emotional labor

to summarize a FANTASTIC article I recently read:

Ages ago, I read this fantastic piece about practical things men can do to support feminism. Almost every item on the list really resonated with my experience, and this was one of the most resonant:

2. Do 50% (or more) of emotional support work in your intimate relationships and friendships.

Recognize that women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labour and that being responsible for this takes away time and energy from things they find fulfilling.

We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”

This, in turn, spawned this great Metafilter thread in which people discuss their experiences with emotional labor. And, that, finally, led to this Ask Metafilter thread, which addresses the very question I initially meant to address: what is emotional labor and how do you know if you’re doing your fair share of it?

# Partnered Life

  • Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?
    • If so, am I stepping up to make their life easier in other ways (cooking, cleaning, etc.)?
  • Am I open and clear about my wants, and not forcing my partner to guess/drag it out of me?
  • Am I contributing constructively to planning of meals, events, trips, etc?
  • Am I actively trying to make my presence feel safe for my partner?
  • Do I try to do nice things for my partner without being asked?
  • Do I take care of my own administrative life (paperwork, bills) without needing to be repeatedly reminded?
  • Am I supportive of my partner’s decisions, big and small?
  • Am I respectful and validating of my partner’s emotions?
  • Am I vocally grateful when my partner goes out of their way to do something nice for me?
  • Am I nice to my partner’s family [if that’s a thing they want]?

# Friend Groups

  • Do I work to coordinate peoples’ schedules so that we can have a nice picnic/party/board game night/etc.?
  • When planning an event, am I conscious of possible interpersonal conflicts?
  • When planning an event, do I take into account different peoples’ preferences for food, beverages, music, etc., so that no one feels excluded?
  • Do I actually have everything prepared in advance for an event I’m hosting, or at least clearly and fairly delegated?
  • If there is an imbalance of emotional or physical labor occurring, am I willing to risk social awkwardness to improve the lot of those negatively affected?

# Third Party Relationships (Familial & Otherwise)

  • Do I remember to make phone calls and visits to people I care about and want to have relationships with?
  • Do I remember to send cards to people I care about?
  • Do I send thank you notes to people to acknowledge their emotional labor for me?
  • Am I actively sensitive to and supportive of people who are experiencing a difficult time (death of spouse/child/pet, etc.)?

# Other

  • Do I pause to observe the context (my partner’s body language or current activity, what’s been happening today, etc.) before I involve my partner in something me-focused? (Whether that’s a request or a touch or whatever.)
  • Am I taking responsibility for my own reminders by putting things in a calendar app or whatever reminds me to do things?
  • Am I aware of all the unseen work involved in things like meal preparation, and am I educating myself so that I can share the work?
  • Am I difficult as hell to work with and expect everyone to work around it because I present as male?

Women are expected to do a lot of these sorts of things in relationships and friendships, and men are not. It may well be that men are on average objectively worse at them than women are, but that’s only because they’ve never been held responsible for these things and therefore haven’t developed the skill. Most men have gone their whole lives hearing that women are “naturally” suited for these things and men are “naturally” not, so why bother working on it? Gender essentialism doesn’t exactly foster a growth mindset, and many people don’t realize that things like communication skills and empathy can actually be improved to begin with.

After reading these articles and threads, I started to understand my frustrations with my male friends, roommates, and partners much better, because these imbalances have touched every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Male partners have consistently ignored glaring issues in the relationship so that I had to be the one to start the difficult conversation every single time, even though they supposedly had as much of a stake in the relationship as I did. Male roommates have made me beg and plead and send reminder texts to do even the most basic household management tasks. Male friends have tried to use me as a therapist, or drawn me into worrying about their physical health with them while refusing to see a doctor even though they had insurance.


This article perfectly captures why I find 90% of guys my age (and honestly guys in general) so immature and why interactions with them can be so laborious. This article also makes me really appreciate males who do acknowledge and initiate emotional labor, although that appreciation can also reflect differences in expectations regarding the division of emotional labor men and women are expected to have.

To add my personal reflections to this important topic:

The expectations surrounding emotional labor start in the home. 

Emotional labor is the burden I carry when my brother emotionally abuses everyone in my family, then dramatically slams his bedroom door, gleeful that he won some argument and can continue playing his stupid video games, while all he really accomplished was carelessly creating emotional wreckage and tension for everyone else to deal with. Meanwhile, I’m just coming home from some class or rehearsal, and I feel the immediate need to console my mother, struggle to explain my brother’s petty perspective, and act as the cultural and emotional bridge between my brother and the rest of my family.

