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The Stupid-Easy Guide to Emotional Labor

Ever had a woman remind you to call your mom on her birthday? Ever had a woman remember to send around a card for the boss’s birthday, then proceed to buy the card, pass it around, double check that everyone who wanted to sign it did (so no one would feel left out)?

Then you, sir, have been the recipient of emotional labor, also known as free, invisible work women do to keep track of the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life: the glue that holds households, and by extension, proper society, together.

First things first, though: Let’s not call it just emotional labor. Let’s also call it mandholding. If you’ve had a woman run the administrative energy of your life in the background, you’ve had your mand held. Man + handholding is the perfect portmanteau for what we mean by emotional labor. It’s women doing all the things men ought to know perfectly well to do. Or it’s men doing them, but only because a woman told them to. While the “stuff” could change depending on the man, the one thing all the stuff has it common is that women do it or tell men to do it, and they’ve been doing it or telling men to do it for so long that men don’t even notice.

There are many guides out there to emotional labor, and while they all mean well, they spend too long cutting to the proverbial chase of what it is and how you can stop it, or they fall short of understanding how deep the problem goes by thinking that it’s just letting a woman dial up the conference call or book the restaurant reservation.

It is all that, but it’s so much more — it’s all the emotional attention, advice, listening and caring women do for male partners, friends, coworkers and bosses for free, presumably out of the goodness of their hearts, because they’re better at it and naturally suited for it.

So we hereby present a guide to mandholding that trims the fat. What it is, why it’s a problem, and why — if you’re a halfway decent dude who wants to be good — you should try to correct. It’s the least you can do.

What is it?

As stated before, it’s all the mundane, administrative tasks of work and relationships that women take care of for men, either by doing it themselves, or reminding others to do it. Here’s an easy example: Your wife says for her birthday she’d love it if you’d hire a cleaning service to deep clean the house. You say yes, and ask her to just let you know the best one to hire, thus requiring her to do all the legwork of researching, comparing and shopping for the right one, only so that you can simply purchase it after she’s effectively done all the work of the gift.

The original term is from some early 1980s scholarship from sociologist Arlie Hochschild who wrote a book called The Managed Heart. She was focused mainly on women’s work in jobs as flight attendants and bill collectors who had to constantly contort themselves to convey annoying information in a pleasant way so customers wouldn’t get upset. The gist of it was that it takes a huge emotional toll on a person to constantly tend to the emotions of others to a degree that is never reflected by their status, much less their low wages.

Though her original intent wasn’t to talk about how much women listen to men’s feelings and needs, anticipate them, absorb them and manage them for no pay, emotional labor is also being burdened with men’s insecurities and feelings in a one-sided way that isn’t reciprocated — that’s what it’s come to mean. Today’s woman has adopted the term to describe the “invisible work of caring” required of women in nearly every setting to make everything feel nice, pleasant and cared for in the domestic, office and social realms.

Even though it’s never written into a woman’s job description, a woman can take a job as, say, a copy editor, and find herself reprimanded in an annual review for not being bubbly enough, or an executive level woman will be asked to put together a small gathering for a male colleague’s birthday, with no other party planning qualifications aside from the fact that she is a woman.

Generally, when a woman you know complains about emotional labor, she’s referring to all the dumb, boring shit you don’t want to do and rely on her to do entirely for you, or tell you to do, whether it’s reminders to attend your own dentist appointment, regular check-ins to see how your relationship is going, or just listening to your feelings in a sensitive caring way that she doesn’t expect to get in return. (And if she did, she would likely be disappointed, because men don’t seem to recognize they should reciprocate such acts.)

Why does it matter?

Because whether it’s a doctor appointment for you or your kids, a grocery list of items you’ve run low on at home, or a reminder to book that restaurant reservation, it’s the little stuff that maintains social relationships and good standing in communities, at work, or at home. It sucks when only one half the population feels burdened to do these things. If we all agreed they don’t matter and no one ever had to have work drinks for an anniversary, that would be one thing. But everyone seems to agree these things are important for the social fabric. Yet only one gender feels any pressure or obligation to make sure they happen. Unfair!

Can you give me some easy examples?

Yes. See all of the above! But if you need some more mandholding, it’s waiting on your girlfriend or wife to tell you to grab some toilet paper, even though you took a shit this morning and swiped the last square. It’s expecting a woman (mom, girlfriend, future sister-in-law) to remind you to get fitted for the tux for your brother’s upcoming wedding, even though you agreed to be in it and know you need to get that tux. It’s checking in to make sure the dog gets his vaccinations, or that taxes are due on April 15, or you have to send out invitations for your kid’s birthday party several weeks in advance so people can plan accordingly. It’s, as one woman put it in a long thread of examples on the subject, staying up until 2 a.m. to listen to your boyfriend talk about his problems, only to have him fall asleep when you talk about your own.

Isn’t that just, like, natural for a woman?

Yes, all women are born caring about mundane, domestic tasks. JK, it’s learned. Women are culturally conditioned from birth to anticipate needs and concern themselves with domestic cares as some expected training for the children they may or may not ever have. They’re also judged more harshly for it in ways men aren’t. And it’s exhausting.

Speaking of exhausting, if you want to get a sense of how irritated they are that men expect this from them, read this 70 page PDF documenting their complaints. ::crickets::

Let me make it easy for you: One example given on the above thread is of a dad who signed up his own email at his child’s elementary school, not realizing he, and only he, would be soon besieged by every school function, play, wacky hair day, playdate invite, birthday party, and so on. He lost his mind, and ultimately began forwarding every such expectation to his wife. Though she begrudgingly took care of most of the events, the experience was humbling and illuminating for him. He soon realized how exhausting the expectation was that he organize every detail of social functions for the family.

Why don’t women just tell men what to do then, if it matters so much?

They do, and men usually respond with things like, “I’m happy to do it if you just remind me!” If this sounds like mandholding, you are a genius.

Okay fine then why don’t women just stop doing it?

Short of an all-out emotional labor strike, they’ve tried. But when women stop doing emotional labor, essential aspects of nurturing humanity don’t get done. Let’s think about this pragmatically: Only so many people are willing to keep shitting with utter abandon without the security of a fresh roll of toilet paper nearby.

Why don’t women just break up with dudes who don’t do anything?

The notion that there’s a fictional better man out there who happens to know how to do all these things is a strawman. Because all men are more or less conditioned to expect this work from women, even so-called “good guys” can be guilty of forgetting or ignoring daily essential upkeep of domestic and office life because someone has always done it for them, and someone who feels more pressure to do it will step in if no one else does. That person is most always a woman. Again, this is a conditioning problem. Even the woman who complains about her husband’s inability to notice you’re out of dishwasher tabs realizes that men and women are at cross purposes in this arena. All we can do is identify it and work to eradicate the inequity.

Why is it that big of a deal if men don’t do this stuff??

Is “dying early” a good enough reason? One study found that men who are socially isolated — which means they don’t do the remembering of birthdays, thank yous, daily domestic upkeep and the emotional work of caring, which tends to cement, foster and maintain good relationships — are 82 percent more likely to die of heart disease.

If that’s not a good enough reason to work on how much mandholding you require of the women you love, consider that they are, no matter what they pretend, very, very pissed at you.

So, what can I do?

Knowing about it is a great first step. Talking about it is a great second step. Some people advocate for setting up shared calendars to track and maintain all the boring shit that households need to run, but if you expect your lady to set that up so you can just log on and check off a few errands, you’ve missed the point. If anything, simply realizing it’s happening, and that it’s actually essential to your life running smoothly, would be a huge first step.

Because after you realize that much is true, how could you do anything short of pitching in equally?