If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already aware of some suitcases labelled ‘emotional things’ dumped at your feet. Maybe the role of an unpaid maid is draining you. Or perhaps the title intrigues you. Eagly (2009) defines gender roles as ‘society’s shared beliefs that apply to individuals on the basis of their socially identified sex’. Eagly and Mladinic (1989) divide gender attributes as follows. Men are competent, assertive, independent, masterful, and achievement-orientated, while women are generally thought to be communal: friendly, warm, unselfish, sociable, interdependent, emotionally expressive and relationship-orientated. Men are perceived as inferior in communal qualities.
Firstly, let’s address a branch of gender expectations. Emotional labour.
Emotional Labour – That’s a Thing?
Yes, it most certainly is a thing. This isn’t the first time emotional labour has surfaced on the internet; the subject is beginning to gain more attention.
For those unaware of the term, emotional labour is suppressing your emotions or regulating them according to someone else’s standards.
I can imagine some might protest, “But that’s not a woman thing, men also do this.”
Yes, and no.
This term doesn’t just apply to the working world: it pervades the domestic one as well. It’s 2020 and women are still complaining about undertaking more household duties than their menfolk.
I know our society has developed its attitude towards female contribution (or lack of). Yet, we haven’t quite eradicated our presumptions that women are naturally proficient in preventing the house from burning down or falling prey to rat infestation (cats are available for the latter).
Everyone is entitled to not relishing facing domestic duties after cut-throat office politics and Commuter Hell (I do love being squished between taller people!). For some reason, society expects many women to handle that on top of running the household. It’s added stress we just don’t need.
I can imagine the gruff retort, ‘Well, you can blame feminism for that.’ Feminism’s core message of gender equality continues to be battered and miscommunicated. Gender equality should continue into the domestic space as well.
A tandem bike doesn’t get far with only one half pedalling away.
Physiological inferiority to men doesn’t mean washing dishes is wired into women’s DNA. I’m sure anyone with a pair of hands and working cognitive functions can handle it.
The time spent picking up the slack of shared household labour could be put to better use. Women can understand their potential when they’re not tied down by everyday tasks. We can complete courses, earn degrees, excel at work, climb the job ladder and lead more rounded and fulfilled lives. Maybe there’s a hobby you dreamed of taking up when you were younger: achievable if you take time out from worrying about maintaining a perfect household.
Not only can you realise more about yourself when you stop labouring in the home, but also your relationships will be healthier. Whether that’s a housemate, spouse or parent/child relationship, resentment festers when you feel like you’re carrying the house.
Asserting your boundaries may sound like adding a migraine to the pile of them already filling up your head. It’s an extra load you don’t need right now.
However, putting a system in place can ensure you’re not bogged down. It also makes it clear that you’re not a free cook, maid or personal secretary because you’re “good at it”.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take care of loved ones; when this care impacts your wellbeing, then you need to ask yourself some questions.
Why do you feel so compelled to shoulder all responsibilities? Are your family/housemates a bit rubbish at cleaning up after themselves? Are they overrun with problems and struggling to cope? Do you feel it’s your “job” as a woman to take charge of the home without complaint?
Haley Swenson feels these problems shouldn’t be labelled emotional labour but a more dominating terminology. Patriarchy.
Whatever the reason for your nurturing: it’s not your responsibility to run around for everyone to the detriment of your own health. You need downtime to save yourself from burning out. A burnt-out woman is no kick-arse woman.
Ah, the office. About 70 years ago, it wasn’t commonplace for women to occupy higher ranking office positions. You might spot the odd secretary, but she was only working in her capacity as a woman conducting typically women things.
Mad Men and The Help give us some indication of the type of jobs women were confined to based on their sex. Let’s go with The Help.
In The Help, Skeeter dreams of becoming a respected writer. When she applies for a job with the Jackson Journal, she’s lumbered with a domestic advice column, Miss Myrna. If that doesn’t scream emotional labour, I don’t know what does.
She’s given a job solely because she’s a woman so she must know about women’s things. It doesn’t matter to the hiring manager that she’s a tomboy with zero knowledge or care in household-running. Because she’s desperate for a way in, she accepts the post. It does somehow take on the form of a stepping stone to a proper job, but it’s just frustrating to watch her talents go to waste.
If we want to pursue our dreams, we’re forced to grimace our way through roadblocks and thorny footpaths (office politics) for the fear that, if we sound the klaxon, we’re difficult.
Ladies, I won’t lie to you, sounding the klaxon will ignite something akin to a mob (no exaggeration) and you may be gas-lighted or smeared. It’ll be difficult to endure, but worth it when you’ve gained some (self)respect.
Maybe you don’t feel comfortable with a klaxon. Even ringing a dainty bell is better than plodding through life and hating it.
The Social Setting
This one is, perhaps, the closest to Hochschild’s definition of emotional labour (the definition has adapted itself since). Society expects women to tread carefully and ensure universal satisfaction. Why? Didn’t you know: we’re naturally empathetic.
It often falls on women to ensure all are happy. Someone isn’t happy? Well, then that’s on you. You yourself aren’t happy? Again, that’s on you.
Women are expected to plaster on a happy face resembling a wide-eyed smile emoji because we’re not allowed to have an off day. We throw off the aesthetics if we dare suffer from mental health issues. Party Poopers. If this applies to you, it can make family gatherings seem worse than having several teeth yanked from your gums without anaesthesia.
You don’t have to be the mood maker or a dancing monkey. Again, it may be difficult to enforce some boundaries, however, you’ll feel less pressure to perform in the long run. Gaining/re-gaining agency ensures you don’t fall prey to gender expectations. Imagine a society where we don’t feel conditioned to “not make a scene” on public transport when someone is harassing us. Picture a world where our assertiveness is admired as much as a man’s. Yes, ensure your behaviour is acceptable according to social mores, however, don’t let gender conventions hold you back from expressing your discomfort because you don’t want to seem troublesome.
It’s also not your job to be routinely out of your comfort zone. Absorbing your family’s problems because you’re a nurturer will only put a strain on your health. Allowing your friends to dominate your actions also hinders personal development. If you’re emotionally available for them without question and not the reverse, it’s time to revaluate your relationships.
Make no mistake: emotional availability itself isn’t emotional labour. As you already know, humans are social by nature. Relationships do require work; relationships become burdensome when you swallow your feelings and needs to please others. Hazel Cills writes for Jezebel, ‘Listening to your friend talk about their bad day isn’t emotional labour; it’s just being a friend.’
If you’re repressing your exhaustion at carrying a friendship, you’re succumbing to emotional labour.
Life places these obstacles to test us, of course. Overcoming them brings you closer to becoming someone who knows when to preserve your life force. Imagine how healthier you’d feel when you and others acknowledge your limits.
Gender conventions are going to continue to exist as long as society maintains its predilection for typing groups of people. That doesn’t mean we allow them to rule us. It also means the assumption that we’re better with women’s things – emotional things – rule us. Excessive expectations on ourselves, imposed or self-imposed, hamper our progress rather than accelerate it. Have goals but also know your limits, and you’ll be rewarded for it.