I complained to my husband about taking our son to the dentist and fluffed it. This hadn’t been a particularly traumatic trip. In fact, it was routine at worst. My three-year-old bounced up onto the chair and bared his teeth like a lion. He jumped at the opportunity to wear protective glasses, pronounced them ‘cool’ and sat (mostly) still throughout the check-up.
But the complaint I made at home wasn’t about the dentist, or even that I had been the one to take my son to the dentist. It was more nuanced. I was frustrated at being the one responsible for remembering to go in the first place. I was frustrated that while my partner and I are equal on the doing of parenting and household administration and upkeep, I seem to be mostly responsible for its management.
My husband was understandably confused. He generally shoulders more of the parenting burden, so protested that he’d be happy to take Rafi to the dentist next time. “It’s not about that,” I responded while explaining the hassle of finding a suitable time, of calling when the clinic doesn’t take online appointments. Next, he offered to make the appointment next time around. “It’s not about the making of the appointment”, I huffed. “Well, what is it about?” came his now rather grumpy reply.
And I couldn’t come up with an answer.
Emotional labour is a complex idea. It’s come to encompass a bunch of different things that women tend to do more of but that aren’t quite deserving of the title. As a result, the term has transformed into another unguided missile in the culture wars. A weapon to be hurled across a news desk between angry commentators. The best definition I’ve come across is that of Gemma Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. She describes emotional labour as “emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy”.
“Getting most men to understand and genuinely appreciate emotional labour is often a Sisyphean task, precisely because to them—much like microaggressions to white people—this work is invisible. If you don’t do it, or feel pressured to do it, why should you care?”
You’ll hear people describe emotional labour as having to make a gluten-free birthday cake because 5-year-old party guest Tommy is allergic. Or buying a card to send Aunt Patricia who is in hospital after a knee replacement. Emotional labour is how some will label the task of making dad an appointment to see the GP because he won’t do it himself. Or always being the one to do the grocery shopping for the family at the weekend.
Each of these applications of the term is close but not quite right. There are some small but important distinctions between administration and emotional labour. Let’s take the examples above again. The emotional part of the labour isn’t making a cake but being the parent who it is assumed will remember that a guest only eats gluten-free. This isn’t about the act of buying a card but of experiencing the concern, of wanting to show care for Aunt Patricia and thinking of what kind words to write.
Similarly, booking an appointment isn’t emotional labour but convincing dad he needs to take his health seriously is. Grocery shopping isn’t emotional labour just because women tend to do it. However mentally keeping track of what ingredients are in the pantry and that cake mix needs to be purchased so goodies can be made for the Cancer Council Morning Tea at someone’s office, is. And women are the ones that tend to be charged – whether because they choose to or simply because nobody else would pick up the slack – with that.
Writer Leah Fessler says women find it difficult to communicate, particularly with male partners, about emotional labour because it’s generally unseen. Emotional labour is conducted not in the physical world but in the psychological realm. It’s happening in women’s heads and yes, men rarely notice it. “Getting most men to understand and genuinely appreciate emotional labour is often a Sisyphean task, precisely because to them—much like microaggressions to white people—this work is invisible,” Fessler writes. “If you don’t do it, or feel pressured to do it, why should you care?”
There is, of course, a fine – and fuzzy – line between emotional labour and perfectionism. Organising and running an engagement party absolutely involves a significant amount of emotional labour. However, someone who puts extreme pressure on themselves to deliver a Pinterest worthy extravaganza, involving 100 hours of (wo)man-power and near-breakdown levels of worry, is likely being motivated by something above and beyond standard gendered expectations around emotional labour.
Getting men to recognise a kind of labour that is usually not expected of them can be complex when that labour is done. Yet it’s always noticeable when the work doesn’t get done. The blame, in these circumstances, is swift and fast. It’s also, almost always, borne by women. Here’s an example. On one occasion when I was interstate working on the weekend, my husband was taking our son to a birthday party. I organised the present and card because I knew if I didn’t there would be no present and card. Even in my absence from the party, the social blame would lie at my feet for my kid showing up sans present. My husband would never be expected to have sorted that out.
While impossible to truly quantify, studies suggest that women do around 2.6 times the emotional labour of men. While this is absolutely something men engage in as well, the expectations women have of themselves and each other – and that society has of women – are far greater. Academic attempts to quantify emotional labour illustrate how fraught the concept is but are also questionable in themselves. Is seeking to put a number on emotional labour actually a cost-benefit analysis of being a decent person?
I don’t think so. In the same way women have been expected to shoulder the burden of unpaid work around the house for eternity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t work. Emotional labour is a form of labour, even if it’s tied up with the to-and-fro of ordinary human relations. Even if it’s something we all agree shouldn’t attract financial compensation. It is still work. There’s a reason they say that a woman’s work is never done. Indeed, in the case of emotional labour we could expand that particular truism to say that a woman’s work is rarely noticed either.
Boys are raised to exit the field in highly emotional conversations whereas girls are expected to lean into them, to make people feel included and cared for.
It’s important to remember that you can love your emotional labour the same way you can love paid labour. I know there are many occasions that I do. I enjoy having people to my home for a BBQ lunch or dinner and drinks. That will likely involve a degree of emotional labour to ensure everyone feels comfortable, is introduced to the rest of the group and doesn’t experience that awful, lonely, rejected feeling of not being quite ‘in’ a conversation. My husband will likely do some of this too however he’ll be more focused on the pool being clean and the chlorine levels right, or the meat being grilled within an inch of its life. Also, important – but definitely a different kind of – work.
Part of the problem of emotional labour being invisible is that it leads to untrue and unfair assumptions about the associated skill, or desire. There’s the old “women are just better at this stuff” myth. Boys are raised to exit the field in highly emotional conversations whereas girls are expected to lean into them, to make people feel included and cared for. This is problematic for both genders with adult women shouldering more than their fair share of emotional labour and men being socialised to suppress healthy and necessary emotions.
It can be hard to talk about emotional labour with men because you’re genuinely explaining a concept that mostly doesn’t exist for them. Just like my husband struggles to make me properly understand why he can’t embrace my dad following a scary touch-and-go moment in a recent surgery I had. It’s an emotional state of being that is inconceivable when you’ve been influenced your entire life not to experience it. This doesn’t mean however that men should be let off the hook. Emotional labour should be the responsibility of all human beings and at the moment we socialise women and girls to do the bulk of it.
So, what’s the solution to the invisibility of emotional labour? Well, that’s not really the problem that needs solving. That emotional labour is unseen is simply the nature of the work. What needs to change is who is expected to upskill in this area as a child and complete the work as an adult. Right now, we still raise our girls to be proficient and active in performing emotional labour, leaving them frustrated and exhausted as adults. Whereas boys are left without instruction as children, meaning they may be confused and emotionally limited as adults. As per usual ,when it comes to the gendered division of labour, we’d all be better off if it were shared more equally.
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