Emotional labor is imposing, upon my 6th grade self, the responsibility to drop my work and take care of my sister and clean the house as soon as my parents step out for a church event or meeting, while I walk by my brother who is too damn busy playing computer games all night to even pick up the home phone when someone calls in the middle of my helping my sister take a bath. I’m not complaining that I have to take responsibility for my sister. After all, I am the older sister, but I know that my brother, regardless of his age or ability, would never even think to take on any sort of familial responsibility for himself. Nor would anyone think to ask him to do so, if I’m around. But care-taking takes practice. Feeding a fussy 2 year-old, cleaning up after she “baby burps” (aka throws up all over you before you’re about to go out to meet friends, making sure a baby doesn’t fall down the stairs, and spending an hour a day holding and desperately trying to sooth a 25-pound child to sleep are not innate to me because I am a female. These tasks simply take hours of practice and a sense of duty to one’s family. Both of which all males can, and should, develop.

Emotional labor is overhearing my mother beg her sister-in-law to not get a divorce because she “needs” to maintain the safest possible environment for her two children to grow up in, even though my uncle is the perhaps the most misogynistic, selfish, arrogant, and calculating person I’ve ever met. It breaks my heart to admit that my mother is correct, that for the good of my aunt’s children, she should try to “make the marriage work and forgive him.” But my mother is only correct, and her advice is only “practical” and perhaps worth following, because our society strips so much power from women that they have to remain physically and emotionally dependent on their husbands, as disgusting as it feels for me to call a man a husband if he is so irresponsible and dismissive of his own wife.

The expectations surrounding emotional labor start in the home,
and are perpetuated by others we interact with. 

Emotional labor is when a male classmate asks his girl friends to figure out cute ways to hang out with his love interests, or dating anniversary plans for his girlfriend. Although we often find it fun to giggle about the cute plans we make for you to have a fun night with your love interest / girlfriend, stop leaving it all up to us. Go figure out whether she wants to be asked out in public or in private, what flowers she likes, and what restaurant she’d be excited to eat at.

Emotional labor is when my friend group wants to go out, and the guys claim that they “would be happy doing anything” but complain as soon as we do something I didn’t know they wouldn’t be interested in. Because they didn’t bother to be involved in planning the outing in the first place…

Emotional labor is the responsibility I’ve learned to just impose upon myself in keeping up relationships with guys. It’s absolutely tiring, and as much as I care about my guy friends and would hate to fall out of their lives, they really should start investing at least half the effort I put into setting up Skype calls, sending birthday wishes, etc.

Emotional labor is when boys think it’s cool to act mysterious about their emotions, forcing me to put in the effort to coax their struggles out of them. Sure, I understand that I’m very fortunate to have the social capital / the friends who have encouraged me to reflect upon and articulate my reactions to my experiences, but the mentality that it’s cool to be aloof and to be difficult to maintain a friendship with… that mentality has got to go.

The expectations surrounding emotional labor start in the home,
are perpetuated by others we interact with,
and will influence every area of women’s personal and professional lives.

Emotional labor is trying to be a proactive and effective leader in a group and being eager to advocate for making certain decisions, only to (again) be disappointedly tasked with administrative tasks and maintaining / restoring relationships among the group or with key players outside of the group.

Emotional labor is being seen as bossy, aggressive, or emotional,
whereas my male counterparts as seen as effective, passionate, and charismatic.

Emotional labor is when my mom advised me, from a young age, not to aspire to become a doctor or a lawyer, because I will one day have to “give it all up” to care for my children. There’s a Chinese saying that roughly translates to: “Men’s greatest fear is to enter the wrong career; women’s greater fear is to marry the wrong man.” My parents immigrated to the US because of a job opportunity my dad had through HP, and all of my parents’ friends’ families are composed of a husband who works in tech and a wife who gave up her career as soon as she had children. So back to my mom’s advice — because the professional road towards being a doctor or lawyer is long, and because as a woman, my greatest failure would be to not find the right husband, I should be more concerned about putting myself in situations in which I can meet the right guy in my 20’s than to pursue a career I’d toil so hard after and have to give up as soon as I have children (it seems like having children at the “right age” in the “right stage of my life” is a more sure guarantee of happiness and a sign of excellent planning and foresight than immersing myself in a meaningful career).

But I don’t blame my mom for her seemingly misogynistic advice.

My mom gave up everything to take care of my siblings and me, and would only give me this advice if she’s confident that it will bring me (and my future family) the greatest happiness. (Isn’t interesting to think about how a woman’s identity and success is tied to the well-being of her future family, while a man’s identity and success are not?)

My mom believes so much in the division of emotional labor our society preaches that refusing to care for my future family almost seems like a slap in the face to her and her sacrifices.

Will I follow her advice, stop fighting a seemingly unbreakable system and its expectations, and perhaps perpetuate these perspectives about emotional labor along the way? What can I do to honor my mother’s sacrifices while being entirely cognizant of my actions and the perspectives they may perpetuate?

Making women disproportionately responsible for emotional labor, and normalizing the imbalance of emotional labor with men and women of all ages, disempowers women and restrains us from devoting our invaluable energies to pursuing what we ought to be free to do. It’s high time those who want to call themselves responsible and mature men take a look at their thoughts and actions, and take on the emotional labor that the women in their lives have always done for them.




emotional labor

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