I really like seeing everybody's responses to the emotional labour thread. And I've been having a few good conversations about it IRL too. I like the fact that some people have found it a revelation, some have found it confirms or gives a name to stuff they already knew, and some people have found it unsurprising or irrelevant to their lives. Having found the initial article, well written but not terribly novel, I've been reading responses and thinking it over, and now I think perhaps I do have some opinions on the topic after all.
I haven't systematically looked at the crowd-sourced checklist, but I've been thinking a bit about broad categories of who does emotional labour in my romantic relationships past and current, at work, and in other aspects of my life. I've also started toying with the idea that maybe the reason that I don't really identify with the category of "women" is perhaps connected to having little interest in many kinds of emotional labour. It's not a physical dysphoria thing at all, my body which reads as unambiguously female does pretty much feel like me (though sometimes I forget I'm not a skinny androgynous child any more). And I don't think of myself as sexist, I don't think that women "should" be home-makers and caring and empathic and so on, but I do live in a culture where that's a deeply embedded assumption.
The original MeFi thread is pretty good at treating emotional labour as a series of tasks which require learned skill; some of the broader commentary slips a bit into fixed trait thinking, people are either good at or bad at emotional labour. And I'm tempted that way myself, I could say I'm bad at emotional labour just like I'm bad at singing, there's nothing I can do about it. But it's a lot more true to say that I haven't put a lot of effort into learning how to do emotional labour, and it's rarely a high mental priority as I go about my day. I suspect that as with a lot of things, I generally do more, and more effective, emotional labour than a typical man in our society, and less emotional labour than would typically be expected of a woman. I probably feel a whole lot more guilty about falling short than most men would, because I'm aware of emotional labour and I intellectually believe it's as important to society as the more masculine-coded activities of producing stuff.
Let's be more specific. I'm reasonably competent at the aspect of emotional labour which dominated the original article: I'm a good listener, and I enjoy hearing about what my friends are going through and how they're thinking about it. I also positively enjoy and seek out situations where the emotional labour of building connections with other people is explicitly what I'm doing. I love the bits of my job where I have one-to-one discussions with students, and I'm consciously putting effort into gaining trust by projecting an aura of caring about them and being on their side. Indeed I'm considering moving to a job or adjusting my current role to do more of that kind of thing. Plus the pastoral stuff I do with the Jewish community involves a lot of this, listening sympathetically to people's problems.
The stuff I don't pay enough attention to and have never really learned to do well involves two kinds of medium-term planning to facilitate my own or other people's lives. One I would roughly categorize as housekeeping: fighting entropy, stock-keeping, making sure there is food and equipment available to accomplish the actual physical work of keeping living spaces clean and people fed. I don't really like doing the physical work either, but almost nobody does; it's the planning ahead which is being counted as emotional labour in the MeFi thread, and honestly if someone else makes a rota or tells me what task they want done I'll just do it and it's not a big deal to me, the physical effort is the smallest part of it, for me as for many other able-bodied people.
The second is what some of the MeFi folk are calling "kin-keeping": keeping in touch and being thoughtful about letting people know I care about them. I'm at best haphazard at initiating contact, whether that's emails or phone-calls or arranging to meet up or whatever. At worst I just don't do it, there's a bunch of people I basically like but only manage to stay in touch with because they're present on social media and I passively follow them. I tend not to bother remembering people's birthdays and significant dates, and even when automated systems remind me I often don't make the effort to send greetings or otherwise communicate that I care. As a lover I don't give a lot of spontaneous presents, I don't buy flowers or otherwise anticipate small gestures that might make my partner feel loved and therefore happy. I don't call my parents nearly often enough.
I could easily make the excuse that I'm too busy finding a cure for cancer. Although that's not completely untrue, I also know perfectly well that other people have day jobs and volunteer commitments that are more important and more stressful and time-consuming than mine, yet are able to make housekeeping and kin-keeping more of a priority than I do. I wonder if there's a subconscious level where I reject being seen as a woman because then I'm failing at life if I don't do these things well, whereas if I opt out of gender I can also opt out of some of this stuff. (If I were actually male I might get praise for even the minimal amounts I do, but, well, I'm kinda not!)
I think the way I used to be very adamant that I wasn't really interested in relationships is probably a related phenomenon. My first boyfriend is someone I like a lot as a friend, but who at 20 did no emotional labour whatsoever. None. I don't mean he didn't buy me chocolates and flowers and fuss over me; that was never what I wanted from a relationship. I mean he didn't do any planning to make sure that he paid bills or met deadlines, or any tidying or cleaning or meal planning. He didn't make sure there was food in the house we could eat over shabbat, while he also insisted that we couldn't cook, heat up leftovers, spend money on food, or carry food across the public domain. Everything about keeping us alive and healthy and out of destitution, let alone both of us meeting academic requirements, became my responsibility, and I certainly didn't get any acknowledgement that this was work, I mostly got resented for nagging. I did what in retrospect was a massive amount of emotional reassurance and carefully phrasing all my requests for practical contributions or changes in behaviour so that there wasn't any possible hint of criticism, but never received any consideration or tact in return, because it was important to be "honest". In fact I am quite thick-skinned and didn't really get insecure about criticism, but it was a surprisingly asymmetric relationship.
