’Tis the Season for Emotional Labor

Who else is absolutely overwhelmed with work right now?

I’ve been putting in 12-hour days, and I’ll continue to put in 12-hour days right up until Thanksgiving — because many of my freelance clients want Black Friday-related stories, and I am quite happy to provide them.

I was quite happy to provide extra work when I had my last office job, too. I was happy to call and confirm addresses for holiday cards, and happy to hand-address the holiday cards, and happy to help plan and prepare the large holiday party we threw for everyone else, and the smaller holiday party we threw for ourselves.

I’m not being facetious — or, as Ester suggested in our last Friday chat, painfully optimistic — when I say that I am happy to do all of this work. I like the extra cash I’m going to earn for all of these Black Friday and holiday articles, and when I worked the office job, I liked doing what was asked of me and doing it well. It’s the sort of thing where you can go in complaining about the extra work, or go in saying “this is what happens every holiday season,” and just ride it through.

But why does this holiday season leave so many of us worn out, admitting that we don’t want to go to the tree lighting or the friend’s party, that everything we might have looked forward to has receded in importance as we’ve gotten closer to it?

It’s because most holiday work is straight-up emotional labor.

The hand-written holiday cards, the decisions about votive candles and hors d’oeuvres, the welcoming smile as you greet someone and take their coat — that’s all emotional labor. People in a company work to present the emotion that the company itself cannot, as if we were individual molecules of serotonin running through the larger corpus of the corporation. We design the words and set the table and greet the guests, bringing tidings of comfort and joy.

(I am quoting Christmas carols in mid-November because all of this is preparation for Christmas, the hundred annual Christmases we create for other people before coming quietly home to our own diverse holidays.)

If you’re in a service job, you’ve been doing this work year-round, but the hours have gotten longer as the days have gotten shorter. The memo comes out: no one can take off this month. You have to be ready to provide whatever is needed.

Freelancers and gig economy workers are not immune; sure, we can theoretically set our own schedules, but the work ramps up just the same and we would be fools to turn down the money or weaken the relationships with our clients. This is the time of year where we strengthen relationships, reminding people of their importance in our lives and ours in theirs. We spend the days emphasizing our connections and letting people know how much we care — and then we come home and give each holiday card a cursory glance before putting them into a stack on the table.

Then there are our own holiday celebrations to plan and purchase and manage, and there is a gob of emotional labor involved in that, from finding the right presents to buying the clothes that assure family and friends that this year has been a success, that it has all gone well, that we are putting aside our individual sadnesses or conflicts or anxieties and making a bright night in the winter darkness.

It’s no wonder that we look at the invitation to our friend’s party and think I have given out all of my celebration; my friend will understand. There’s a temporary respite in sitting at home for a night and watching Netflix, or thinking you’re going to watch Netflix and then spending the evening scrolling your phone and answering emails. But it’s hard not to do that without also feeling a little badly, because you feel like you should feel something else.

After all, it’s the holidays. We wait for these all year.

This story is part of our Holidays 2015 series.

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