If you mention the term “emotional labour” to a man, it often provokes a strange reaction. A look of forlorn disbelief crosses their features, followed by indignation, facial twitching and a barely audible mutter that might be translated as: “What fresh feminist hell is this?” My otherwise very progressive husband seemed to crash like an overloaded PC when I brought it up the other day, having read a frenzied Metafilter thread on the subject.
Mention it to a woman, especially (though not exclusively) those with children, and there’s often a slow instinctive nod, as if to say: “This is what I’ve been talking about all these years. Finally, it has a name!” My friend Amelia immediately came up with a definition I find it hard to improve: “Emotional labour means the time and energy spent on things considered by society to have no real value but which are in fact essential toward functional relationships and a functional society. Traditionally, a burden placed on or taken by women.”
So while emotional labour sounds like a PR strategy for a new touchy-feely Jeremy Corbyn, it actually refers to the “affirmation, forbearance, consultation, pacifying, guidance, tutorial and weathering abuse that [women] spend energy on every single day,” as writer Jess Zimmerman put it. The term was coined in 1983 by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild but is increasingly coming back into vogue as the new frontier of feminism. You know the sort of thing. Organising all the family get-togethers. Consoling your boyfriend’s mate after his break-up. (Reminding your boyfriend that his mate has had a break-up). Fielding all communications that pertain to your child’s welfare, education, playdates, etc. Generally feeling like you’re the emotional CEO (or more likely PA) at home, but also in the workplace.
When I was a desk editor at a male-dominated newspaper, I was always the one to organise leaving presents and charity collections
And while I can hear the collective “b-b-b-b-but!” coming from men of my generation – who are often proactive fathers, keen cooks and conscientious partners who occasionally even quote Lena Dunham at you – I feel these are battle lines worth drawing.
I’ve been an emotional labourer so long, it’s hard to untangle what I’m naturally inclined to do from what’s imposed upon me. It often starts quite innocuously: “You’re so much better at this than I am…” Which is exactly how so many women end up doing men’s emotional work for them. It peaks in the run-up to Christmas, where it almost always falls to women to co-ordinate arrangements, intuit how to make everyone happy and suffer the shopping bag lacerations that result. Throughout my teens, I did all of my brother’s present shopping for him – he just handed over the money. The first year he managed it himself, he called me triumphantly to describe how many gifts he had “actioned”, only then realising it was an actual thing that took time and care.
Emotional labour exists at work too. When I was a desk editor at a male-dominated newspaper, I was always the one to organise leaving presents and charity collections. In a later position, I experimented with withdrawing from these tasks and felt hugely liberated. But it was clear that my female colleagues were picking up the slack.
Back at home, when I see my husband – also a writer – go off on a creative flight of fancy, I envy how free he is from anxieties pertaining to nieces’ birthdays and nursery timetables and his good friend with a long-term illness who he must remember to call. All of these can absorb a woman’s headspace and stifle her creativity. Just because she is “good at these things” doesn’t mean they don’t take up a frankly impertinent amount of her time.
Of course, it’s a hard case to make without sounding martyrish – and my husband has a whole suite of burdens that I’m only half aware of. He does all the driving, defragments the hard drive, handles anything bin-related and is actually making me a butternut squash salad right now, even as I chronicle his shortcomings. In any relationship there is a negotiated give and take.
But even within these new domestic settlements, I feel there’s still an undervaluing of what women provide. My mother – a proper old-school Greenham Common feminist – speaks of my husband’s butternut exploits in the most heroic terms, but doesn’t recognise that my actively giving a damn about people’s feelings – and all the phone calls and Tube dashes this entails – is even a job at all.
A friend believes that we won’t win the battle in our lifetimes. “But our daughters will win it,” she says. “And our sons will understand the meaning of emotional labour.” But until then, we’re not helpless. We can withdraw our time and energy. We could even call a National Emotional Labour Strike. Maybe the only the way of finding out the significance is to say fuck it – and see what results. We might surprise ourselves.