Billing The Patriarchy For My Emotional Labor

by Alizah Salario

When I moved in with my fiance, I took perverse pleasure in pointing out the hidden grime throughout his apartment. Using a wet paper towel, I showed him the quarter inch of dust accumulated along the wall mouldings. I dragged the hallway runners to the laundromat and together we watched the muddy water slosh around through the bubble-like door. I ignored the cleaning schedule he and his roommate had set up because clearly, I was the only one who knew how to achieve a divine, toothbrush-and-bleach-to-scrub-the-tub-grout kind of clean.

I don’t mind. In fact, I’m slyly smug about it.

Is my attitude retrograde? Depends. We’re told that women are better at multitasking than men and innately more conscious of nuances and details. This makes us superior, and of course we should enjoy what we’re naturally good at — everything from remembering our friend’s birthday and the exact bottle of wine she likes to cleaning the bathtub! Now excuse me while I tighten my corset and gag myself with the toilet brush.

We ought to challenge the notion that women assume greater responsibility for managing undervalued emotional tasks at both work and in the home simply because it comes “naturally,” according to a recent article in The Guardian about emotional labor. In fact, putting a price tag on emotional labor might be feminism’s next frontier:

We [women] remember children’s allergies, we design the shopping list, we know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat. We notice people’s health, and force friends and family to go see the doctor.

We listen to our partner’s woes, forgive them the absences, the forgetfulness, the one-track mindedness while we’re busy organizing a playdate for the kids. We applaud success when it comes: the grant that was received, the promotion. It was their doing, and ours in the background. Besides, if we work hard enough, we can succeed too: all we need to do is learn to lean in.

But what if, much like childcare and housekeeping, the sum of this ongoing emotional management is yet another form of unpaid labor?

No one asked me to anticipate when we’ll need more toilet paper and find out which store has the best deal on an economy pack, either. My emotional labor is automatic, a kind of compulsion no different than brushing my teeth or checking prices before I purchase. Emotional labor is so intrinsic to how I function, so entangled with with physical and intellectual labor that it seems petty to itemize it a la carte, like when restaurants charge for extra dressing. Still, I’m going to try and parse it, because I’m curious: How much is my emotional labor worth?

For instance, my actual work involves sending lots of follow-up emails about freelance payments; my emotional labor is starting them with “I hope all is well” and making sure I don’t ruffle any feathers, even when asking for what’s rightfully owed to me. In the same way we deduct a third of our paycheck (in New York) for taxes, can I tack on a third of my income to cover emotional labor?

The other day I found myself apologizing when someone accidentally stretched her arm into my face during yoga. Sorry for taking up too much space! Is managing other people’s feelings emotional labor, too?

Yes! The article continues:

In a work context, emotional labor refers to the expectation that a worker should manipulate either her actual feelings or the appearance of her feelings in order to satisfy the perceived requirements of her job. Emotional labor also covers the requirement that a worker should modulate her feelings in order to influence the positive experience of a client or a colleague.

For example, boardroom members — male and female — may have to schmooze clients to the same extent (a formal expectation that goes with their jobs) but women may be expected, on top of this, to contribute to office harmony by remembering colleagues’ birthdays, or making small chit-chat to staff. Male colleagues may do this too, but if they do it will be noticed as a plus (“isn’t he sweet and generous with his time?”).

Consider the repercussions for women who eschew emotional labor. Women who appear unconcerned with manipulating their feelings to please others or sharing warm fuzzies with colleagues — say, Hillary Clinton or Angelina Jolie — are often derided as cold, untrustworthy, even unnatural. Empathy, vulnerability and sacrifice are still considered a woman’s territory, while some women might save time, and thus money, by refusing to do emotional labor, they lose “points” in other ways.

I’d love to bill the patriarchy for the costs of my emotional labor, charging interest each time I do something thoughtful and sweet that would would be considered a bonus for a man. The onus on women do the unpaid heavy lifting of emotional labor is less the result of individual choices than a flawed system. The Guardian article suggests that emotional labor is the next feminist frontier not because it’s the only gender inequality out there, but because it’s the one we quietly accept.

This is where I feel slightly responsible. It might be gendered and unfair, but I not only accept but take great pride in my ability to assess the emotional tenor of a given situation, to bear the burden of discomfort so others don’t have to, to diffuse tensions so my friends and loved ones feel comfortable, emotionally and physically. I dole appreciation and validation out liberally, and I value my emotional labor — even though I get paid squat for it — because I know I excel at it. Emotional deftness is my ace in the hole.

In the workplace, we’re governed by masculine expectations that equate aggression, power and visible achievement with success and self-worth. In my career I play by these rules, even when they feel uncomfortable to me. But I’ll never win a game that’s stacked against me. I know I can never lean in far enough or speak loud enough — and that’s fine with me. I want to achieve on my terms.

That’s why I feel so smug about emotional labor, and even jealous when another woman outdoes me on the caring and thoughtful front. If I remember a co-worker’s birthday, but you remember the birthday and bake homemade gluten-free muffins, I’ll probably start having Bad Blood fantasies.

This is, of course, messed up. The expectation of emotional labor sets women against each other, and it sets us up for failure. The cost of this, I think, is enormous, and one that can’t be boiled down to a dollar amount. It’s impossible to know how much labor we don’t even bother to measure actually costs.

I resigned myself to ending this column on a note of despair, contrary to the spirit of rounding up. But instead, let’s think about the way forward. According to this thoughtful NYT opinions piece, Men’s Lib, there’s at least a partial answer.

As painful as it may be, men need to adapt to what a modern economy and family life demand. There has been progress in recent years, but it hasn’t been equal to the depth and urgency of the transformation we’re undergoing. The old economy and the old model of masculinity are obsolete. Women have learned to become more like men. Now men need to learn to become more like women.

I would be thrilled if more men learned the skills of emotional labor. Just don’t expect me to teach them.

The Roundup takes a glass half full approach to personal and behavioral finance. In her columns, Alizah examines the biases, assumptions and emotions we often unknowingly attach to money. And yes, she always rounds up.

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