Emotional Labor: What Is It & How Balanced Is It In Your Home?

Emotional labor is invisible, can feel exhausting, and typically falls to women. What is this labor and how can we better spread it around?

mom struggling with emotional labor

You know that feeling where you spent all day frantically taking care of things but you have little to show for the efforts? You’re exhausted and have been inordinately busy, but your tasks have been invisible, not related to productivity in paid work nor to moving household projects clearly forward. If so, you’re well acquainted with emotional labor, even if you’ve not yet encountered that term.


What Is Emotional Labor?


There’s actually a hot debate about what exactly comprises “emotional labor.” The phrase was coined in the mid-80s by sociologist Arlie Hoschchild, author of the groundbreaking book The Second Shift:  Working Families and The Revolution At Home. She focused the phrase on the efforts that paid workers put in to making customers and clients happy. She still defines the phrase that way, according to a recent interview in The Atlantic.

In common usage, though, we’ve come to notice the invisible efforts needed outside of the workplace to keep things running smooth and comfortably. “Initiating difficult conversations, managing children’s schedules, remembering to send birthday and holiday cards to relatives, and asking for help (sometimes repeatedly) emptying the dishwasher: These are all examples of emotional labor, as it is commonly defined today,” writes Britni de la Cretaz in the New York Times.

Emotional labor is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “mental load” or “cognitive labor” and sometimes kept separate, with the former focused on managing and supporting others’ feelings and the latter about keeping track of tasks and activities, like doctor’s appointments. 

Therapist Leah Ottow, LCSW, defines emotional labor in a more encompassing way, as “anticipating and setting things up for success.” She sees the overlap in her work with clients and with her own children; failing to do tasks – like wrapping a kids’ presents – often leads to emotional fallout, as does doing tasks in a robotic way – such as scheduling a child’s dental appointment in the middle of Field Day (oops). 


Uneven Distribution of Emotional Labor


Unfortunately, the unpaid work of the household isn’t spread evenly across parents in most heterosexual relationships. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, American women were doing twice as much unpaid labor as American men, according to time use research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Women engaged in about four hours of unpaid efforts each day to men’s two hours, including caring for others, housework and shopping. While certainly this is not all “emotional labor,” it’s a healthy indicator of similarly unfair division across all forms of unpaid labor.

Since the pandemic struck, all evidence indicates that women’s unpaid labor has skyrocketed, and has done so disproportionate to men’s efforts at home. For instance, “as of September [2020], four times as many women as men had dropped out of the workforce,” reports Kathleen Davis in Fast Company. 

Some might claim that this occurs simply because women are “better” at emotional labor than men. In fact, however, in same-sex couples, emotional labor is typically split by desire and ability, regardless of gender. Furthermore, Tiffany Dufu makes a strong case for the societal construction of gender roles in her book Drop The Ball. For instance, “a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that the very act of parenting promoted the development of a “parental caregiving neural network” in the subjects, regardless of gender or the relationship status of the parents. Men might not have as much practice caregiving, but they are just as capable as women when given the opportunity.” 


Making Change In Our Households


Given that the distribution of emotional labor is socially constructed rather than innate, there’s a lot of room to make change. 

In dual-partner households, Dufu suggests that partners sit down and create a spreadsheet filled with all the tasks of the household – logistical, emotional, and the combination. She calls this a “MEL,” a Management Excel List. 

The key step is next:  create a column for each partner and mark down who usually does each task and/or who is willing to do each task. Putting things down in black and white can help each partner more fully recognize what the other person is doing, and also spot glaring imbalances that can lead to resentment and burnout.

But don’t stop there! Not everything on the task list has to be done, Dufu notes, and so a third column is needed:  “The most revealing part of our MEL exercise was deciding which X’s should go in the “No one” column. This column represented our acknowledgment that there was more to running our household than both of us could ever accomplish. We would stop making assumptions about what the other person was doing—or should be doing—and we would not blame each other for what didn’t get done. We mutually agreed that some things just wouldn’t happen, and we’d be okay with that.”

A strong awareness of each partner’s values, and your joint values as a couple, are key to doing this entire exercise well.

In single parent households, this exercise can be adapted to include columns for extended family; paid help, such as babysitters; and neighbors/friends. Having a conversation with these individuals about your workload – emotional and otherwise – and your needs can add transparency and clarity to everyone’s roles and their efforts in supporting your family.


Changing Things For Our Kids


In addition to making changes in our current household, we can teach our own kids about emotional labor differently than we were taught ourselves. For instance, what if we actively train our sons in emotional intelligence, and expect them to anticipate how people will feel in reaction to events that do or don’t occur? What if we hold them responsible for those outcomes and reactions, just as we tend to do with our daughters? 

We can also examine which tasks we’re assuming our daughters will be “better at” than our sons  – such as babysitting a sibling or a neighbor’s child – and question that assumption. We can challenge ourselves to create opportunities for our sons to try different emotional activities. If they fail, and there will be times where both our sons and daughters do, then actively support them as we encourage them to try again, and again, and again. 

All in all, emotional labor is a skill set we gain through practice. It’s time we encourage the men in our lives to practice much more than they currently do – and give them the space to make mistakes as they learn the ropes.


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