Emotional labor is invisible labor. The unseen work that has to be done or else on a good day, things don’t work out, and on a bad day, people could get hurt or die. It’s’ the invisible effort/consideration surrounding every task. The way laundry doesn’t just involve washing, it’s having the right tools at the right time – making sure detergent has not run out, but also buying the right kind due to budget constraints, and even allergies!! However, because it’s unseen, it’s largely taken for granted. Such labor is part and parcel of any context – home or business. As a result, it should be expected that all adults in any of those contexts would be equally responsible for such labor to ensure things run smoothly. However, that is not usually the case, especially in the home. Such considerations are overwhelmingly left the responsibility of women, and they overlap significantly with the visible labor she already has to bear.
We were in the living room with a guest. Our 9 month old daughter was playing with crayons and I had to go attend to something, leaving the baby with my husband. As I walked back into the room, I overheard my husband’s guest point out to him that our daughter was about to put a crayon in her mouth. However, my husband casually glanced up and replied “I’m sure my wife checked if the crayons were toxic before buying them so they are probably safe”. He did not bother to get up to check himself, or stop the baby from putting the crayons in her mouth. Some might see that as a compliment from my husband; a testament to how competent and detail oriented he feels his wife is. What you fail to address though, is that it is also completely lazy and irresponsible parenting; emblematic of a relationship where the burden of emotional labor is one-sided.
The typical response to this is “Men are not mind readers. If you want your husband to do something, you should just ask”. But everyone knows that there is no foolproof way to ‘ask’ without getting your head bitten off so it’s unfair for this to be the default expectation. Contrary to popular belief, no woman wants to be a taskmaster. Emotional labor is knowing what needs to be done, and when it needs to be done; and women are trained to observe and anticipate needs to a fault. Hence it’s not an innate feminine skill, but one that can be learned by anyone. The smooth running of a hetero-normative household is dependent on the anticipation of needs by both parties, after all it belongs to them both. When someone goes above and beyond to make sure things can run smoothly; taking on the inconvenience on behalf of others, it is emotional labor. It takes a self awareness, presence, anticipation and consideration of everyone else, as well as an inconvenience-of-self to do this. On a normal day, it’s not a big deal. It’s for the greater good and you benefit too right? But when it’s consistently one sided, it can get real old, real fast.
Today, girls are being raised to be uber-competent superwomen because their parents consciously and subconsciously know that the oppressions against women are stacked and they want to give us the best chance at success…even if that ‘success’ means realization of marriage (but that’s another discussion for another day). As a result, we often have more and more competent and responsible girls/women in mis-matched heterosexual marriages because the men have not received the same fixation of training. The men bag a super-woman, a resourceful super-worker, home-maker, and value-bringer while the women bag… a super-man – very good at being a man, and very aware of his rights, but not much else. My husband’s words to his guest echoed the level of hyper-vigilance/responsibility expected of women in the home which is not equally placed on men. Women are somehow responsible even when their backs are turned and the man is on duty. If something goes wrong in her absence, she is still at fault. This often leads to a learned complacency that inevitably comes about when you expect someone else to always be the responsible one since they are just somehow better at so and so. In this case, the men never learn to do the task, and the default relegation of duties to the woman is reinforced.
One might say that the men bring the money to finance the household so this is the least the woman can do. However, that is increasingly untrue. Lots of women (myself included) contribute as much as, or more than their husbands to the family pot, yet are still also responsible for the bulk of the caring and emotional labor. Even when there are nannies or help, women are their primary managers and thus indirectly responsible. For instance, when my husband quit his job without discussion with me (or any concrete plans to take care of himself or his family), with debt, no savings and with our second baby on the way, I was now solely responsible for the finances, as well as managing and running the home because he did not take on any new responsibilities around the house. Thus, even as more financial responsibility shifts to the woman, the household tasks are not being commensurately picked up by the man. This forces her to find the extra bandwidth out of nowhere to ensure everyone is fine, even if it means giving up her health and her rest. Let’s not forget that the woman has to do additional emotional labor to make sure the man doesn’t feel that his title as “head of the home” is threatened. Yep! That’s also emotional labor. And in spite of such effort, she is always one wrong move away from being ‘taught a lesson’ in respect.
All of this is manipulative, irresponsible, and frankly, abusive. We are all complicit as long as we continue to accept that women are just naturally better at reading moods, running the house, buying gifts, or knowing when the children need new shoes. If we do not bother to raise our sons to at the very least, be more emotionally literate partners, who are equally responsible for care taking, we force our married daughters to over-exert themselves in super-inhumane ways till they burn out taking care of themselves and their children alone, whilst raising someone else’s adult child. And you know what, who am I kidding? Maybe that’s just how you like it.