Labor of Love

“Boyfriends are basically a part-time, unpaid job,” is a line that I will pull out regularly to assuage the anxieties of others when confronted with the reality of my fifth consecutive year of singledom. This line works relatively well with the older generations: my parents, my grandparents, the parents of friends. It also says quite a lot about gender dynamics, that it is met with polite laughs but rarely any rebuttals. I am not a particularly funny person, but the best humor is rooted in truth.

A portion of this joke points to the neverending, uncompensated labor of performing femininity; a rather time-consuming cycle of preening and primping oneself into an unnatural (in my opinion) version of oneself. This labor is often disguised as “fun” – an idea I wholeheartedly bought into in my pre-college years. As a child, I took joy in ransacking my mother’s closet, teetering in high heels, trying on sequined dresses, smearing expensive makeup onto my prepubescent face (I would apologize to my mother for ruining her cosmetics, except I am under the impression due to her nostalgic tones that she greatly enjoyed these antics). As a teenager I would spend hours in front of a mirror, holding up a Cosmopolitan magazine and attempting to master – and still have yet to accomplish – the “smokey-eye”. When my older sister made an ill-timed joke about my eyebrows, this insecurity blossomed into the unfortunate habit of holing up in my room with a magnifying mirror and a pair of tweezers, and going after hairs with such veracity that I routinely drew blood. When my mother was bleaching her facial hairs with Sally Hansen’s or Nairs, and offered to do my arm hairs as well, the initial realization that my arm hairs were something to be embarrassed about – an idea that had never occured to me before that point in time – was immediately internalized without question, and set off years of bleaching, plucking, shaving, and crying in secret.

A trip to Sephora with my friends to blow literally hundreds of dollars of (relatively) hard-earned barista money on creams, lipsticks, and lotions was considered leisure. Hours of shaving, lotioning, makeup-ing, and hair-taming preceded every school dance (we called them “socials”) I attended, with the silent hope that a boy might ask me to slow-dance (needless to say, middle school boys are not particularly adept at asking anybody to dance and I should not have taken the absence of invitations personally at the time, but of course I did). Sleepovers were basically makeup-doing parties, followed by “photoshoots” in which we attempted to contort our faces and bodies into the same postures we observed grown women so effortlessly perform on magazine covers (we were rather unaware of the prevalence of photoshop at the time). This was my version of “fun” growing up.

As I grew older and more cognizant of the ways society pressures women into wasting their time, money, and energy on molding ourselves into something worthy of male approval, I began to resent that idea that a woman’s face or body was inherently “incomplete” without this labor.

When I finally got a job that did not afford me extra tips for looking attractive to older men, I gradually began to adapt to and relish the fact that my paycheck – a literal, monetary evaluation of my worth as a person – was not tied to my appearance. The makeup stopped, as did the hair removal, as did the uncomfortable clothing.  Viola! All of the sudden, I had a wealth of time and money seemingly from nowhere.

Many people will probably say that it is no coincidence that the moment I stopped performing femininity, the exact period of time in which I shrugged off the pressures of pleasing the eyes of men, is when I stopped having luck with them. The time, the labor, the expense of pursuing beauty as defined by a patriarchal society is part-one of my joke, “boyfriends are like a part-time, unpaid job”.

Part two applies to the actual effort of wooing and dating them. For the record, if I am going on a date (increasingly rare, but it’s been known to happen) I still reluctantly smudge on some eyeliner or other various cosmetics as to not look sickly – a common phenomenon of perception, due to how unusual a woman’s bare face looks in comparison to what people are used to seeing (“You look tired. Are you hungover? Are you coming down with something?” “No, this is just my face.”).

Aziz Ansari joked that modern-day dating is like being a thankless secretary for the flakiest clients in the world, and once again, humor is funniest when it’s true. While secretaries are adequately compensated for their time contacting, schmoozing, scheduling, and inevitability politely rescheduling when the apparently not-so-interested party fails to show up, single women attempting to date are not. Also, there is no company card to which I can expense these drinks & dinners. After over 15 failed attempts at romance (you can read my short stories about them here, if you are so inclined), all of which required hours of agonizing over text messages (never phone calls), traveling to various bars, restaurants, movie theaters, or other public places when I would rather be sitting in my pajamas at home, nodding along politely to some dude’s pontificating, and generally attempting to seem like a pleasant, un-intimidating woman (this, for me, requires quite a lot of effort), I have little to show for it.

While dating is not quite as simple as flipping a coin, to go on a date is to experience one of two outcomes: you like each other, you continue dating, you enter a relationship (let’s call this “heads”), or the person you meet doesn’t work out for various reasons, in various time frames, and you go your separate ways (let’s call this “tails”). Taking the coin-flip example and applying it to the past five years, my friend Jasmine is particularly lucky. She exited a relationship, liked somebody new, went on a few dates with the guy, and they entered a happy, mutually respectful new relationship – a probability of 0.5, also known as one-half, also known as 50%. My coworker Bree managed to get married, get divorced, date three people, the last one of which worked out and is now in a new relationship – a probability of 0.125, also known as one-eighth, also known as 12.5%. I seem to have defied all odds by flipping tails 15 times in a row, a probability of 0.00003052, also known as I don’t know how to translate that many decimal points into something you can understand, other than saying it is really really really incredibly unlikely, unlucky, and/or I should probably not contribute my dismal success rate to luck.

