The Year We Wondered if Emotional Labor Should Come With a Price

“Worry work” is worth something—but who pays, and how?

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by AntonioGuillem/Thinkstock.

In this series, Double X writers look back on 2015’s flashpoint debates around gender and feminism as they played out in the spheres of reproductive rights, work-life balance, pop music, affirmative consent on campus, and more. Read all the entries here.

Back in 1979, Arlie Hochschild introduced the world to the concept of emotional labor through her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. In it, Hochschild looked at the experiences of flight attendants and bill collectors, focusing on the emotional gymnastics—the management of other people’s feelings, as well as one’s own—unavoidable in such service-oriented careers. She concluded that emotionally demanding workplaces can lead to feelings of detachment from one’s family and friends.

After spending a few decades outside the feminist limelight, emotional labor made a big comeback in 2015, appearing in a hashtag campaign and in a number of highly trafficked and discussed essays, one of which made the case for emotional labor as “feminism’s next frontier.” While Hochschild focused mainly on emotional labor in the workplace, today’s conversation is more wrapped up in the costs of loving, worrying, and encouragement in our personal lives.

In May, Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times about how women are still responsible for most of the “worry work” in their homes—a type of labor that requires “large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all.” Sociological research finds that moms continue to direct most or all of domestic and familial matters, even if fathers are increasingly helping in the execution of such tasks. “Whether a woman loves or hates worry work,” Shulevitz writes, “it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path. This distracting grind of apprehension and organization may be one of the least movable obstacles to women’s equality in the workplace.”

That same month, activists Lauren Chief Elk, Yeoshin Lourdes, and Bardot Smith, started #GiveYourMoneytoWomen.* As Chief Elk explained in an interview with Vice, the hashtag was intended to call attention to all the emotional labor women do for men’s benefit as well as the emotional—and sometimes physical—abuse women experience in the company of men. In July, Jess Zimmerman wrote in the Toast about her many years providing counsel and support to her lovelorn male friends and questioning why her efforts aren’t valued as work (unlike activities such as editing her friends writing and taking care of their animals). In the Guardian in November, Rose Hackman asked, “What if much like childcare and housekeeping, the sum of this ongoing emotional management is yet another form of unpaid labor?” Hackman pointed to a 2005 study finding that women’s propensity to do emotional labor was linked to gender constructions, as opposed to biological sex, and ended on another question: Is it time to demand “adequate, formal remuneration for emotion work provided in the workplace as a skill?” If such a demand were met, Hackman added, it would “be a shake-patriarchy-to-its-core revolution.”

None of this is surprising. Women’s ascendancy in the workplace hasn’t been met by a major overhaul to our child care or parental leave policies (Silicon Valley outliers aside), nor by a widespread shift in the expectations placed on fathers. Similarly stubborn are the expectations surrounding women’s roles among their families and friends. Many of us have been trained by the women in our lives in how to anticipate emotional needs and tend to hurt feelings. Unfortunately, the assumption remains that we are always available, even if we’ve just spent the day taking care of others in a professional capacity and are too burnt out to plan a party or hear about someone else’s crappy relationship.

We’re tired. I’m tired. I just spent the last two days playing sole parent while my husband, who is the “lead earner” in our family, was out of town for work. After putting our son to sleep, I researched holiday presents for my husband’s family. I was worried that if we waited too long, things wouldn’t arrive on time. Did I mention I also started a new job this week? When it comes to emotional labor, my house isn’t even close to 50/50, and all the good intentions in the world can’t account for the fact that I am simply better and faster at this stuff than he is.

Emotional expectations of women are real. And yet something in me recoils when we talk about kindness and love in market terms. I’m just not comfortable with the idea of thinking about affection—most of all parental affection—as something that belongs on a spreadsheet. The idea that we would get compensation, whether symbolically through language or actual dollar bills, for it is even worse. It feels more like a surrender than a triumph and turns the act of loving into a zero-sum game in which being there for others can never mean being there for ourselves.

Of course, the border between the expectations placed on us by the outside world and the love we feel within us is a porous one—our love may be pure, but the way we manifest it is often colored by the world outside our hearts. This is especially true in the arena of parenting, where it can be hard to drown out everyone else’s ideas about what it means to be a good parent. Recognizing this is important because, as Shulevitz argues, all that well-intentioned care work is holding us back in the professional realm. Instead of buying presents for my husband’s family, I could have been doing something to help me get going in my new job. Writing this essay, for example.

If one of feminism’s next big agenda items is emotional labor—certainly a possibility, based on the conversation that evolved this past year—we might want to move beyond this idea of measuring our emotional output. Instead, we could focus on changing the culture—in our homes, workplace, and government—to level the playing field. We need to be encouraging young boys to express their feelings, imparting a sense of responsibility on them for the emotional well-being of others. We also need to make sure men get to spend more time with their families, through universal parental-leave policies and workplaces that fully understand that fathers are parents, too. Only then will we achieve what I would consider “a shake-patriarchy-to-its-core revolution”: the creation of a world in which women have enough time and space to love freely, without hesitation or restraint.

*Update, Dec. 18, 2015: This article has been updated to include two more activists behind the #GiveYourMoneytoWomen hashtag. (Return.)