Amanda Rose Ph.D.

Between Us

Why Many Women Don’t Feel Thankful on Thanksgiving

The hard labor of women

Posted Nov 21, 2018

Behind every beautiful thanksgiving dinner and touching family photograph lies hours and hours of hard labor, which probably was performed by a woman.

Now this is not true for every family. In some families, everyone contributes to planning, cleaning, cooking, and hosting. In other families, one person (often but not always a woman) does the bulk of the work but truly finds it a labor of love. If one of those scenarios apply to you, or if you have a different way of celebrating (or not celebrating) the holiday that you enjoy, you might not find this post relevant.

However, if you are one of the many women who are overwhelmed and exhausted, and yet somehow have carved out the time to read this post, this one is for you.

To understand where we are today in terms of gender and the holidays, it’s helpful to think about the broader context of gender and (paid and unpaid) labor.

The US Department of Labor gathers data on who is working, how many hours, and where. In the 1960s, men and women actually worked about the same number of hours per week. However, men typically worked outside the home, and women typically worked inside the home. Since the 1960s, women have increased the number of hours that they work outside the home, and men have increased the number of hours that they work inside the home. However, the increases have not been at the same rate. The number of hours that women work outside the home has increased more than the number of hours that men work inside the home. This means that women are still doing more housework and childcare than men. This also means that the total number of hours worked per week (hours outside the home + hours inside the home) is greater for women then men. The difference is relatively small; women work about five hours more per week than men. Still, women would probably like those hours back. Across a month, this would add up to 20 hours that they could use however they wanted!

In fact, the data show that men typically devote their five extra hours each week to leisure. Like watching football on TV. Which brings us back to Thanksgiving…

With this in mind, it is not surprising that women do most of the work on Thanksgiving. They typically do most of the work at home, and the “traditional” nature of Thanksgiving probably exacerbates this. At Thanksgiving, people often want to do things like their parents did, and their grandparents did, which makes it even more likely that the work required to celebrate the holiday will fall to women.

Moreover, the extra work that women do is not limited to cooking and cleaning. Women also typically manage the social and emotional tone of the day. This is referred to as emotional labor. Sociologist Arlie Hochschlid coined this term in the context of the workplace, but the term applies to the home as well. Examples include (but are not limited to): making sure that conservative Aunt Sally is not seated next to cousin Frank who’s studying at Berkley, getting all of the invitations out within a matter of minutes so that no one feels that they were invited last (and doing so without using social media or texting because that would be tacky), and providing children with activities and entertainment that are neither boring nor overstimulating.

Is it really surprising, then, that many women do not feel all that thankful on Thanksgiving? Sure, in the big picture they are thankful for their family and loved ones and the opportunity to  be together. However, expecting a person who got up at 4am to stuff a cold turkey to be happy, relaxed, and feeling thankful at 4pm may not be realistic.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for the day.

1. Don’t pressure yourself to feel thankful. It’s ok not to feel all that thankful on Thanksgiving. Maybe you will feel thankful on a different, less hectic day instead. Mixed feelings also are allowed. Whatever you feel is valid and no one can take that away from you.

2. Make minor changes. If you typically do all of the heavy lifting on Thanksgiving, major changes are probably not going to happen in (literally) a day. However, delegate as much as you can, from setting the table to playing with small children so that they are not underfoot. You may think that asking for help with small things won’t make a difference, but it adds up.

3. Lay the groundwork for next year. If you want share responsibility for the holiday more equitably in the future, now is a good time to lay the groundwork. When people ask how you’re doing, it is ok to say that you are a little tired, stressed, etc. and that maybe next year you should not try to do it all yourself. Hopefully, this will plant a seed for change.

4. Plan a time just for you. Mark off at least an hour to do something that you want to after the celebration is over. Sitting down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine to read a book or enjoying a bubble bath are good choices. (Please note that your activity cannot be combined with something that you already planned to do for others, such as going for pedicures with your six nieces who range in age from preschool to high school). When things get hectic or stressful during the holiday, picture that moment when you will sit quietly with a book or slide into your bath.

5. Think about next year. When it is all over, spend some time thinking about what you would like to stay the same for next year and what you would like to change. Then, in the coming months, make time to talk honestly with others about this. Conversations about switching up who does what for the holidays will go more smoothly ahead of time than in the heat of the moment.

Time is getting short, and I should leave you now to bake pies and peel potatoes. To sign off, I will not say “Have a Happy Thanksgiving!!” to those of you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Instead, I will say that I hope that you can find some happy moments during your busy holiday. Good luck, ladies. And Godspeed!

Postscript: This post refers to how men and women spend their time on average, not to every man or woman. If you are a man, and are reading a Psychology Today post about how gender dynamics affect the division of labor on holidays, there is a good chance that you already are the type of guy who is doing his fair share preparing for the day. If that’s the case, make sure to get in on the tea, wine, or bubble bath when the day has come to an end….