Labor Pains – Ladies, You’re in Active Emotional Labor and You’re Not Doing You’re Breathing

I came across an article today put out by Harper’s Bazaar that put into words what I, and I believe many if not most women, have felt for years.

The article itself was written back in September of 2017, and I’m baffled as to why I hadn’t seen it circulated through my social media feed previously but, nevertheless, there it was today.

Based on the title alone, I was a bit skeptical. “Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up”. It was the subtitle that drew me in. “Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand.” Say what???

Emotional labor. What the hell is that? Well, the concept is a large one (but totally worth reading about if you’re one of those “what makes people do what they do” type of people) but the short version goes something like this: a cleaning person needs to be hired. “Bob” doesn’t see why this is a hard thing. “Mary” feels overwhelmed at even the thought of hiring someone. Why? Because the process of hiring a cleaning person goes beyond what Bob even considers. It involves:

    • seeking out recommendations
    • finding out what services those cleaners offer and if they match up to the needs
    • contacting each potential cleaner to discuss the scope of work and get an estimate
    • weighing that estimate against the budget allowed
    • choosing which cleaner to go with (and a backup or two)
    • determining when the work will be done (with a backup date/time or two)
    • calling the chosen cleaner to attempt to schedule the appointment
    • moving to plan B if the initial choice won’t work out

Getting the picture? You’re probably nodding your head in furious agreement. And, to Bob, he can’t understand why hiring a cleaner is such a chore. Why? Because he doesn’t operate with emotional labor as part of his every waking moment like many women do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a dig on men. I looooove men. I love my partner. But we live in a world where the idea of emotional labor, even when we can’t put a name to it, is, generally speaking, instilled in girls in a way that it isn’t in boys. And I think we often don’t even realize that it’s happening or that we’re even living it.

I came upon the article because an organization I follow posted a link to it. As much as I found the article super interesting, though, I found the comments to it fascinating. The responses said things like “My husband gets this; he cleans the bathroom” or “I don’t have to make him a list of what needs to be done”. Wasn’t that what the article was talking about, though?

That it’s not about who washes the dishes but the emotional labor we put out that, while washing the dishes, notices how much dish soap is left and gauges when more will need to be purchased. That cleans the built up gunk off the dish soap dispenser. That pays attention to that crack in the bowl and whether it still is usable. That notes that growing nick in the teflon of the frying pan and makes a mental note that it’s time to shop for a new one. That considers that Billy is taking a lunch tomorrow and is going to need that reusable container to put his carrots sticks in so I need to take it out of the dishwasher and wash it by hand so it can be packaged up tonight to save time in the morning (oh, and peel and cut up the carrots when I’m done with the dishes). And on and on and on.

It’s no different than being the office manager. Yes, everyone knows how to use a pencil and takes the initiative to use a pencil when it’s more advisable over a pen, but YOU’RE the one constantly watching the inventory of said pencils so that no one runs out. It’s not about “hurray, you used a pencil without being told”; it’s about “hurray, someone must’ve ordered another box of pencils without me having to do it”.

Still, though, there is a division of duty. I might be the one “in charge” of a household project but I need a partner(s) within the house that will willingly step up and say, “OK, what do you want me to be responsible for” instead of simply assuming I’ll take care of it or that I don’t need help if I haven’t asked for it.

And, look, I’m just as guilty as the next girl. I’ve raised 3 boys, and it’s only occurred to me in about the last 5 years that I seriously missed the boat on some things. Trying to relearn my own patterns and teach them new ones in the process. That’s what it’s all about, though, right? Learning and growing and attempting to flip the script when necessary.

In the process, it’s not lost on me that I’m probably the only one putting forth emotional labor to that end.

~ Karen

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