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Erm, what does ‘emotional labour’ mean?

Have you heard of ‘emotional labour’? Given that it’s being talked about all over the internet at the moment, you might well have. If you don’t know what it means, don’t worry. I didn’t know until not that long ago either. As it turns out, it’s something I’ve been experiencing and undertaking my entire life.

Even though we’re only really just starting to talk about it on a wider level, the term ‘emotional labour’ was actually thought up way back in 1983 by a sociologist called Arlie Russell Hochschild. When it was introduced, it was talked about in relation to the working world; basically matching your emotions to your job. So maybe a nurse would be calm and caring to reassure worried patients, or maybe a police officer would be strict and commanding to get someone in the street to respect them.

Since then, the meaning of the term has broadened and become what we know it as today. It still applies to jobs but it applies to lots of other things too and, generally, when we talk about emotional labour, it’s something that is expected of women and girls. In a nutshell, it’s all those unpaid things that women and girls do ‘naturally’. But really, we don’t do them naturally, we’ve just got used to doing them because that’s what we grew up doing. Here are some easy examples of emotional labour as it means now: remembering birthdays, managing the household. E.g. always knowing what needs cleaning/tidying/buying, being there for someone who’s going through a hard time.

They don’t necessarily sound too bad at first, I suppose. But when you’re doing all of those things and more – all at the same time – it starts getting pretty exhausting. Maybe you’re planning a surprise party, giving everyone advice on what presents to buy, supporting a friend through a break up, looking after a poorly family member and keeping on top of housework. That’s a lot of stuff to deal with on top of your everyday life and everything that comes along with it.

And the worst part is that you’re expected to do it because ‘you’re just better at those things’. But you’re not naturally better at those things at all! It’s just that, unfortunately, we still live in a society that places traditional expectations on women and girls. Things like caring, social planning, cleaning and emotional support.

Right now you might be thinking that it’s really easy to apply the concept of emotional labour to your mum or the older women in your life, but not so much to you. I can see why. Your mum/auntie/older sister probably has more responsibility in general. They might organise leaving dos at work, do most of the cooking at home, look after grandparents when they’re ill, make and remember dentist appointments, keep track of the calendar, buy birthday presents and remember important dates, but what does it mean for you? Here are some examples, so that you can start to recognise when you’re undertaking emotional labour:

– Listening to and solving all of your friend’s problems (especially when they don’t do the same for you)

– Choosing your mum’s Christmas presents for your brother or dad

– Always making sure your friends and family are happy

– Smiling or laughing when a boy makes an inappropriate comment so you don’t make him or others in the group feel bad or awkward

– Taking responsibility for organising younger siblings

– Reminding your dad of your mum’s birthday/their anniversary/Valentine’s day

– Doing more than your fair share of chores to avoid arguments

They’re just some of the ways you might be taking on emotional labour. Once you’re aware of it, you might start to notice lots of other things you do, too, no matter how big or small. And when you can recognise it, you’re entitled to start saying no.

If you have a friend who takes a lot from you but doesn’t give back, you’re entitled to tell them that you don’t feel you have the energy to solve their problems right now and that you need some support back. If you feel responsible for remembering important dates, stop reminding people. It’s not as easy as it sounds and you might feel bad at first but once you stop, people will realise just how much effort you’ve been putting in all this time. If you find that you do more of the chores around the house to avoid arguments or tension, stop. Remember, it’s not up to you to remind siblings what they should be doing. It’s more than enough to be responsible for your own jobs without managing theirs too.

Emotional labour takes up a lot of our time, resources and energy but often it’s not even acknowledged because it’s not regarded as important. But it is important. These small things (that add up to one enormous thing) are often what keep people’s lives ticking along smoothly. When you think of it like that, it sounds like a much bigger deal. Between school, hobbies, exams, family and a social life, you have plenty to do as it is without doing all those extras as well. Learn to recognise when you’re taking on too much emotional labour and feel powerful enough to say no.


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Image: Katie Edmunds

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