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Learning about emotional labor

Jordan 2017-09-28

Gemma Hartley writes for Harper’s Bazaar on emotional labor:

My husband, despite his good nature and admirable intentions, still responds to criticism in a very patriarchal way. Forcing him to see emotional labor for the work it is feels like a personal attack on his character. If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out—reminding him of his family’s birthdays, carrying in my head the entire school handbook and dietary guidelines for lunches, updating the calendar to include everyone’s schedules, asking his mother to babysit the kids when we go out, keeping track of what food and household items we are running low on, tidying everyone’s strewn about belongings, the unending hell that is laundry—he would take it as me saying, “Look at everything I’m doing that you’re not. You’re a bad person for ignoring me and not pulling your weight.”

She points out that this is a concept that is largely invisible to a lot of men as a result of the gender roles we tend to traditionally perform as part of our culture. These performances generally involve women being nurturing and sensitive and men focusing on problem-solving and treating women as over-emotional. Hartley tells the story of a time she asked her husband to have the house cleaned as a gift. She recalls,

The day before Mother’s Day he called a single service, decided they were too expensive, and vowed to clean the bathrooms himself. He still gave me the choice, of course. He told me the high dollar amount of completing the cleaning services I requested (since I control the budget) and asked incredulously if I still wanted him to book it.

What I wanted was for him to ask friends on Facebook for a recommendation, call four or five more services, do the emotional labor I would have done if the job had fallen to me.

The point being that often in her relationship where asking for things to be done is the symptom, an unbalanced distribution of emotional labor is the root cause. Although he contributes with housework whenever asked without complaining, the point isn’t that he does those things when asked. She wants a partner with equal initiative, who puts in the same effort she does to anticipate the other’s needs.

Reading this was first of all upsetting, I noticed.

I found myself reflexively feeling the need to defend the author’s partner. I wanted to point out that if what she wanted was for him to put in emotional labor, she should have asked for that instead of asking him to clean the bathrooms. That when she says, in tears, “that’s the point, I don’t want to have to ask,” she wants something impossible. Then I noticed this defensive feeling and found myself reflexively reaching for my usual justification of acting defensive - of course I’m being defensive, defending yourself is the correct reaction to someone shaming you. But in what sense is Hartley shaming me? Well, I pointed out, she uses all sorts of language like “emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand” (emphasis mine) and the banner photo for her article is a rubber glove giving you the finger. She paints a picture of her dynamic with her partner, “I was gifted a necklace for Mother’s Day while my husband stole away to deep clean the bathrooms, leaving me to care for our children as the rest of the house fell into total disarray” that seems basically designed to evoke shame. I thought this to myself as I noticed this conversation in my head going down a familiar road with a practiced rebuttal: if shame is a tactic that you’re using, don’t deny that you’re using it, and please don’t be surprised that it makes others defensive. Is the male ego so fragile that it can’t handle any criticism, or is this maybe just what happens when you punctuate your point with shame?

Then I reread the passage,

My husband does a lot. He does dishes every night habitually. He often makes dinner. He will handle bedtime for the kids when I am working. If I ask him to take on extra chores, he will, without complaint. It feels greedy, at times, to want more from him.

and I thought to myself, wait, maybe I’m not understanding what emotional labor is.

Hartley links to a really great MetaFilter thread on emotional labor. The kind of thread that’s filled with equal parts anecdotes and response posts by people who are just so relieved to finally have found another person who is able to express such a familiar experience. It’s got credits and a table of contents. It’s got FAQs.

In one anecdote a women writes about her partner, “he said he really likes hanging around with his guy friends because nothing is expected of him and he feels like he can relax. So I asked, then why even date women? Why not just hang out with your guy friends? And he said that he loves being around women because they’re kind, and soft and comforting and they make him feel relaxed and good in a way that men don’t. And I was like – you mean nurturing? And he was like – YES, nurturing…. I don’t think he sees [being nurturing] as actual WORK that women do.”

In another, a poster points out that the problem of emotional labor is part of the The Patriarchy is Bad For Men Too problem. That as part of our society “men should only love a select few children, and definitely shouldn’t try being a kindergarten teacher or anything. Only about 2% of kindergarten and preschool teachers are men, [whereas women are socialized to be caregivers to all children, even strangers’ children.]”

There’s even a section titled “Why we don’t ‘just need to communicate better about our needs’ (God, we have tried)” with the hilariously exhausted subheading “1. Do you seriously think we haven’t tried that?”

I wanted this linked PDF to be the Ultimate Answer that Changed My Mind. And I think it is… but only sort of.

In that section, for example, a poster writes “many of us have tried this. As a result, we have been told that we’re imagining the imbalance… that he does perform emotional labor and we just don’t notice.” (I found that familiar part of me again getting ready to argue with someone but managed to stifle it with a quick shout of “NOT NOW, I’M TRYING TO ACTUALLY SEE THE OTHER SIDE.”) But the point is touched on and dropped with no explanation as to why it’s definitely not the case. My fairest interpretation of this is that maybe a response like “I do work also” is not so much a rebuttal as a method of derailment. It might be true that both partners contribute different things, but drawing attention to the many ways we contribute is a lot like ignoring the fact that there might still be an imbalance. Or maybe that if one partner thinks there’s an imbalance and the other does not, that’s already a big enough problem in itself that the pair of you probably still need to work together and address it.

