A Definition of Emotional Labour: 'Women As Caregivers of The Entire Fucking Universe'

Emotional labour is recognised in sociological understanding as the regulation of a worker’s emotions in accordance with their employer’s rules. Classic examples of roles that require high levels of often unrecognised and uncompensated emotional labour are food industry staff, public administration, health care physicians or debt collectors…

...and women. Whether in the workplace or the home, a woman is often expected to naturally be more friendly, more smiley, more understanding, more helpful and more caring. These traits are presumed to be part of her innate character, not ones that have been carefully curated at great personal expense. The huge effort to constantly consider other people’s feelings and regulate your own emotions is taken completely for granted.

The notion of women as the Caregivers of the Entire Fucking Universe is so deeply ingrained in some people, and it weighs heavily.
— MissySedai*

Gendered emotional labour constitutes the tasks a woman is expected to take care of, and the roles she is expected to play by a patriarchal society. These assumptions are so ingrained that people around her presume she will automatically fill those roles. It may not be part of your written job description or the mutually agreed roles of your relationship, and it is definitely not something you get paid for. But if you refuse to engage in the emotional economy, the loss of your free labour will most certainly be noted by people who previously benefited from your efforts.

 

Emotional Labour

THE ‘OVERHEAD OF CARING’*...

Overall, emotional labour is the burden of remembering, or maybe remembering to care. Remembering to care about those around you means remembering to perform all manner of tasks -  remembering what has to be cleaned, to be cooked, remembering to smile at everyone in the office as you come in, remembering to get everyone to sign your colleague’s birthday card. It’s not that other people don’t ever help or offer to take responsibility, it’s that directing an offer of help takes a significant amount of energy itself.

It’s that thing where someone says ‘I’ll clean if you just tell me what to clean!’ because they don’t want to do the mental work of figuring it out
— Lyn Never*

It’s the burden of caring, even when you are catcalled - (did other people hear? Was it something I’m wearing? Do I look weird? Are the people walking on the other side of the street annoyed at me, was that embarrassing for them?) - while the catcaller doesn’t give the catcall a second thought.

And if a woman wants to change the imbalance of emotional labour, she is the one who has to remember to talk to her partner, to explain why a comment was sexist, to remind her colleagues that a birthday is coming up - performing the majority of emotional labour as she moves through these interactions.

 

POLICING YOURSELF & NOT BEING TAKEN SERIOUSLY...

Women are expected to justify themselves constantly. From justifying your decision not to drink much in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, to justifying your decision to not have children, to justifying an issue you have with a family member or significant other so as not to be read as ‘overemotional’. Constantly explaining yourself is not only taxing, but your explanation can be challenging, as it asks whoever demanded a reason to engage themselves in the emotional economy. This tends to be uncomfortable for whoever asked the question (think a man who asks you why you aren’t drinking at a party and then getting personally offended at the response), and your concern is then ironically written off as a personal overreaction rather than a valid comment or complaint on any form of unequal system. And then you’ll likely have to perform more emotional labour reassuring whoever has felt ‘personally attacked’ by your justification...

He [user’s husband] is not a monster… He is insightful and proactive about many feminist issues. But he is deeply and willfully blind in this area. He (like many men) is convinced that engaging in an emotional economy is voluntary, because for him it always has been
— [anonymous]*

BEING A ‘GOOD WOMAN’

If a woman refuses to perform emotional labour, she’s considered a ‘bad woman’. You are read as cold, unfriendly, even arrogant: ultimately a selfish version of what should be selfless. Inequality in emotional labour persists because the assumption that a woman is naturally more able to please, to nurture and to care also persists.

“Being soft and comforting and nurturing is really fucking hard work. It is not something that comes naturally just because I identify as female. It takes effort and time and is exhausting and draining
— [anonymous]*

The types of traits that have been conceptualised as ideal for a woman mean that women are socially required to to do emotional work than men. Men in general do not expect for this kind of work to feature in their lives. Women are taught to automatically pick up the slack.

 

***

 

Emotional labour is of course not experienced universally in the same way, and performing the majority of the emotional labour in your home, workplace or any other social setting does not automatically mean that you have a tougher time than those around you. It does, however, mean that women are expected to perform over and above their job description, written and unwritten, and are criticised harshly if they do not fulfil these unfair expectations.  

 

*In 2015, Metafilter.com hosted a discussion thread entitled “Where’s My Cut?”: On Unpaid Emotional Labour in response to Jess Zimmerman’s article of the same name for the Toast. The thread exploded, and hundreds of women began sharing their experiences and frustrations in performing (or not performing) emotional labour in their relationships and families. The quotes used in this post are all taken from the thread, which became so popular that it has since been made into a 49-page categorised pdf and can be downloaded here. I highly recommend downloading, reading and sharing with everyone and their dog.

 

Article by Mairi Lubelska