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Ask a group of women about emotional labor, as I have over the past few weeks, and you’re likely to get a lot knowing looks. “How much time do you have?” said an extended family member when I asked her to explain the emotional labor she performed at home.

“I’m the perfect person to talk about this,” she wrote. “My last boyfriend was an emotional vampire.”

When asked to define emotional labor, every woman had an answer. But those answers ranged from maintaining their partner’s feelings in a relationship, to asking roommates to help take out the trash, to being the party who kept the conversation alive in a long-distance friendship.

But what did all of these answers had in common? None of the women were well-equipped to discuss the toll emotional labor was having on them, or talk about ways in which to alleviate the stress.

The definition of emotional labor

The term emotional labor was first popularized by Arlie Russell Hochschild, an academic and sociologist, in her book “The Managed Heart.” In it, she discusses how in certain “caring” professions, part of what gets commodified is human emotion. Hochschild argues that this emotional labor tends to fall upon women’s shoulders, as it is only really experienced in typically “female” jobs — be it a waitress, a flight attendant, or a nurse.

After “The Managed Heart,” Hochschild wrote “The Second Shift,” in which she discusses a stalling in gender equality that lends itself to our current view of emotional labor. Most mothers work outside the home. Yet, once they return home from their jobs, they’re still expected to perform the “traditional” tasks associated with motherhood — food shopping, homework help, cooking, cleaning and more.

Men haven’t taken to these tasks as readily as women have taken to work outside the home, because these tasks are seen as “natural” to women. “This has to do with gendered socialization,” says Mary Gatta, a professor of sociology at City University of New York-Guttman. “Women are seen as being more nurturing and caring, so this work falls on them. But those traits aren’t inherent — they’re taught.”

So academically, emotional labor is seen as unpaid, undervalued work that is performed by women. And that is part of what that makes it so difficult to talk about.

Coping mechanisms

Kelley Kitley, an author and psychotherapist, says there are, in fact, tangible ways in which we can change the conversation. “We need to give ourselves a ‘time out’ when we feel stress building,” she says.

“You have to practice self-awareness and be able to articulate your needs to your partner, kids or friends.”

She says this can be as simple as telling the person for whom you are performing emotional labor “I need 10 minutes of alone time to reset.”

This can mean putting yourself in another room, away from the cause of the labor, or taking a walk. Or it could mean putting down your phone and walking away from a trying conversation.

It’s also important, Kitley says, to remember to put your oxygen mask on first before helping other people. She recalls a time when she was putting her family’s needs first, causing her to raise her voice and threaten consequences. “I pushed the pause button late morning, told them I was leaving to exercise, and promised I would be in a better place when I returned,” she says. “When my family experienced a fresh mama, they knew that one of the benefits of a mom who takes care of herself is a mom who will be more present with her family.

That idea is also key, because it helps break down socialization among younger generations of boys and girls. Young girls will recognize the need for self-care when their mothers set that example, and young boys will recognize their need to not put all of the pressure of emotional labor on women because of the consequences.

Varying definitions

Communication may be key, but there’s a problem with it — the women interviewed for this story had varying definitions of what constitutes emotional labor. That by itself can make the conversation a difficult one to breach.

It’s a challenge that extends well beyond romantic relationships. Amanda Pierz, 26, shared a story that seemed to track pretty closely with the academic definition of emotional labor. The catch? It existed in a platonic relationship between a male roommate and herself.

“Early on in our living situation, I felt pressure to maintain our apartment,” she wrote, explaining how she became the one in charge of bills because he wasn’t competent enough to set things up. Pierz also did the majority of the cleaning, and when the male roommate had friends over, she felt pressure to play good host.

“It was very clear that the unfair division of labor in our apartment was bothering me, and when we finally made time to talk about it, he said to me, ‘Honestly, I’m really sick of you pestering me for things. You’re like the wife I never wanted.’”

When her male roommate did, on the rare occasion, clean the apartment, he expected Pierz to compliment him — but he never returned the compliment himself.

This all tracks with how academics describe emotional labor. According to Gatta, when women perform emotional labor, it tends to be invisible, since that type of work is seen as being natural to women. But when men perform it, society applauds them, and men expect that recognition.

Eighteen out of 20 of the women interviewed said that, while they only recently learned the term “emotional labor,” it was something that they’d internalized from a young age — in romantic relationships, familial relationships and friendships. “The funny thing is that I have always known about emotional labor, but never had a word for it,” wrote Mariah Corner, 24. “Growing up, I saw my mother experience it, and saw the stress it caused it.”

According to Gatta, this labeling of emotional labor — regardless of how women choose to define it themselves — is step one in dividing it up equally among the genders. “We’ve treated qualities of gender like this as natural and not socially created, and that isn’t the case,” she says. “Therefore, we don’t value this stuff as work. The fact that we don’t even have paid leave as a national policy continues to fall on these gendered assumptions that this is just what women do.”

Until we begin to value the work that women do, Gatta says, we’re going to keep falling into these traps.

There are, in fact, people who are trying to show the value of emotional labor. Patti Maciesz, a mother and artist, started a project called Bill the Patriarchy.

On the website for the project, she asks women to type in the amount of time they spend performing emotional labor and other gendered tasks in order to determine how much money they’re owed. Maciesz argues that women are expected to set themselves aside for the benefit of their families, and since that is a kind of work, they should be compensated. Or, at the very least, valued for that contribution.

While the definition of emotional labor may differ from person to person, the general crux of the issue remains: This caretaking work, usually imposed upon women, is undervalued in society.

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