Economically speaking, investing this much effort, money, and depriving oneself of valuable pajama-time when the probability of any meaningful sort of return is now less than 0.00003052 is quite simply: a shitty investment. To say that I should go on yet another date, since the odds of flipping tails again would be 0.00001525878 would be to succumb to the gambler’s fallacy. Also, I don’t know if my heart can take any more rejection.

Part three of the joke is the part with a generational divide: Does being in a heterosexual relationship with a man create more work for the woman? For quite literally the entire history of humankind, that answer has been a resounding YES.

Before women began to achieve the rights to work, own property, establish bank accounts, and divorce in the 1950s, traditional hetero relationships were, in essence, an economic trade-off in which the woman provides domestic labor in exchange for a place to live outside of her parent’s home (although depending on the parents and the husband, this could either be a vast improvement of her situation, a rather neutral switch, or a massive downgrade), and relative financial security. While this tit-for-tat arrangement seems fair on the surface, if we take the time to tally up the price tag of having a full-time, live-in housekeeper, cook, chauffeur, childcare worker, and sex-provider, most men would actually not be able to afford all of the amenities a wife provides without the societal norms which has otherwise convinced us that this exchange is economically equal.

After the 1950s, when women achieved the right to work outside of the home and provide her own income, we gained independence from the necessity of pairing off with whatever decent man presented himself first, in essence, making domestic relationships slightly more optional and allowing us to be slightly more picky. However, the ability to work outside the home and earn one’s own money did not magically make the drudgery of keeping a household functioning disappear. Rather, women began to perform two jobs instead of one: a job outside the home in which she is compensated with less money than her male counterparts, and the same job within the home of making sure everybody and everything is cleaned, fed, and nurtured.

Fortunately, I happen to live in a time where women have never had more independence: with basic human rights, with education, with the ability to create financial stability for oneself, with the institution of marriage, with reproductive rights. Not only do I live in a time when women have not only choices, but quite often good choices, we have also started to see more equality in the division of labor at home.

While our widower grandfathers are left eating peanut-butter sandwiches after their wives pass, or hastily enter new relationships with women who can resume the domestic duties that they are stymied by such as laundry, cooking, and vacuuming, the men of my parents’, and my generation are thoroughly practiced in the fine art of household chores. This, however, is not to say that the division of labor in a dual-income household has reached a perfect, 50/50 split, but any progress is good progress.

It is in this imperfect yet still historically golden-era of being a woman that I am privileged to live in: one where I am free to divorce a husband who beats me, work outside the home for 87 cents to every man’s dollar, and yes, date men while maintaining reproductive control of my body (as long as I continue to reside in Washington State). And so, while part three of my joke, “having a boyfriend is like an part-time, unpaid job” rings true to the older folk who periodically inquire as to my relationship status with the subtext of “what is wrong with you, that you haven’t found a suitor yet?”, this line does not work quite as well among my peers, who are currently enjoying mutually loving, supportive relationships in which the division of labor is more or less equal.

Truth be told, while the process of finding love, and then maintaining it, is quite a lot of work, I often find myself enviously fixating on all the benefits my paired-off friends receive from each other and seem to be blissfully unaware. Take, for example, the economy of scale. When I needed to buy a bed, I footed 100% of the cost. One bed, one person, one income. When my coupled friends buy a bed, they not only get to split the cost of the bed, they split it between two incomes: each person paying half the price with double the earning power.

Or, for example, the sharing of responsibilities. I have 168 hours in a week, 40 of which are devoted to work (40 in theory, more like 50 or 60 in practice, especially if we count the time spent in commute to a job as part of the job), 40 of which are (hopefully) spent sleeping, leaving about 66-86 hours of free time to spend on the fulfillment of responsibilities and leisure. See: the couple who have a combined 132-172 hours of free time in which when one person is walking the dog, the other is grocery shopping.When one person is taking the car to Jiffy Lube, the other is doing taxes. When one person has cooked dinner, the other cleans up. Other than the tax breaks that people receive for getting married – as if they needed any more of a break – nothing makes me more jealous of the benefits of coupling than the division of labor, and thus, the extra free time one is afforded as a result. I can always make more money, but I can never get back time.

