G E N D E R – S O C I E T Y
Nawal Naz Tareque
When was the last time your dad was in charge of organising your birthday party? Did he make a tentative guest list and call everyone to ask if they can come? Did he make a list of the groceries necessary, buy them, prepare and cook the meals? I’m sure most of you will laugh it off by wondering the last time your dad even remembered your birthday. In most of these cases, it’s probably your mom who had to manage all these tasks.
The modern definition of emotional labour is paired with countless examples like above; it’s the unpaid effort women put in despite having full-time paid jobs: Remembering appointments, providing compassion, and being ultimately responsible for a functioning home life. I say “modern” because the term’s usage rose exponentially in feminist circles and articles 3-4 years ago, after Gemma Hartley’s article in Harper’s Bazaar became viral. This weight of unpaid labour is also carried by emotionally upfront men called “gay”, which reinforces the stereotype that navigating conversations around emotions is inherently feminine.
(Read more about women’s unpaid labour here.)
The question is: why do women bear the brunt of all the unresolved problems? Because they’re perceived to be more intuitive, empathetic, and adept at handling emotional labour since childhood. Thus, women are more likely to be recommended to become flight attendants, healthcare providers, and teachers than men as they are, and are expected to be more nurturing, caring, and gentle. Our society allows men to be emotionally lazy, closed-off, and borderline nonchalant, and places the onus on women to do emotional labour.
However, Arlie Hochschild, who coined the term in 1983 in her seminal book The Managed Heart, quickly reminded readers of the term’s original meaning. She talks about how the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy caused a “commodification of emotions”. This meant employees had to continuously suppress their emotions, veil any discomfort they felt, and smile to satisfy customers with their “good service”. Many were quick to point out the ambiguity in the definitions. Some went on to say the misuse of the term diverts the focus from modern labour’s struggles to a more gendered discussion, excluding those in the lower strata of society.
However, since the imbalance between men and women permeates in performing emotional labour, the use of the gendered definition makes more sense.
“The bulk of this work falls to women, and this is why the issue of emotional labour becomes a feminist issue,” says Dr Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s issues. “As a result, men are consciously and unconsciously permitted to avoid their emotional responsibilities and, instead, place the burden on women,” she elaborates on the expansion of the term.
This gendered inequality extends to household chores, where the disparity in workload is staggering. In 2018, the Melbourne Institute’s HILDA survey found that women perform 7 hours more housework each week than men on average. In homes where women are the sole earner, they perform 48.5% housework, and provide with roughly the same amount of childcare as their stay-at-home partner if they have children. Based on current improvement rates, the survey estimates it will take 30 years before men and women perform equal domestic duties in Australia.
Common examples of being emotionally exhausted in relationships due to being overburdened by care work include always listening attentively to a friend sharing their struggles, but shoving their own issues aside; continually worrying about how your actions will hurt others; not knowing how to say no or how to reject offers of help; having to assign chores to your partners and other members of the family, making you the manager of the house; being the one who always initiates conflict resolutions, and so on. Women are often expected to babysit younger siblings, children of friends, and other children. Wives are often criticised for not keeping a clean house, while husbands typically get a pass. In workplaces, it involves putting up a smile at all times, either by faking it or trying to change their emotions into something positive to ensure customers aren’t put off by your drained face. This shows how suffocating it is for people to constantly regulate their feelings and not have some space to breathe. What is portrayed as love and affection that must be given away for free, comes at the cost of people’s mental well-being.
On top of that, it’s even more unfair that men are celebrated for doing a fifth of what women do — that too after their wives/mothers/sisters begrudgingly told them to do so. Hartley encapsulates this annoyance using one example, “When I brush my daughter’s hair and elaborately braid it round the side of her scalp, I am doing the thing that is expected of me. When my husband brushes out tangles before bedtime, he needs his efforts noticed and congratulated — saying aloud in front of both her and me that it took him a whole 15 minutes.” When men get sick, women are expected to care for them. However, when women get sick, some men avoid going anywhere near them.
So how can we ensure the burden is no longer only on women’s shoulders? The first step is to teach women how to set boundaries on how much support they can give and prioritise themselves above others when going through an emotional crisis. In offices and other workspaces, getting ample breaks to de-stress and vent out their issues can be effective mood-lifters that don’t require wearing a mask of false positivity. Secondly, men must also learn how to deconstruct the origins of toxic masculinity. This is to let men know that it’s okay for them to be vulnerable as well, allowing them to open up more, and make them ponder over the effects of their words and actions, making them more responsible. They’ll also be willing to listen more and take part in managing the house, instead of relying on their partners or mothers to assign duties to them.
Let’s not hinder women’s self-expression anymore. Let’s give them some well-needed space and ask them what they need. Let’s share the care work instead of making it one-sided.
Nawal Naz Tareque is a depressed 20-year-old hoping to indoctrinate people into an Arctic Monkeys cult. When she’s not busy rewatching episodes of Bojack Horseman, she scribbles down her thoughts on life and more. You can rage against patriarchy with her by mailing her at [email protected].