Emotional labor takes a toll

Emotional labor is the care-based work people perform to ensure those around them are comfortable and happy. Often, it's women who are expected to be the nurturers, the caretakers. To remember the birthdays, anticipate and meet the needs of family and friends.



February 5, 2020 - 9:16 AM

Lexy Turntine

Equally as unfortunate as it is unsurprising, gender inequality has followed us into the new decade. Our unwelcome visitor takes many forms, but an inequality given significantly less attention than the wage gap, or catcalling, is the unequal distribution of emotional labor. Women have long been the burden carriers, the shoulders to cry on, the hands to hold. Emotional labor typically goes unnoticed, as does the discrepancy.

The concept of emotional labor was first introduced in the early 1980s. It was defined as the process by which workers are expected to manage their feelings in accordance with organizationally defined rules. Since then, the term emotional labor has expanded and evolved to include all types of emotional management. A definition I’ve found helpful is one written by author and reporter Gemma Hartley. She describes emotional labor as the care-based work people perform to ensure those around them are comfortable and happy.

The discrepancy of emotional labor is built into the expectations and standards women are held to. Women are treated as the nurturers, the caretakers. We remember the birthdays, anticipate and meet the needs of our family and friends, and listen to as many woes and grievances as any therapist.

For example, in many heterosexual marriages and relationships, women do all of the gift-buying. Whether it be a mother-in-law’s birthday gift, Christmas presents for their children, or a cousin’s anniversary, women are the ones doing the shopping. Women handle the teenagers’ meltdowns, and listen intently to everyone’s afflictions.

This brings me to another great example: the open-door policy women are expected to have for anyone in anguish. No one stops to ask us how emotionally draining it can be to let someone verbally offload all of their sorrows onto you. We do not talk about the toll it takes to counsel another when we do not have the answers, or the accompanying feeling of responsibility to solve a problem that feels as though it has become ours, despite our lack of involvement.

Acts of emotional labor may be overlooked, but the absence of these tasks is recognized immediately. Some who argue that emotional work is a nonissue suggest women simply stop doing it. It’s not so simple. We cannot refuse these responsibilities, because they are directly tied to our community’s balance. Sure, many care-based jobs are social, and may seem unimportant when viewed in isolation. Yet, when the jobs are not completed, social tensions arise. 

Just as an excess of emotional labor is overwhelming for women, a lack of emotional labor can be damaging to men. Our gender roles assign most emotional labor to women, making the social world something we understand, and can navigate easily. For example, consoling a friend creates a rapport. I’ve helped someone who is struggling, and should I be in a similar situation, I know they would return the favor. Counseling others also gives us practice processing and articulating our feelings in healthy ways. Women are taught emotional intelligence from a young age, without realizing it. This is why women are more likely to speak out when they are struggling. If I were in crisis right now, I can think of ten people I could call immediately. This feeling, that if I should fall someone will catch me, is not one many men can relate to. As a result, men are less likely to ask for help when they need it.

The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study last year reporting that in 2017, suicides within young men aged 15-24 reached its highest rate since 2000. The study noted a recent increase in suicides of boys 15-19 years old. Almost 18% of deaths within boys of this age group were by suicide, compared to 5% within girls of the same ages.

Lack of experience with emotional labor results in more social isolation than we realize,                                                                                                                                         and it only worsens with age. Most married men I know have few friendships independent of their marriages. That is to say most of their friendships are through, and maintained by, their wives. If a straight man in his forties were to be suddenly divorced, how many of his friends and acquaintances would he lose in the absence of his wife? Without female companions, so many older men lose their sense of community.

These are issues that must be recognized and changed in young men before it becomes a life-long struggle. The teenage boy who swallows all his emotions until he lashes out by punching a wall, or picking a fight, is a trope that movies and TV shows frequently convey as “normal.” It may be our normal, but that does not mean it is healthy behavior. The suffer-in-silence mentality seen in boyhood directly results in men who feel they have nowhere to go, and no one to turn to, when in crisis. 

I haven’t got any earth-shattering solutions to propose, as this is a complex issue that deserves to be studied in far more depth than I have had the opportunity to. In the meantime understanding, recognition, and appreciation can go a long way. Emotional labor is necessary, but balance is key; both an excessive or deficient amount can be destructive. To men: pay attention to the women in your life silently keeping our social institutions intact, and when you notice an emotional task that does not fall on your plate of responsibilities, step up. 

Lexy Turntine is a sophomore studying at Allen Community College. 

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