Which brings me to my fourth and last point about the labor of love: putting up with bullshit. A particular form of work that I find uniquely unpalatable and entirely unreasonable yet – according to my successfully paired-off friends – absolutely crucial. Learning to let bullshit slide is a skill I have yet to master, and one that I quite honestly have no desire to do so. While my friends deal with dates showing up 45 minutes late – or not at all – by graciously rescheduling, I respond with “Fuck you, I’m leaving, don’t contact me again”. My inability to deal with bullshit, more than any of the other types of work I am reluctant to execute in the pursuit of love – from performing femininity to the logistics of dating to the maintenance of a relationship – is likely the biggest reason I continue to be a fish in the ocean, rather than a juicy catch.

And so I find myself in a rather interesting place: one in which I do not actually wish to perform the extensive amount of labor involved in finding a supportive, loving partner, but deeply desire to be in a relationship not just for the economic benefits (although they are, as I just outlined, rather large), but also for the basic things such as having a go-to person when you want to see a movie, have brunch, vent about your day, or simply cuddle without having to hire a prostitute or fly to Japan for human touch.

While I have, obviously, reflected extensively about the reasons I continue to be single despite the fact that I am relatively well-adjusted, educated, employed, and without STDs, the nagging feeling that although love requires labor, other people haven’t had to work this hard at it, continues to plague me. When Jasmine left one great relationship, only to immediately enter another lovely one, I couldn’t help but bemoan to a different friend, “She didn’t even have to try.”

So what is a truly “fair” amount of labor to put into the pursuit of love, as a woman in the 21st century? Is the reality that I am single as a result of my own laziness? That due to my stubborness and unwillingness to rip out my pubic hairs with hot wax, engage in the delicate psychology of text messaging, or be repeatedly stood up by men who do not seem capable of maintaining a Google Calendar, I am destined to forever be the 5th or 7th or 9th wheel at my own birthday parties?

I don’t know the answer to these questions (if I did, then I wouldn’t be here writing a 2500 word essay about it), but one thing I am quite sure of is this: the amount of time, effort, and money that seems to be required to find love continues to be an entrance fee I am not willing to pay for the shitty singles club that is dating in Seattle. I started writing this because nothing makes you feel more single than trying to apply sunblock to one’s own back while on vacation in Mexico, and the nice couple that I met here assured me that when you find the right person, it’s easy, not laborious. So instead of working hard to become beautiful, pliable, and agreeable for the wrong person, I will keep on being hairy, lazy and uncompromising in my refusal to put up with bullshit until the right one comes along and shows me how easy it can actually be.


2 thoughts on “Labor of Love

  1. You lay all this out really beautifully here. I think about this myself because [having lots of sex and long-term connection] and [spending none of my precious time performing femininity] are equally core needs/values for me. But my communities are queer and poly, so I have a natural pool of guys who are more aware than average of gender dynamics & emotional labor, and who don’t care about makeup, shaving, etc. when there are much more interesting / much sexier qualities to care about in a woman. It’s harder to find straight monogamous guys with these attitudes, but some communities in the U.S. where I’ve noticed them include: artists and creative writers, activist communities (which can come with their own annoyances, but there are good guys in there too), and people interested in mindfulness and simplicity movements.

  2. Hey, I really liked your post.

    Just wanted to tell you to hold in there. Just over 2 years ago, I was in a similar dilemma. I had been on countless of online dates that did not work. I had never been in a real relationship (23 years old at the time), and I had been in a mindset that I was going to be single forever and that that was okay because most men suck anyways… Then one day, I met Fernando while at salsa dancing classes, something i loved doing. I asked him to go find food with me after class because I was hungry and he seemed nice. Turns out, we had so many common interests that after we met, we just kept finding things to do together, and then after the third date (which I wasn’t sure was a date or if we were just going to be friends because we were both planning on moving away after the summer)… after the third date, we kissed. Fast forward to 3 months of knowing one another, we made a big leap and decided to try to move to Alberta together instead of ending our relationship at the end of the summer like we were supposed to do. In the end a month before the big move date, he found a job in Edmonton instead of returning to Brazil and I continued with my plan to move to Calgary. After 2 months of living 3 hours apart, I moved to Edmonton to be closer to him. Now, 2 years later we’ve moved in together, Fernando has his canadian permanent residence card, we just bought a house together, have a cat together, and (most importantly) I don’t even feel the need to dress up or wear makeup around him lol… life is easy.

    Even though it may seem that we had to work very hard stay together… we didn’t. Deciding to stay together was a big decision and scary, but just being together was very easy, we got along well, never tired of each others company, never tried to change one another, we both remained true to ourselves, and we did not struggle to find time together.

    I strongly believe that when you find the right person, you will never need to change who you are or try too hard to make it work. Because the right person won’t be flakey and won’t let superficial reasons stand in the way of love. We had to decide to try to make it work very early on in our relationship and we left a lot of it up to fate (if fernando can find a job near calgary before the end of summer we will stay together, if we can make our relationship work long distance for a while (3 hours apart) we will stay together, if Fernando can become a permanent resident…) but somehow it all worked out.

    All this to say, that I know that one day luck will be on your side as well, and you will find someone. You just need to remain authentic, open, and patient. I’m not religious in any way, but I do believe that true love always finds a way.



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