask if there is anything you can do to make them more comfortable. Oftentimes, small things can make a big difference — like milk and other perishables that kids need, or relieving the mom of the burden of finding a nearby supermarket that’s open on Christmas afternoon.

The burden of planning this year’s charged holiday celebrations — and all the other emotional and other forms of work that goes on in families — shouldn’t be just on women. If people of all genders recognized and participated in this work, we would truly have something to celebrate.

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