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Emotional labour: a woman's work is never done

by Holly


Is it just me, or is that to-do list eternal? I know I’m not alone when I type furiously about this subject and yet, how has this not become the conversation we have with our daughters, and their daughters? I know my mum was the same and I think back to the endless chores, the nitty gritty of life that she’d suck up and the little thanks she’d receive! I wish it was different, but so far I’ve fallen into the trap and it’s not obvious how to get out of it, without the support of everyone around me.

It’s time to wake up and become educated in ‘emotional labour’, the title given to the hidden work women did, continue to do and will do, until it is ‘outed’ – with solutions shared and encouraged. I think I’m on my way, but I still have far to travel and want to bring you on the journey with me too.

Firstly, I’d say I’ve never felt the burden of the woman’s work more than throughout this crazy period of time during the pandemic, which has added so many tasks to our daily lives, many unseen, and disproportionately falling on women. In fact, global data from UN Women suggests that the coronavirus pandemic could take gender equality back 25 years… back to another era! And I can feel it. Even though I don’t have a classic household thanks to Frank being at home 100% and looking after the home, I have found myself still with the never ending list of tasks.

This is the rhetoric which was going through my head this morning…

  • Book dog training, as I think Frank and I will have the shortest marriage if the dogs don’t stop barking when the doorbell goes. Also highlights my shopping addiction!
  • Fix the bloody doorbell, as the amount of Royal Mail red cards I’m getting through might seem like I’m addicted to shopping! Did I mention this already?
  • Harry’s school trousers still do not fit him – buy some.
  • Need to send back the ones that were too big.
  • Change hallway lightbulb.
  • Write to school about the insane GCSE plans.
  • Send Granny Mary flowers as she’s in her new care home.
  • Check Harry actually sent Aunty Gerry that blinking CHRISTMAS thank you!
  • Pop over to Mum & Dad’s for a cuppa, as Dad sounded down.
  • Need to change energy providers as the bill is too high.
  • Buy the soap for hand-washing clothes, as even though I add it to the list each week, it’s always forgotten.
  • Send a card to a friend’s mum who is going through a terrible time.
  • Get stamps.
  • The f**king dog food that was meant to be on subscription, so I did not need to order it, keeps not arriving thanks to Brexit and so the dog is going to go hungry tonight. Need to get into town and buy some urgently, can’t leave it to anyone else, as they’ll get the wrong type!
  • Haven’t messaged Frank back!

Oh and it goes on, doesn’t it? 

It’s funny though, as so many things you know shouldn’t be on your list, you seem to not be able to let go of! Or is it the pain of knowing if you don’t do it either it won’t be done in the way you want it to be done, or it won’t be done in a timely manner… as in, ever! Or what about if it’s the things that are not tasks, more the ‘thinking’ to-do list. Not only remembering everything that needs to be done but also all of the time it takes to really consider how you’ll address the elephant in the room on some family politics or if that friend is really okay? Or what about the right strategy when it comes to addressing an issue your child has at school and nailing the age-old balance between being really angry and not making your child hated in the teacher’s break room?! 

Be it ‘real’ things to do, or the time it takes to think ‘well’ and do what us women are so fabulous at, the fact remains it’s labour of types which takes time away from your soul, your work and I suppose, your living.

Emotional labour is a term I only learned last year, and it tends to be a very female issue. It covers all the things we often ‘just do’ as women – from remembering birthdays, wrapping the present and writing the card, to organising playdates, looking after our parents, constructing the shopping list and making the costume for world book day! All of this unpaid labour falls (usually) disproportionally on women. The duties that are expected of us but go unnoticed. Free, invisible work women do to keep track of all the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life.

The term itself isn’t new – it was coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling and, as she conceived it, referred to ‘the work of managing one’s own emotions that were required by certain professions’. Such as flight attendants being expected to smile and be friendly even in stressful situations.

It’s more recently been popularised by US journalist Gemma Hartley, who used the term in a different way in a 2017 Harper’s Bazaar article titled ‘women aren’t nags – we’re just fed up’. In this, she linked emotional labour to housework and ‘life admin’. In her book, Fed Up: Emotional Labour, Women, and the Way Forward, she distils it quite perfectly as ‘emotion management and life management combined’ and writes about a specific kind of frustration felt when this life admin, and all the research and thankless ‘nagging’ required to keep on top of it, builds up. Managing this ‘invisible work’ leaves you feeling tired, grumpy and, funnily enough, emotional!!

I found myself talking to Frank about this a few weeks ago. I asked him to never forget to feed the dogs at 6pm sharp, if I don’t. That I needed him to be as militant as I am in this, because it mattered to me (to us), but I needed it to be one thing I could forget about. I explained there are things in my life that I need to press the delete button on, but could only do this with his help. He has, to this day, not forgotten and I have started to relax about the canine mealtimes. I’ve promised myself that once a week I’ll tackle one other thing with him or Harry. This week, he doesn’t know it (and lucky him!) he will have me chatting about Harry’s exams and how I need him to keep Harry to his revision plan. I need to rely on him, to play ‘bad cop’ and to not be the sweet Dad he is and allow Harry to talk his way out of revision! 

Another game changer in my life has been the power of subscriptions. All the things I used to have to remember, now just arrive. I don’t have to use my brain cells on the mundane – the invisible tasks of our lives. Currently in my life, these are the things I subscribe to: 

‘Emotional labour is a term I only learned last year, and it tends to be a very female issue. It covers all the things we often ‘just do’ as women. From remembering birthdays, wrapping the present and writing the card, to organising playdates, looking after our parents, constructing the shopping list and making the costume for world book day!’

So the question for today is – can you delegate, automate, subscribe or drop at least one thing that’s on your never-ending list? One of the hardest things about being overwhelmed is it puts blinkers on us. We can’t see the bigger picture and can become fixated on really small things adding even more pressure to ourselves. We gain comfort in being busy worker bees, doing all the invisible stuff of life. 

But we have to remember, there are no gold stars. We’re not racking up points and so it is for us, and only us, to take control and ‘do different’. Surely we know by now, that we have to give ourselves permission to do less, enabling us to teach our daughters the different way. If we don’t owe ourselves that, surely we owe it to them?

Remember: ask, delegate or subscribe.

‘A woman’s work is never done’ pin badge: Word for Word Factory. ‘Busy Women’ print: Jade Fisher. Stitched hoop: Craft The Revolution

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