According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day celebrates “when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.”
Great, let’s celebrate paid workers. Let’s also celebrate the unpaid and unappreciated domestic and emotional labor performed predominantly by women that also contributes to America’s strength, prosperity and well-being.
While women may not have a designated labor union to fight for their recognition, celebrating Labor Day without including our skills seeks to perpetuate the antiquated notion that paid work is somehow more valuable than the 24-7 unpaid labor involved with running a household and family — a role that makes the paid work possible.
Emotional labor is a term that’s relatively new, but the skillset it refers to is not.
Originally coined decades ago in reference to the need to manage one’s emotions in the workplace, the phrase conveniently left out the same work performed every day at home simply because it wasn’t paid. In recent years, this has led to the expansion of the term by feminists to apply it to both paid and unpaid labor.
In this context, the term emotional labor refers not only to the performance of domestic labor, but also to the unseen initiation and delegation of that labor, as well as the emotional skills required to effectively manage a household, family, partnership and self.
For example, it’s not just doing the dishes after dinner. It’s seeing the dirty dishes, doing them without being asked, noticing the dish soap is almost out along the way, adding it to the running grocery list and then cleaning one favorite cup by hand because you realize the dishwasher cycle won’t be done in time and it’s needed for a smooth bedtime routine for a cranky toddler.
Then, after bedtime, it’s texting your in-laws a cute goodnight photo of said child so they can feel loved and included, emailing your child’s teacher about the upcoming parent-teacher conference, baking a pie for the school bake sale and ultimately managing your own emotions when these things presents unexpected complications — all while your devoted partner is too tired from work and catches up on personal time by reading a book or watching the game.
For millions of women this is the norm — an endless list of things to do for other people with little help and most of the work going unrecognized and unappreciated.
It’s expected of women. It isn’t expected for men. No one thanks a woman for taking her children to the park. Everyone thanks a man for it.
Even today, polls consistently show that heterosexual women continue to perform the bulk of unpaid domestic and emotional labor in shared households — even when they contribute full time to the household via the paid work economy.
Polls also show that the type of domestic labor taken on by heterosexual men remains in line with traditional gender roles, such as occasional yard work or car maintenance. These trends have only been worsened by the pandemic. So much for equality.
The common refrain by women boils down to something like this: “He says he’s trying to help, and that if I need more help to just ask him. But that’s the thing, I’m tired of asking. I’m tired of managing everything on my own. It’s his house and family, too.”
And therein lies the emotional labor; the delegation, the management, the sole ownership of the home and family happiness. In this example, the man isn’t an equal partner, he’s an assistant, and there’s a reason that in business the management role is worth more.
There is little evidence to suggest the skills of emotional labor are inherently tied to sex, and far more evidence to suggest that societal influence and gendered expectations have largely prevented men from achieving the robust household and family roles they may not even recognize would offer them greater fulfillment.
Few women seek to give up emotional labor in full, we simply want better balance. After all, it’s more fulfilling to hold some ownership and depth in our life and relationships, an experience men are largely missing out on.
And here’s the catch. While paid workers are frequently told to enjoy their day of rest on Labor Day, for the millions of women who still contribute the bulk of domestic labor, this so-called day of rest is anything but.
Instead, it’s more frequently a day of even more unpaid and mostly unrecognized work as family members remain home, requiring even more household and emotional management.
After all, the family invitations, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, child care, vacation planning and so on to prepare for a three-day weekend doesn’t happen all by itself. When is it our turn for a holiday?
So this Labor Day, let’s celebrate not only those who get paid for their hard work, but also those who have performed silently in the background for centuries without holidays off.
And for the heterosexual men inclined to do better, try prompting a conversation with the women in your life about how you recognize their efforts and want to learn and grow in emotional labor. I can almost assure you that done right, they will be thrilled.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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