An invisible job is never done
Emotional labour, as I define it, is emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. It envelops many other terms associated with the type of care-based labour I described in my article: emotion work, the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labour, invisible labour. These terms, when separated, don’t acknowledge the very specific way these types of emotional labour intersect, compound, and, ultimately, frustrate. It is work that is mentally absorbing and exhausting, and emotional labour has repercussions that follow us into the world. Judith Shulevitz outlines the high cost of such work in her New York Times article on the emotional labour experienced by mothers. “Whether a woman loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path,” Shulevitz writes. “This distracting grind of apprehension and organization may be one of the least movable obstacles to women’s equality in the workplace.”
It takes time and effort to be the “designated worrier,” as Shulevitz calls it. Taking a strictly homebound example, maybe you orchestrate a system of organization to help everyone’s morning run smoothly —such as having a key hook on the wall. It takes “nagging” to get the key hook installed. It takes multiple tempered reminders to pick up the supplies from the hardware store, or else you add it to your to-do list and get it all yourself. It takes multiple tempered reminders that maybe this quick job could be done tonight, or tomorrow — all suggestions drawing on your knowledge of what other competing priorities are on the schedule. Then, no matter how many times you reiterate the convenience of hanging up the car keys, the keys are left elsewhere. Then you are the one who is asked, “Where are my keys?” You weigh whether to dole out the information or bring up the key hook. If you decide to do the latter, it becomes a fight in which you must always think one step ahead. You have to be careful with your words, careful with the way you voice your frustration. You have to regulate your emotions and manage your partner’s emotions at the same time. It’s exhausting, so often you choose to simply tell your partner where they left their keys. It saves you both time and grief.
Except it doesn’t, because this compounded emotional labour becomes the norm across so many seemingly minor issues. Your life becomes, in time, an intricately woven web that only you can navigate. You must guide everyone else along the careful system of silken strands so they don’t get stuck or fall. It’s noticing when you’re running low on toothpaste or changing the roll of toilet paper when you use up the last bit. It’s being expected to plan the after-work happy hour for your co-workers. It’s keeping mental lists and knowing what needs to be done. It’s noticing and acknowledging other people’s emotions while restraining your own. It’s keeping things running and doing so with great care. It takes a great deal of time and energy to perform this type of labour — and it is never fully shut off in our brains. And it costs us dearly, using up untold reservoirs of mental capacity that we could be using in ways that serve us, our careers, our lives and happiness. It made sense to group these formerly disparate terms under one umbrella, because they are deeply connected. Emotional labour means caring not only about the outcome but about the people affected by our emotions, words, and actions — even when doing so comes at our own personal expense.
Women are, in many unpaid ways, expected to keep those around us comfortable at all costs — including the cost of self. We create an altruistic persona, allowing ourselves to be subsumed by the needs of others. We become the listening ear, the sage advice giver, the trip planner, the schedule manager, the housecleaner, the reminder, the invisible cushion that everyone can comfortably land on — with little regard for how it depletes us. When we perform emotional labour, we put the needs of those around us ahead of our own needs. The way we exist in the world becomes, in many ways, invisible. We bury or morph our emotions to cater to those around us — to keep the peace with our husband, to stop our kids from throwing tantrums, to avoid a fight with our mother, to stop street harassment from turning into assault.
Managing other people’s emotions and expectations means jumping through hoops to be heard, using up precious time you could be harnessing in more productive ways. You have to make sure your responses are carefully thought out with the other person’s emotions in mind. You have to ask in the right tone when you need to delegate work. You have to use restraint and be agreeable in uncomfortable situations. Putting yourself in the most advantageous position means thinking of how the other person is going to react. Don’t deliver your work along with a side of charm and meekness? You may be labelled negatively, hurting your chances for career advancement. Don’t smile and keep your mouth shut while a man yells lewd comments at you on the sidewalk? You may be followed, attacked, or worse.
There is a high price to pay for not playing to the established power dynamic through both our words and our actions. As Sheryl Sandberg describes in her book, women often hedge their statements in the professional setting for fear of labelling. “Fear of not being considered a team player. Fear of seeming negative or nagging. Fear that constructive criticism will come across as plain old criticism. Fear that by speaking up, we will call attention to ourselves, which might open us up to attack (a fear brought to us by that same voice in the back of our heads that urges us not to sit at the table).” We do the same sort of hedging at home to get the “help” we so desperately need without a fight. It’s constant and exhausting work that is largely invisible.
Arlie Russel Hochschild talked about how flight attendants were tasked with creating a warm atmosphere of home during flights, and what that manufactured feeling cost them when they clocked out. They were emotionally depleted and found it hard to transition between their work personae and their true selves. They struggled to find authenticity within themselves, perhaps because their emotional labour wasn’t strictly confined to the service sector. As women, we are tasked with creating that same warmth in all areas of our lives. We do it not only at work but also at home and out in the world, with our friends and family, with co-workers and strangers. Women are fed up because we’ve realized we can’t clock out. Emotional labour is expected from us no matter where we turn. We are fed up with the ongoing demand to be the primary providers of emotional labour in all arenas of life because it is taxing, it is time consuming, and it is holding us back.
We fill our mental space with the minutiae of household details and use our time disproportionately for the benefit of others. We perform emotional labour to advance our careers in a way men are simply not required to do, from self-policing our tone to being a sounding board for the ideas of others. We must carefully weigh the risks of how we interact with strange men in public to ensure our safety. All these types of required emotional labour are symptoms of a larger systemic inequality that actively harms women, especially women with less privilege. As Hochschild puts it, the way men and women interact in terms of emotion work is “a common mask for inequality in what is presumed to be owing between people, both in display and in the deep acts that sustain it.” Women always owe emotional labour in society, endlessly indebted to whomever needs us. And we will continue on in deficit until both men and women rewire their expectations about who should do this work and what it is truly worth.
From Fed Up by Gemma Hartley (c) 2018. Published by HarperOne. All rights reserved.
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