Emotional Labor

Emotional Labor

A while ago a friend sent me a link to a forum of women discussing and sharing thoughts about emotional labor. I clicked and within a few seconds of scanning the table of contents I almost lost it. My heart raced, I got hot, my head felt like it would explode and I said to Bruce, who was standing right there, “Omg, I can’t even read this, I’m so angry I’m going to break something.”
I love Bruce, because he said the right best thing, instantly. “It’s ok Doob, I’ll read it, you don’t have to – I’ll read it for both of us.” And he did, and absorbed it and has taken measure of the emotional labor of our life together, and committed to it, accepting responsibility for a more fair share.
But it wasn’t really news to him. Why I had gotten so upset in that moment is that I had been noticing incrementally, and complaining – ok, bitching – about it for twenty years. To some acknowledgement, but little avail or relief.

Emotional labor is all the work of the world that is done to make things nice and bright and safe and tolerable for others, to enhance and create positive, beneficial experiences for others, to care for others. For a spouse, a family, a neighborhood, a world. It is social conscientiousness.

Like ….
Making sure a delicious and nutritious dinner is on the table, served at the right time for others’ needs and convenience, invitingly, generously, communally. Which means:
making a menu, making a grocery list, shopping, coordinating, cooking to a clock (and so planning, mise-en-place, multi-tasking), setting the table, serving the meal, clearing the table, cleaning the counters, washing the pots and pans, drying the pots and pans, putting away the pots and pans, loading the dishwasher, unloading the dishwasher …  so you can start all over the next day
Helping neighbors
Listening to the woes of others, and consoling them, advising them, guiding them
Making coffee at the office, or baking for your workmates
Decorating for the holidays
Managing money
Sharing the joy of others, in good faith
Remembrances of all kinds
Planning, making schedules for a household
+ tidying
+ cleaning
+ laundry
etc., etc., etc. …..

Some of this work is physical, some mental, but underlying all of it is the impetus or purpose of maintaining the emotional equilibrium of any association of individuals.
It is hidden labor, and unpaid, and therefore/thereby unvalued – and so, most always the work of women and girl children. By this I mean: if women do it, it doesn’t register or count. If women do it, it has no monetary value. If women do it, it’s not worth anything.

Twenty tears ago I made my first objection. I was exhausted. I was working seventy hours a week, including a long commute and evening work at home. Bruce was working thirty-seven and a half hours a week, with an eight minute commute. I wrote down a list of all the chores/tasks/labors of keeping our life on a smooth track, and the time it took to do them. It summed to thirty five hours a week, and I had it, irrefutably, on paper. When faced with the undeniable actuality of entrenched, endorsed inequity, Bruce said, “I know what you’re saying is right, but I just can’t agree with it right now.”  !
I laughed then, and it still makes me smile to remember, simply because, I had been heard.

We made adjustments. I was easier in my daily routines, but eventually we came to the realization that two salaries were not worth the cost of our unpaid work and what it kept us from. Emotional labor evenly divided was a taxing burden on us both, and left little time for recreation, relaxation, people. I was unhappy in my work, too, wanting to do more creative labor in design and art. So I quit my job and claimed a lot of the business of our life as a part-time job. My pay was the time needed [wanted] in studio. I was interested and happy to do financial work – budgets, bills, and investing – and I enjoyed cooking and found groceries a not unpleasant leisurely chore in my expanded time. We each did our own laundry, and other tasks we divided by interest – Bruce renovated and I gardened. He walked the dogs, I fed the birds. A lot still fell to me, but it seemed a balance, and I had time to create. Our decision was made possible by having no children, and also by the cultural frame we were in. We are the last generation able to live well on one (middle-class) salary. I’m not sure this option is open to younger people anymore, especially millennials, who are burning out even without families.

Such a balanced distribution of emotional labor within families is crucially important for every member’s well-being, in the present and for every future, but I’ve come to realize a balanced sharing within communities is just as important. I became quietly aware when we were last in Kentucky, for Katie’s funeral.

We were so very sad over the loss of our friend, and worried too about her family and the trials they faced. And yet … we were buoyed up by a mysterious, unnameable energy. Friends and family supported each other, of course, but there was more. The whole community held us in our grief, by an everyday, usual, genuine, well-wishing consideration. It is a cultural given there, that you are nice to everyone, including strangers; really, there are no strangers, because all belong, all are part of the human family, all deserve respect and kindness. It is the fabric of society. Every gesture is welcoming, and so comforting. We floated through our trial, not quite understanding what carried us, what sustained us, until we were home.

I realized too, that I am a different person there in Lexington, in response to the ether, having drunk the water. I take my time, and speak truly and authentically to each person I encounter in the course of a day, no matter how randomly. Grocery clerks, wait staff, people and their pets, other people’s children, skate-boarders, other shoppers. It is returned, thrice-fold. At a restaurant on a football night, among a throng of patient people expecting a long wait, I spied a small corner space on a bench. I said to the man next to it, “I’ll squeeze in here, if you don’t mind.” “Set raht down, darlin’,” he said, “Ah don’t baht.” Everyone smiled, and I sat, welcomed, comfortable, one of the family. You may think this trivial, but it is not a small thing. Life is easier there, for just this reason.

My hometown in the Northeast fails me in this way. There is no communal responsibility for well-being, no reaching out – no one does even small, easy, token emotional labors on behalf of others. And life is harder here, for just this reason. But I bring a little of Kentucky back with me from every visit, and share it. With grocery clerks, wait staff, people and their pets, other people’s children, skate-boarders, other shoppers … It is often appreciated and sometimes returned, a hopeful sign that people here are able to extend themselves on behalf of others, knowing that it works, mysteriously, for the good of the whole.


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