First coined by the professor, Arlie Russell Hochschild, emotional labor refers to the work of managing personal feelings in a professional context. Today, the term has taken on many definitions. The concept boils down to this: emotional labor is the duties and expectations you do to maintain homeostasis that largely goes unnoticed and unacknowledged.
Emotional labor tends to be invisible, and therefore, unremarkable. It includes all the expectations from writing thank-you cards to mediating conflicts between family members to planning the Thanksgiving dinner to noticing which of your children needs a hug. Women tend to take on the bulk of this work, and most men (and sometimes other women) tend to disregard, downplay, or downright ignore its impact on one’s well-being.
As our notions of feminism evolve, the relationship between emotional labor and women continue to change as well. But one thing remains continuously problematic. Despite societal advances and despite our advocacy and pushing for sex equality, women are carrying much of the bulk of this labor, and we aren’t talking about it.
Emotional Labor And Women: The Covert Expectations
In the past, women often ran the households while husbands worked outside the home. This dynamic no longer proves to be true. More and more women work full-time than ever before - although they are still making, on average, only about 80 cents per every male dollar.
That said, just because women are clocking in their 40+ hours, their household expectations haven’t necessarily shifted. Many women today work the “double shift” at home - meaning they engage in a full day of paid work responsibilities and a full night of household and parenting duties.
Emotional labor is mainly entrenched in gender expectations of what it means to be female. Emotional labor is not the same as domestic labor. Domestic labor includes things like cleaning, making dinner and doing the laundry (yes women do the lion's share of this work too!) Emotional labor is really all about the unpaid, invisible work done to keep those around women comfortable and happy. There are many types of emotional labor expectations that women face. Some of the common expectations include:
Needing to “put on a happy face” at all times
Needing to manage and “control” emotions in the workplace or home
Justifying any decisions related to the body (wearing makeup, eating a donut, shaving your legs)
Planning and organizing household events, celebrations, and parties
Putting up with disrespectful behavior from men
Keeping the peace within the household or family
Watching, keeping track of and responding to emotional and social cues from family and friends
Justifying or explaining certain sexual preferences or behaviors
It goes without saying that emotional labor tends to be exhaustive. Women often feel a need to wear many hats at one time. They need to act as a working professional- but they also need to be a therapist, beauty queen, perfect caretaker, sexual goddess, and an all-around superstar.
Many times, women don’t even notice the pressure they face on a daily basis. It just seems “normal.” Often, they grew up watching their own mothers roll with the same expectations. Likewise, they tend to be around other females facing the same, treacherous grind.
How Can Women Feel Less Pressure?
This is a simple question with a complicated answer. On some level, societal change can and should happen. Many women face ongoing sexism and oppression every day. These factors can make it impossible for women to feel safe and confident in changing the status quo.
However, in heterosexual relationships, men and women can work together to shift the burden of emotional labor. The first step is identifying the dynamic. You may be surprised by this identification process. Emotional labor rarely seems obvious, especially if both partners have been “playing their part” since the beginning.
Writing down a list of all your emotional labor tasks can be one productive strategy. Seeing it on paper can help shed light on yourself (and your partner) the weight of your expectations. From there, the two of you can discuss delegation and prioritization. For example, can your husband plan the next family barbecue? Is he willing to take the next sick day if your daughter comes home with a cold?
If you’re not in a relationship, you still likely take on immense emotional labor pressure. You are allowed to assess and analyze your expectations. What’s most important to you? What burden can you release yourself from doing? What would change if you chose to say no more often?
Many women fear rejection and criticism. These fears are reasonable. However, it is crucial to consider taking a step back and looking at the big picture. Do you want to surround yourself with people who expect you to shoulder the world’s problems? Do you want to risk burnout, emotional exhaustion, and depression and anxiety to cater to these (potentially outdated) expectations?
The expectations of emotional labor and women continue to be insidious. We often don’t realize them, and most of us play our roles without questioning them. Yet, most of us feel tired. Most of us lack time to take care of ourselves.
As women, we’re allowed to step up. We’re allowed to take a stand. If you’re feeling dread, resentment, and apathy towards your life, the pressure may be crippling you. Want to talk about it? I’m here for you.