Emotional labour or a labour of love?

How many hours have you spent in the past week or month on the activities involved with maintaining relationships and recognising the needs of the people in your life?

These ’emotional labout’ activities could include, for example, organising a social or family event, spending time with someone, sending thoughtful texts, listening, cooking a meal, remembering birthdays, having a drink or coffee with someone, offering help, making someone comfortable — it probably adds up to a lot of time and probably the greatest amount of hours is clocked up by women.

‘Emotional labour’ is a phrase which describes the unpaid work and effort we put into relationships, and the words can be used as a hook for anyone who feels put upon and resentful about how they spend their time.

The term ’emotional labour’ was coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, whose 1983 book The Managed Heart explores the effects on workers, in particular flight attendants and debt collectors, of having to constantly behave in ways which may be alien to their own preferred ways of being and communicating.

The study examines the stressful effects of constantly being emotionally detached from one’s own feelings, of always having to provide service with a smile or a warning with appropriate urgency.

In the 30 years or so since the book was first published, service industries have proliferated and their demands spill out to touch anyone who, for example, deals with the public in any capacity or is expected to play nicely with their team.

The sociological context of ’emotional labour’ places it in the arena of bosses and workers, workplace performance and monetary reward, overtime and promotion.

When we apply it to our personal lives, we apply the language of the marketplace to personal relationships, and lose something of our humanity in the process.

You want to be rewarded for being a good friend? Where does it stop? ‘Oh, and I had to put in a bit extra to make him laugh¬†— pass me the overtime sheet!’

Rewards may be intangible. They may be non-existent. We may not want to admit they exist, that a bit of us quite likes the tang of self-righteousness which accompanies our complaints.

The indiscriminate use of ’emotional labour’ pools all activities that demand emotional or practical energy. So the unequal execution of household chores is lumped in with time spent with someone feeling low or suffering from depression. Arranging a colleague’s leaving collection is put on a par with attending parents’ evenings.

Some of what we term ’emotional labour’ may be called a ‘labour of love’. This describes unpaid or poorly paid things we do for pleasure, for self-fulfilment, for other people, or just because we want to.

A labour of love is one we do without resentment. There may be an element of rueful self-mockery, as we acknowledge it would have been quicker and cheaper to buy a ready-made cake, or that we would earn more doing a job we would like less, but the ‘labour’ is emotionally satisfying and we don’t count the cost.

We can modify our behaviour. We can value our time without putting a price on it. We can accommodate others’ well-being without damaging ourselves.

We can:

Address cultural expectations

Instead of:

  • ‘Women/men are always expected to…’

Try:

  • ‘I don’t want to/I’m not happy to continue/I don’t accept this role

Address expectations of ourselves

Instead of:

  • ‘I have to do…’

Try:

  • ‘Why do I feel I have to? Do I actually get something out of it?’

Negotiate tasks and activities

Instead of:

  • ‘No one else will think of…’

Try:

  • ‘If I do this, would you do that?

Say no

Instead of:

  • ‘I’ll do it’ (thinks¬†— as usual)

Try:

  • ‘No, I’m not going to do that’

Listen to the song No Charge, written in the 1970s by Harlan Howard and sung by Johnny Cash (other versions are available, but never pass up an opportunity to tune in to Johnny, we say).

It might be a touch schmaltzy, but the story says it all. A child hands their parent an itemized list, with prices, of all the things they’ve done around the house, such as taking out the trash, running an errand, looking after a younger sibling, with the total amount claimed at the bottom.

The parent examines this for a moment, then writes their own list, naming some parental activities, just for illustration, because the parent’s response isn’t about what parents do and how much it costs in time and labour, it’s to make the point that we do these things for love. No Charge, they write on the ‘bill’. The full cost of love, the real cost of love, is No Charge.


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