Author | Photos Cathryn Lavery

Emotional Labour: The New Frontier of Feminism

In my daily planner I have two columns: one is a work to-do list (e.g., “file story by end of day,” “send invoice”) and one is a home to-do list. Despite the fact that I have three jobs (and counting), my home column is normally the longer list. My husband and I have a 50/50 agreement when it comes to household chores, although we joke that it’s more like a 60/60 split because we are both privately certain that we do more than the other. Regardless, we’ve drawn up an agreement—our division of labour written in stone—that is rarely diverted from.

I know exactly which chores fall to me and on which day I do them and so I have no need to write these on my list. My home to-do list seems to clog up with notes such as, “buy thank you card,” “send flowers,” “frame and hang photos,” “pick up baby shower gift,” “return wedding RSVP,” “organize cat sitter,” and on and on… Individually, these are small tasks, but they plague my day, crowd my thoughts, eat into my every second. I rarely take a lunch break (unless shovelling leftovers into my face while hunched over my laptop counts). The only “break” I normally take is to run to the post office to send a belated birthday card, or to pick up soil for the garden or groceries.

These tasks are mundane—I’m bored even writing about them—but they are endeavours that more and more scholars, feminist writers and casual observers would call gendered work, an invisible inequality in labour, the “next frontier of feminism.”

Emotional labour is any task that requires care, thought, direction and follow-through within the family home, either directly or tangentially. When you make a mental note to buy, write and send holiday cards; pick up groceries for your elderly neighbour; organize a holiday party; buy and wrap gifts for your children’s teachers; research music classes, summer camps, horse-rising lessons, set up a play date; find a physiotherapist for that niggling pain your partner keeps ignoring; bake muffins for your kid’s bake sale; organize a local parent-tot group, what you are really listing is emotional labour.

These are tasks that are undertaken to enrich the lives of our friends and families, to give thanks to loved ones. This work binds families together, builds and strengthens communities and has a major impact on people’s wellbeing. But these tasks—often borne of love—consume time and energy and, like childcare and housework, are unpaid. It is labour that goes largely unacknowledged and it is predominantly undertaken by women.

Many refer to this work as “the third shift.” If you think of your first shift of the day as your paid work outside the home and your second shift as the unpaid work you do on your return home—childcare and housework—your third shift would be all the tasks that fall under emotional labour. First shift, second shift, third shift, repeat.

In our quest to “have it all,” women seem to just be “doing it all.” Career, childcare, housework, emotional labour. Over the past quarter-century, there has been a narrowing of the gap but the bald fact is that, despite more and more women working outside the home, this has not been met by the type of policy reform needed for true gender equality.

The very idea of labelling emotional labour as work makes some people uncomfortable. Some have even balked at this suggestion. Surely this is a case of feminism gone too far? Is anyone actually forcing women to do these things? Is anyone holding a gun to your head to mail that stack of thank you cards? Did anyone insist you host Christmas / Passover / Eid this year? Must you really collect, print and frame those family photos? Did you not decide, of your own volition, to undertake these tasks? We make choices in life; that is true. But it is also true that we make choices within a social and cultural context.

“We all make choices within this larger patriarchal context,” says Diana C. Parry, Associate Professor and Special Advisor to the President on Women’s and Gender Issues at the University of Waterloo. “This ‘rhetoric of choice’ needs to be troubled and unpacked and challenged.”

The fact of the matter is that women and girls are socialized to take on this kind of work in a way that men and boys are not and emotional labour is still tacitly seen, by men and women alike, as “women’s work.”

Jess Zimmerman writes in The Toast, “[The] patriarchy is so good at training women as its proxies.” If you’re female, it’s likely that you take on emotional labour without ever consciously deciding to. In my home, despite my card-carrying feminist status and my dogged persistence to maintain a 50/50 split of household duties, I have added things to my to-do list that I would never consider asking my husband to do. I send our friends a card to congratulate them on their new baby (and I sign off from us both), I remind my husband that Father’s Day is approaching, I decorate our home, I plant flowers in our garden, I write a note to our neighbours to apologize for the noise a party we hosted caused. I do it because I am better at these things. Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I care more? Is it because if I didn’t do these things, they would not get done? And I wonder how common that lament is: “If I didn’t do it, it would never get done.”

The inequalities in emotional labour are one part of a much larger picture of inequity in our society. With the gender wage gap still gaping and equal paternity leave still just a faint hope for the future, it often makes more sense for women to be at home more. And if you’re at home more—no matter your gender—you will inevitably pick up the slack of duties pertaining to the home.

Gender issues are complex problems that require complex solutions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but an excellent first step would be to make visible these contributions that women give to society. “Enabling people to really reflect on the choices they’re making is an important step,” says Parry. “When things are so invisible and ubiquitous it takes a deliberate disruption in order to get people to really think through the type of work they’re engaging in.”

In my household, I have started consciously neglecting certain tasks. My new motto: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” And my husband, like water rushing through a hole, has filled the gap. The more hands-off I become, the more he fills in. He remembers birthdays, buys and sends cards, arranges dinner dates with friends and shoulders the burden of emotional labour that pertains to our cat (our only baby!). As he busies himself around the home, I find more time in my day to work my three jobs and to spend whole hours avoiding writing my novel.

And that feels natural. It doesn’t feel like he is undertaking “women’s work.” It feels like we are two humans who are equally invested, who are working equally hard—earning money, building careers, building a home, building a life. It is not perfect, but we are striving and we should all strive for a society where—regardless of whether you live alone, with your partner, are half of a two-mom family, a two-dad family, whether you’re child-free, flying solo or a single parent—the work you do to contribute to the betterment of everyone is work you’ve consciously decided to do and is acknowledged and valued.

2 Comments

  1. Daisy
    May 12, 2016

    Very well-articulated. I am so glad that someone has defined and explained this phenomenon, which I’ve experienced in so many ways, in different relationships.

  2. kaitfowlie
    May 12, 2016

    Thank you so much for touching on this important issue! Beautifully articulated, relatable, wise.

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