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Emotional Labor: Lightening the Invisible Workload

Photo by  Murilo Folgosi  from  Pexels

Photo by Murilo Folgosi from Pexels

Picture this: It is late October, around 9:00 PM on a Wednesday evening. I’m sitting on the floor of my living room using my hot glue gun to carefully attach feathers to what would become my then 11-month old daughter’s Halloween costume*. She would turn one halfway through November, just two weeks before Thanksgiving, so I was also busy planning for her party. Quickly after Thanksgiving, Christmas would approach, and we’d need to figure out how to see my husband’s family in Alabama on top of juggling all of the family and friend gatherings we would attend and host locally. At work we had just wrapped up some large engagements and were busy preparing for our largest to date in the midst of all of the holiday “fun” (in addition to the day to day grind of running a small business.) At 11 months, my daughter was eating more and more “real” food, which meant I was tirelessly preparing healthy and varied foods to offer her each day and beginning the process of weaning her from breastfeeding, along with managing her schedule: who was watching her and when, who would take her to and from said babysitting, when her next doctor’s appointment was, and so on and so forth. 

My husband probably said something, asked me something, or even just coughed. And I exploded. “Do you not own a calendar? Do you not know that Halloween is coming? That Louise’s birthday is coming?  Have you thought about a single detail for her party? What about Thanksgiving? Have you thought, or would you ever think, about what dishes we will make? Where we are going to go? How it will work with nap schedules? Have you thought once about what our holiday schedule is going to look like, or when we are going to see your parents?”

Needless to say, he was in shock. He didn’t say much in response, which encouraged me to continue. I asked him, “Do you have any idea all of the things on my mind, constantly, every single day? How much logistical work goes into making this family unit run, even outside of birthdays and holidays? Do you know how much time I lose from being productive at my job, or engaged in important moments, because I am thinking about something else on my ‘to-do list’? Let me list out all of the things I am currently thinking about and managing…” And I did. I listed every single thing that came to mind, and it was an extremely long list. Had he realized all of this? I genuinely wanted to know. 

He hadn’t. He was sorry, of course, and wanted to support me, but he had no idea how. He simply had no idea the emotional weight I had been carrying, or the emotional labor I was doing each day to keep us going. 

Emotional Labor

My simplest description of emotional labor is to call it “invisible work”: The work that goes into managing households and relationships to make them run smoothly. It was first introduced and has been studied for many years as a workplace issue in sociology as the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. Of course the idea of managing feelings and expressions and fulfilling emotional requirements applies to the “jobs” we do at home as well, and the “invisible work” I described of managing households and relationships applies to the workplace. These two definitions complement and intertwine with one another and bleed into almost all aspects of life for many women. I can, of course, speak to emotional labor best from my personal worldview, which is that of a white, middle-class, heterosexual wife, mother, and business owner. Women of color, trans women, female immigrants, lesbian women, bisexual women, and impoverished women must navigate the complexities of marginalization (often several layers of it at once) along with their emotional labor. I cannot begin to understand the level of exhaustion that must bring. 

At the core of the concept of emotional labor is this: Women are expected to be caregivers. We are expected to be maternal, and to take care of others without complaint. Not only should we not complain, but we should enjoy the work. We should be good at the work. And, in my experience, we usually are. But how could we not be good at something that we have been societally conditioned to bear for as long as anyone can remember? Not just at home, but at the office, too. I love these words from Christine Hutchinson for the Huffington Post:

“We keep trying to fix this emotional labor problem with the same tools that built the shitty structure in the first place. Women continue to do the emotional work they are so good at, protecting men from feeling incompetent and inferior, or else exploding in frustration and becoming scathingly critical. Men, often not having language for their emotional experiences, shirk away from hard talks, and in some spaces, they mock women for wanting to have them. 

And we as a society continue to devalue emotional labor economically, and ignore the ways it is gendered. As anyone who has worked in customer service knows, the hardest part of the job is faking the smile, but female employees seem to have a higher standard of cheerfulness demanded of them.”

So, what can we do about it? 

Lighten The Invisible Load 

I am in no way an expert on the topic of emotional labor. I am not a sociologist, or a specialist of any kind. I am just a woman, in my early thirties, trying to keep my head above water as I pour myself into motherhood and my family while also trying to make my business flourish and maintain wonderful relationships. Like most women I know, I am always a few steps away from an emotional explosion from trying to do too much. I am also incredibly lucky in that I have found a spouse who is equally passionate in modeling gender equity on our household for our child, and who is as eager as I am to try to even the workload at home. Here are the strategies we have implemented so far to continue to combat this ever-pressing issue: 

  • Take stock, regularly. After the pre-Halloween emotional fireworks that I described at the beginning of this post, I told my husband that I could no longer keep a running list of everything necessary to manage our home in my head. These things needed to be put to paper, and they needed to be looked at and planned for regularly, together. That’s right, folks: A family meeting. Every week, we sit down with our favorite beer and an always growing Google Doc that our entire life lives on. We add categories, we keep to-do lists, we assign each other tasks (well, I assign him tasks– we’re working on it.) There is accountability and structure. If it sounds bland to you, I assure you, it isn’t! In fact, talking about all of the things that make your life tick can be exciting, and even fun. It is incredibly nice to know that things are being taken care of, and to make a plan out loud. 

  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Do we still fight about emotional labor, even after our precious Google Doc was created and we cracked our first family meeting beer open? Of course. But we also have given one another the tools to talk about it. We have the words ready to use when we need one another to step in, and to explain why.

These principles can be applied to any aspect of our life where we are performing the lion’s share of the emotional labor: at work, in family relationships with siblings (especially if caring for an aging parent has come into play), and in friendships. If you find yourself disproportionally burdened, create a venue to identify it and discuss it. Make changes to reduce your emotional load, one step at a time, and model that behavior for all of the men and women that you know.

“Invisible work” only stays invisible if we don’t shed light on it. 

I first read about emotional labor in this article. In times where I have been at a loss for words or when I need to remind others all that I am managing, I send Gemma Hartley’s honest and thoughtful piece.  I also love this comic.

*If you’re curious what that Halloween costume turned out to be.