This very lengthy MetaFilter thread about emotional labor, and how strongly it's gender-coded, is fascinating me to the point of distraction. I've emailed it to a few colleagues, can't shut up about it to Andy, and every time I refresh the thread, there's a whole batch of new comments that I've been reading all week, ten minutes or so at a time. The concept is not new to me, nor is the feminist angle on it, but there's something about the sheer weight of anecdote and just-below-the-surface rage in the comments that's turning that knowledge from something intellectual into something visceral. I've also mostly considered emotional labor as labor, as an element of workplace labor, and never really thought about its role in personal relationships. It's prompted some introspection, a little bit of critical distance, some examining of my own behavior, upbringing and family relationships, and a lot of uncertainty. Because, yet again, I find that the 'Men do this, women do this' generalization doesn't hold for me, and a lot of the "Men are treated like this, women are treated like this" doesn't either.
A big part of the frustration that comes across from commenters is about what they feel obligated to do, about the consequences that come when, as is so often suggested, a person Nopes out of some bit of work they don't enjoy, or receive reciprocation for, and how those consequences are often enforced by the very people who dismiss the value of the labor, or don't even recognize it as labor in the first place. There are so many sad variations on: "Why do you martyr yourself planning get-togethers with my family, who you don't enjoy spending time with?" "Good point, I'm going to stop doing that." "Gosh, I never see my family anymore and that makes me sad! Whatever shall I do!" "HEADDESK." Each of my parents Noped out of certain family obligations (my dad very explicitly and deliberately, my mom more as a function of distance) and having that example, plus being an only child, probably taught me that relationships can be an optional thing, and helped me figure out what sort of relationships were valuable enough for me to have in my life. I have an independent streak that is just shy of pathological, but I also know a lot of wonderful people whose presence in my life makes it better than a solitary life would be. The work of maintaining those relationships is something that I think is valuable, even as I recognize that I don't reliably do the work.
I think this concept is also fueling comments like "Romantic relationships take work!" that have always felt sort of weird to me. I don't feel that way about my relationship. I feel like my partner is basically my favorite person in the world, and spending time with him makes me happy on a consistent basis, and I like the idea that I do the same for him. There isn't a lot of obligation there, and whenever I do something that, all else being equal, I'd rather Nope out of, I do it for him because I want to do things for my favorite person in the world. And he does stuff for me, including letting me Nope out of things without getting upset. He does a lot of emotional labor, in fact, including a lot of family relationship maintenance that, were I in his shoes, I might have Noped out of long ago. He also does more than his share of housework, lets me unload about the emotional labor I do at work*, and notices and acknowledges the stuff I do for him. He noticed a while back that the hosts of this podcast I listen to, which is in no way the sort of podcast he'd be into, were doing a live appearance in Cambridge, and gave me a heads up about it. Then he got me tickets to the appearance for my birthday. Then he listened to an episode of the podcast, even, and that right there was effort, and the more I think about it, the happier it makes me.
So maybe the biggest takeaway me has not been some kind of Problem That Has No Name realization (though I did start to understand why feminist consciousness-raising groups became a Thing while scrolling through all that pain) but more a growing understanding that I am fully capable of doing more than I am on this front, especially in my personal life, and that I am kind of excited about it. Because although I am kind of a slacker with this stuff, I also know that I'm pretty good at it, and I do find it satisfying, probably because I've unconsciously engineered my life to make it an entirely voluntary thing, and I only volunteer for the things that are worth it. Andy is totally worth it! So he shouldn't have to always be the one to clean the bathroom, even though I would probably never clean the bathroom if I lived all alone and have only a basic awareness of when it 'needs' to be cleaned. And the language of emotional labor, thinking about cleaning the bathroom as Doing Something To Make Someone Else's Life Nicer, makes me more interested in cleaning the bathroom than I ever have been in my life. So that's pretty cool, and I hope I can change some on that front.
But then there's this, deep down in the days-later portion of the whole thing, which finally, really, truly blew my mind: "It's kind of weird to think that it actually takes a boatload of effort to be fully human." And thinking about it that way is sort of...liberating. Being a person, a fully-alive person who exists in the world and is a part of the lives of other people, is not a thing that magically happens, and even the most solitary and antisocial and Noped out among us actually is doing some of that kind of work all the time. It can be the most rewarding sort of work - the kind of work that makes you feel good for having done it, that is acknowledged and compensated (usually in reciprocated labor) - but it requires actual real effort, and that is a hell of a useful thing to point to when you can't quite figure out why a particular relationship is making you happy or not, or what it is about that dude at the office that rubs you the wrong way, or why it's so satisfying to see the surprise on the face of the person at the sandwich place when you make eye contact and take a second to say "Hi, how are you?" before giving your order. It's not far off from a truism that, when I'm at my best, I do a good job of always keeping in mind: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Everybody is actually working hard. Life's hard. But some of us work harder than others. And many of us work too much. The least we could do is recognize and acknowledge it, and the wonderful thing about this whole outpouring is that it created, almost from scratch, a vocabulary for doing it.
* My mom once told me that she never encouraged me to follow her example and pursue a career in nursing because, basically, I'm just not nice or caring enough to be good at that. And she's not wrong. But I did end up in a job that requires a lot of emotional labor, but it's all kind of coded as politics, and formalized as my role, and I get recognized and compensated for it. Hell, senior management jobs are almost entirely emotional labor, which may be why so many people make shitty managers and why it's not a good idea to assume that being good at a task means you'd be good at managing people who do that task. But there's a reason why I make jokes like "I don't give it away for free" when I find myself in a position to "manage" a "project" in my non-work life.
Another relevant quote from the MeFi thread: "The people in your outfit, especially the women, who make the plans, take care of the details, and know the people on their team well enough to resolve conflicts and keep everything running smoothly aren't doing "women's work" or "emotional labor." They're the leaders. What they're doing is called leadership. Promote them appropriately, back them up assiduously, and give them assistants as necessary." My workplace actually does this! I went through a whole Leadership training program that was six entire days of learning how to be empathetic and considerate and mindful of the fact that everybody you work with is a person and yeah, it's worth taking extra effort and time to make people feel good in addition to Getting Things Done! It was pretty great!