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We’re Going to Have to Factor in Emotional Labor if We Actually Want Work/Life Balance

March 22, 2017

We’re Going to Have to Factor in Emotional Labor if We Actually Want Work/Life Balance

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love to cook, and that I make almost all of our meals from scratch. Which is why you will probably be surprised that for the last two weeks I have been completely incompetent at meal planning, and even did a big grocery trip to Trader Joe’s to stock up on prepared and semi-prepared foods to cope. My house is messier than I would like it to be, and as you may have noticed, I have been mostly absent from blogging for the last few weeks. You know when your computer suddenly starts whirring, and everything slows down and you can’t see why, but you know there’s some background process that’s taking up a ton of RAM and you just need to stop clicking frantically and wait it out? That whirring computer was me the last few weeks. I have had my moments of beating myself up about letting some stuff slip, but to be honest, I am mostly okay with it, because I know that despite letting these things go temporarily I have been working hard the last few weeks on some big stuff.

Thing 1) After a long and difficult decision-making process our dog moved out to live with a new (wonderful) person, which is a story for another day, but saying goodbye after seven years was incredibly hard and tearful, and the time leading up to his departure was full of anxiety and sadness. Thing 2) Our roommate who is one of my closest friends moved out yesterday, and leading up to that she has been going through some pretty complicated and tough times in other areas of her life. Thing 3) The little guy and I both were sick until late last week, and taking care of an ill small child while you need a sick day yourself is incredibly taxing. If you are thinking “Only that last thing sounds like work, what are you talking about?” Then my friend, we need to talk about emotional labor:

Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job. More specifically, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. This includes analysis and decision making in terms of the expression of emotion, whether actually felt or not, as well as its opposite: the suppression of emotions that are felt but not expressed

I think this definition (via Wikipedia) is a little narrow. We perform a huge amount of emotional labor in our personal relationships too. In my case as a stay at home caregiver, there is a lot of emotional labor involved in staying calm, assertive, and present for a tiny developing person, regardless of what I might be feeling in that moment. I am not saying you shouldn’t express your emotions in front of your children, but there is a level of responsible self-regulation that in the case of difficult circumstances, for instance physical pain,  worry about an ailing or far away loved one, or stress over financial circumstances, can take a tremendous amount of energy, especially if it continues over prolonged periods of time.

There are also times when emotional labor sneaks in unexpected; let’s say you make a coffee date with a friend. You arrive and find out that your friend is going through a horrible break up and you listen and are present for your friend for over an hour. While it’s definitely important to be there for your friend, make sure you’re weighing this visit in the right category on your imaginary balance sheet. What you may have planned as a self-care activity turned into some heavy lifting emotional labor, and that’s okay, but don’t try to force yourself to act like you just did something that replenished you. Emotional labor takes on many varied forms; it’s important to recognize and label the major sources of emotional labor in your life so you can plan accordingly.

All that being said, I have a lot of questions for you; do you account for your emotional labor when you mentally compute your workload? Do you schedule extra self-care and respite for yourself when your emotional labor load is higher? Do you ensure that you get time off not only from your concrete responsibilities, but your emotional ones too? Do you have a mental list of commitments you can safely drop or step back from for a while when your emotional labor load is too high?  Do you have a list of activities that recharge you and a plan to make them happen? How do we support each other within our communities to account for our whole workloads, not just the visible tasks that are easily checked off a list? We will never achieve the elusive “work-life balance” as long as the hulking work load of emotional labor is not factored into the equation.

Here’s a few articles I think are worth your time on the subject of emotional labor:

‘Women are just better at this stuff’: is emotional labor feminism’s next frontier?

Why Women Are Tired: The Price of Unpaid Emotional Labor

8 Lessons That Show How Emotional Labor Defines Women’s Lives

(Quick note; the above articles are all about women, but emotional labor is work that is done across genders, though study after study shows that women do the bulk of it. Thanks for reading.)

  1. All of this is really true for my family, especially as I plan ahead for the challenges of teaching. Special Ed is so emotionally demanding (as well as cognitively and physically!) and a real work-life balance for me/my family definitely will not look like a 50/50 split of the parenting/family communication duties. And FYI I shared this with the Chatt Intersectional Feminist Alliance and people are loving it!

    • jillkathome

      Thank you so much for sharing! When I worked at Lund with at-risk moms trying in many cases one last effort to reunify with their kids, I was totally useless when I got home at the end of the day. Emotional labor is no joke. It's good that you guys are already talking about how that balance will look for you in your new role.

  2. This is a fantastic post! Thank you.

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