I think these are both fair points but I’d like to bring up a third guess of my own - that part of the traditional social role of being nurturing that is thrust upon women also involves the idea of silent suffering. That is, I think there is a traditional feminine virtue which states that women not only have to take care of most of the emotional labor in a relationship, but that they also have to agonize through the resulting pain by themselves. The same way men are often socialized with the expectation that they hide their emotional pain, I think women are socialized with the expectation that they hide their discontent with having to carry the extra burden of emotional labor. Tina Fey’s 30 Rock explores this idea: Liz Lemon has to deal with the conflict between not wanting to seem naggy (a horrible, gendered insult if there ever was one) and being responsible. Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope constantly balances her desire to be chill and well-liked with the passion and drive that makes her character so likable. And if those two popular shows created by women about their own lives don’t convince you, even Hartley points out this feeling, “Walking that fine line to keep the peace and not upset your partner is something women are taught to accept as their duty from an early age.”

One of my New Year’s resolutions in 2017 was to brush my teeth every night. You’re probably thinking, “that’s stupid. You should have been brushing your teeth every night already like a fucking adult.” And I don’t disagree with you. But the fact is that at the end of 2016 I realized I was unhappy with my habit of skipping tooth-brushing if I felt sleepy, and decided that since I’m a fucking adult I ought to change this about myself. Happily, I’ve been able to keep this resolution up. Again, you’re probably thinking, “that’s stupid. I’m not going to congratulate you for something you should have been doing anyway.” And because my demeanor is the way it is, I would respond “that’s okay, I’ll congratulate myself, because I’m proud of myself.”

When I told my brother in February of 2017 that I had brushed my teeth every day that year so far, his response was a predictable and confused “…okay. Good job I guess?” And I think that’s similar to what Hartley conveys when she writes:

When I brush my daughter’s hair and elaborately braid it round the side of her scalp, I am doing the thing that is expected of me. When my husband brushes out tangles before bedtime, he needs his efforts noticed and congratulated—saying aloud in front of both me and her that it took him a whole 15 minutes.

Now Hartley wasn’t talking to me about my tooth brushing, so maybe she would have been one of those few people who delights in my stupid accomplishments that aren’t really accomplishments if I had told her about it. But supposing she reacted the reasonable way most people have, I would want to say this: don’t interpret my joy in sharing my accomplishments as asking for a congratulations. I give a rat’s butt about getting people to say “good job” when I tell them I brushed my teeth. I am equally happy saying it to myself in the mirror. I am equally happy saying it to someone who responds “I don’t care about that at all, and you’re an idiot.” All of these bring me equal happiness and so I want you to understand in no uncertain terms that sharing my accomplishment is in no way about getting someone’s congratulations.

So when Hartley writes “If I were to point out random emotional labor duties I carry out … he would take it as me saying, ‘Look at everything I’m doing that you’re not. You’re a bad person for ignoring me and not pulling your weight,’ ” I have to wonder how I would react. If I’m consistent, then when she makes a satisfied face and says “I updated the calendar to include everyone’s schedules,” then I would react to that the same way I react to anyone sharing an accomplishment, with a bunch of joy and pride that I’ve made a friend who loves to share things and do things. And I do think I’m pretty consistent in that sense. But that consistency is also something that is part of my demeanor, and was socialized into me. I have the privilege of expecting mostly a positive response to sharing my accomplishments with people, and a big part of this is because of what it means to perform my gender role. If I were a woman, I might feel like the right thing to do is to keep it to myself so as to not seem like I’m being boastful. To suffer silently when I had to fulfill a societal duty. And eventually when my frustration has tired me out, explain exasperatedly, without smiling, all the effort that I have put in that I don’t feel is being reciprocated. And here I absolutely agree with Hartley and all the women who posted in the linked thread, this double standard sucks.

Peggy McIntosh points out that there are different kinds of privilege. “Some of these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.” In other words, some privileges are things that only some groups currently have, but that we should strive to bring to all groups. And others are things that only some groups currently have, but that nobody should really have. So here is what I consider to be the main point of this post: emotional labor in heterosexual monogamous relationships is the invisible responsibility delegated by our society to women. A huge part of solving this problem is teaching men to be nurturing and destroying the expectation that they are bad at dealing with emotions, or that they shouldn’t have to because that’s the woman’s job. And another part of solving this problem is challenging the expectation that women should be silent and dutiful. Do not make the mistake of forgetting the second part. Because the expectation of silently suffering means that you will feel like if you’re not suffering then you’re not doing enough. That if your partner is not suffering then he is not performing true emotional labor. And I don’t think either of those conclusions is good for anyone. As one poster in the MetaFilter thread puts it, “the next frontier is allowing men to care.” Emotional labor is supposed to be satisfying. You’re supposed to be happy when you do it. Like anything in a relationship you’re also supposed to be frustrated when you’re putting in more of it than your partner, but do not let that frustration confuse you into thinking that you need to be suffering. Taking pride in caring is truly a privilege that everyone deserves.