Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Share the wealth: emotional labor and the essential confidant

Last week, I started my third year of law school, and the shock of returning to academia for the semester felt like a tempestuous sea on which I was a small rowboat. This particular week was more chaotic that those in the past, however, because my partner Benjamin was also beginning school. We were both lost on the tides of schedule upheaval with no sheltering port in sight.

Ben hasn’t been in school for many years, so this is a particularly difficult transition for him. “Ben’s transition is much more difficult than mine,” I told myself. This is my third year and I should be OK: he is the one that needs the extra support. I tried to give him that 'extra support,' but I struggled because of time obligations and my own state of emotional turmoil. Suddenly, I felt punishingly guilty.

Ben wasn’t wounded by this ‘egregious’ lack of support on my end – he just told me about school, and we talked things through, trying to sort his new priorities as best we could with little time. When I complained about my own transition, he listened patiently, and the listening didn’t seem to disturb him either. Nonetheless, I berated myself for not listening more and for not talking less.

By Wednesday, I was exhausted by my guilt. I mentioned the feelings to my carpool-confidant, Lily. Lily is a brilliant woman with a passion for gender studies, and she had a simple answer. It was a phrase that I’d never heard, but it rolled off her tongue like music to my ears: emotional labor. She said that, as a woman, I was used to doing the greater share of emotional work in my heterosexual relationship, and when I couldn’t live up to the labor I’d become accustomed to doing, I got overwhelmed.

The concept of emotional labor has been around for half a century, but recently came back to the forefront due to sex workers’ online discussion of it as an uncompensated but ubiquitous portion of their jobs. In her Guardian article, Rose Hackman describes emotional labor as encompassing the aspects of life that women appear “to better at:”
[W]e know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat . . .
These aspects of “remembering” and doting, Hackman argues, are not necessarily natural talents. Women have been socialized to see the underpinnings of our relationships and to work harder at maintaining them with support and intimacy. This socialization comes with a cost. As scholar Rebecca Erickson observes,
[o]ffering encouragement, showing your appreciation, listening closely to what someone has to say, and expressing empathy with another person's feelings (even when they are not shared)-day after day, year after year-represent emotion work of the highest order.
As I listened to Lily and later read these articles, I felt so validated! I had never even heard of emotional labor and yet I was living it every day. I had been living it from a very young age, and recall a mantra my mother (an exceptional emotional laborer) taught me in my tween years. When I didn’t feel like being cheery but had to be, Mama taught me to sarcastically think “showtime!” in my head and brace myself. She often used this tactic in her professional life in customer-service (another aspect of the fallout of this phenomenon is that low-wage ‘service with a smile’ jobs are predominantly performed by women).

We recently screened portions of Ken Burns’ documentary Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In it, I saw both women steeling themselves for emotional labor. I watched Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s joie de vivre become feigned cheerfulness when she was under the stress of emotional labor, just as my mother’s would during the tail-end of a long shift. I saw Susan B. Anthony become reserved and withdrawn, the same way I do when under the same burden. These were powerful women who worked tirelessly for women’s rights, and yet they were bound by the same incognito emotional obligations that I am today.

However, I also saw these two female powerhouses help each other bear their emotional labor with respect and empathy, and this heartened me. Though I had been planning to denounce my emotional labor, as I watched Anthony and Stanton, I realized that I like many of the aspects of emotional work I do each day. It suits me.

Instead of pushing it away, perhaps the answer is to remember to share the workload. Women may be programmed to do more emotional labor, but we don’t have to go it alone. Try this today: tell a confidant something you’ve been mentally chewing on, something you wouldn't usually disclose. It can be as small as your shopping list. See if talking it through lifts your burden a bit. 

If you’re feeling really adventurous, go further than sharing emotional labor with those who already know it’s weight. If you identify as female, try sharing your emotional burden with a man.

Benjamin is a great example of a cis-gendered man who is already in solidarity with my revolution of emotional equity. He may not “naturally” take on as much emotional labor as I, but he has his ways of helping with the load. I don’t think I’d ever leave the house with breakfast or inflated bicycle tires if it weren’t for that man. Ben is unique, however. He was socialized as a middle child, taking on great emotional burdens for his family in his youth. 

Ben has also worked in customer service for two decades. Perhaps the next step in the emotional-labor revolution is this: enlist the emotional light-weights in our lives to work front-of-house in busy restaurants. That will give them a high-velocity dose of the meaning of “showtime!”


Earnest Femingway said...

Kyle Kate, I would love to bring up the dynamic of emotional labor when our class discussion reaches the topic of domesticity. This is an area that I feel, if addressed on a societal level would have so many benefits. A reduction in emotional labor seems like a benefit in of itself, but fostering cis-gendered men who can handle a heavier emotional workload is necessary.

Kyle Kate Dudley said...

Very much agreed! I thought about it a ton during the reading on domesticity!

Josie Zimmermann said...

This is a really long compilation of anecdotes from a number of women, but I really think it's worth a read. The section on how "letting go" of a lot of emotional labor is particularly striking to me. A lot of these tasks are vitally important to maintaining relationships, but it is so exhausting to be the person solely in charge of making sure they happen.

Joan Maya said...

Prior to it being mentioned in class, I had never heard the term emotional labor. I am so glad I decided to read your blog post because it gave me a much better idea of what emotional labor is, and has given me the chance to reflect on the relationships in my own life. A unique perspective I have is that I was raised by a single father. I have found that seeing a cis-gendered man take on a very heavy emotional load throughout my life has shaped how much I expect out of my male significant other. And as timing would have it, I just asked him to start the dishes as I write this comment!