I have to say, it wasn't sexism, not exactly. My ex didn't think it was women's job to plan for and do all this boring practical stuff, he just didn't think about these aspects of life at all. And in fact when we did break up his life pretty much just went pear-shaped, he didn't pick up the slack when there wasn't a devoted girlfriend to organize these things for him. He dated another friend for a while, someone who's much more experienced and skilled than I am at emotional labour, and not having the vocabulary for it we used to describe our mutual ex as turning girlfriends into his mother. But the fact is that mothers shouldn't have to do absolutely all the emotional labour of keeping their families alive and well, and neither should girlfriends or wives for their partners.
The thing is that for a long time I thought that's what being in a relationship entailed. I thought that was the price of entry if you wanted the benefits of a sexual and romantic relationship. Those benefits are definitely real; there may have been a huge imbalance of emotional labour in my first relationship but it was overall a really happy relationship that brought many good things into my life. But still, for much of my 20s I felt like the trade-off wasn't worth it. I didn't really think of it as a sexist thing, I didn't formulate the idea that men went into het relationships expecting to benefit from their female partners' emotional labour, whereas women expected to take on an extra burden for their male partners.
I dated a woman for a while, someone who's very empathic and at least more domesticated than I am and generally pretty effective at at least some aspects of emotional labour, and I learned a lot from her. But I was also very intensely in love, I didn't really think this was something that could be repeated, that kind of magical good fortune wasn't something that I could deliberately seek out. I also dated a man who actively avoided emotional labour; he didn't expect me to do it, but he minimized it in his life. He coped with the practical aspects of housekeeping by having a really strict routine, and generally avoided conversations with emotional content. I felt pretty relaxed in that relationship, I didn't feel like I was carrying a precious yet very fragile burden, but equally I wasn't getting a lot of emotional input myself. I told people that I was getting the benefits of a relationship without the costs, but in some ways I wasn't getting the benefits either, we had lots of really good conversations, but our emotional connection was fairly limited.
So I was pleasantly surprised in my 30s to meet people who explicitly talk about emotional labour and are willing to work with me as partners. Not necessarily people like my ex-girlfriend who have an amazing amount of talent and energy for this sort of thing, but people who see it as a chore just as much as I do, but also see it as something that needs to be done. I find it extremely relaxing when partners actually initiate discussions about what needs doing around the house and how to make the process more efficient and what standards we both feel comfortable with; it really matters to notice that the work is in the deciding and planning more than in the physical doing. I like talking about kin-keeping and maintaining social connections, and organizing fun things like parties and holidays, and again, being aware of the work involved. I like being in relationships with people who notice that listening to them venting and providing emotional support, and helping to address insecurities and so on, are actual work and thank me for it, as well as being willing to reciprocate.
It turns out that when I feel I can rely on a partner for this stuff, I am much much more willing to indulge in romantic things, whether doing them or receiving them. You know, traditional stuff like giving spontaneous small presents or writing love poetry or yes, bothering to remember and make a fuss about birthdays and anniversaries. I'm gradually starting to uncoil and accept a gift of a bouquet of flowers, because I no longer feel like I'm entering into a bargain where I get flowers a few times a year as payment for unlimited and otherwise unrecognized emotional labour. If being cutesie and indulging in the culturally expected forms of romance doesn't mean taking on all the emotional labour, it's just a nice thing to do for someone or to receive; those things can be separated. Perhaps likewise, if admitting I'm female also doesn't mean I have to do all the emotional labour, maybe I'm more comfortable seeing myself as female than I previously realized.
I think this is also part of why I changed my mind about getting married. When I said I didn't want to get married I didn't really mean that I didn't want to make a lifelong commitment to a romantic partner. I meant, in part, that I didn't want to be a wife, I didn't want to offer to spend the rest of my life providing emotional support to my hypothetical spouse, without any recognition. The MeFi moderators have done a great job of keeping the conversation out of what feminists call "Not My Nigel" type of discourse; it's not that my husband is an amazing wonderful feminist because he *gasp* does his fair share around the house. But the point is that if you treat emotional labour as labour rather than as magic, or as what people (women) naturally do as an expression of "love", it's possible to work as a team to get that labour done. Including discussing how stuff gets divided up; I know a lot of basically egalitarian couples struggle because they share the actual practical work but aren't consciously aware of the deciding and planning effort that goes into making that sharing work.
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