emotional labor

Making Invisible Work Visible

Labor is hard, physical work. Often it’s easy to spot. You feel sore from it the next day.

By Ashley Rigby

Labor. Whether you’ve birthed a child, worked in construction, or moved into a new home with a staircase, we all know what it is. It’s defined as hard, physical work. Often, it’s easy to spot. You feel sore from it the next day.

Sociologists have studied the concept of emotional labor since the late 1900s. Emotional labor (aka invisible work) can be tricky to define and often harder to see. In many cases, there is nothing to see. Some refer to it as managing feelings and expressions, or making sure your loved ones are as comfortable as can be. This guy refers to it as the “the shit someone does that goes unrecognized”. For this post; I’m referring to the latter definition.

For example, no one celebrates when the kids’ talons are trimmed, nor when a stray, shriveled-up baby carrot abandoned at the refrigerator drawer finally gets tossed, or when salt and pepper shakers are, for the love of God, refilled. It just gets done.

Millions of tiny little things, that add up over time, just get taken care of.

Last Mother’s Day, a friend on social media suggested that her followers listen to this podcast. I listened, then made my husband listen to it, per her recommendation. I’d heard the term emotional labor before. I’d had plenty of conversations on invisible work, family management, division of labor, and so on with friends, family members, and certainly my husband.

Emotional labor is roughly defined as “the shit that someone does that goes unrecognized”

But this time, something stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about emotional labor as it relates to raising a family on a nearly daily basis since listening.

Emotional labor impacts all people. It applies to the masses, regardless of status, demographic, geography, sexual orientation, profession, or gender. However, I am most aware of how it impacts married professionals with children, being that I am one, and that’s who I spend most of my time with. Culturally and historically, women do the lion's share of the invisible labor. Our society grooms even the most progressive of feminist women and men to expect - and fulfill - certain roles.

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To be fair, I love some of the traditional gender roles that Jeff and I take on pretty naturally and enjoyably. For example, on any given day I know nothing about our car. I don’t know where it’s parked or how much gas is in it and would have no idea if it’s been sitting in a tow lot for a week. Luckily, this is Jeff’s domain. In the same regard, Jeff follows my lead regarding the kids health, dental, and social needs.

But regardless of how the labor is split or shared, we can’t solve for the negative implications and burden alone. We need support, collaboration, partnership, awareness, and understanding from our partners, our family, our community, our employers, and our politicians.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many amazing women. They are hard-working, smart, creative, caring, ambitious, capable, funny, fun, Swiss Army fucking life ninjas.

You know who I’m talking about. It’s the lady you secretly fantasize about catching an impromptu flight with, dipping out on routine and responsibility for a long weekend and hitting up a spa, a show, and a cool rooftop hotel bar (and certainly without creating blow-by-blow instructions and pre-cooked meals for those left behind). Amiright?! These ladies are partnered up with some of the best spouses out there.

So, if quality characteristics are plentiful among us, why do we struggle with emotional labor, division of labor, and family management? These seem like problems we could solve with a large pot of coffee, a white board, some 90s hip-hop, and a stack of post-its.

Why do we struggle with emotional labor, division of labor, and family management? These seem like problems we could solve with a large pot of coffee, a white board, some 90s hip-hop, and a stack of post-its.

Here is an exhaustive list of all that we manage in attempt to create healthy, safe, engaging, and enjoyable lives for our families. If you think this list too long to read in detail, it’s even more ridiculous that we do many of these things on repeat, day after day. I manage some parts; my husband manages others, and we delegate what we can.

What’s on your list that isn’t mentioned here?

This doesn’t even include all of the many non-kid activities (some visible and some not) that we do, such as watch T.V, waste time on social media, exercise, socialize, have fun, travel, have sex, kick-ass at work, pursue side gigs, volunteer, and spend time making our communities better.

Come on, smart people, can’t we solve this? If we make “invisible” work visible, won’t it be easier for us to appreciate the work, delegate roles and responsibilities, create more sustainable practices, policies and cultures, and just stop doing shit that doesn’t really matter?