When you think about emotional labour, if you think about it at all, chances are (a) you're a woman and (b) you'd define it as reminding your husband to send his mother a birthday card. You'll be doing this while cross-referencing the family calendar to ensure the play date doesn't clash with the doctor's appointment, remembering who needs a lift where, what time the plumber is coming, and that the dog needs worming, all before breakfast on a Tuesday.
It's getting the kids back to school in a pandemic before visiting your parents in a hazmat suit, and making everything seem fun and normal. Emotional labour, as we currently understand it, is the unseen stuff - the organising, overseeing, arranging, remembering, reminding, co-ordinating, multi-tasking. It's the juggling. And juggling is what women do, as well as our paid and unpaid work. In general, according to a 2018 UN study, women do 2.6 times more unpaid work than men. During lockdown, this pattern continued, with women completing just one hour's uninterrupted paid work for their male partners' every three uninterrupted hours. UK researchers from the Institute for Fiscal Studies at University College London interviewed 3,500 families and found that with male and female parents who had the same paid work arrangements - either at work or furloughed - the mother did more childcare and more housework. Lucy Kraftman, a research economist at the IFS, reported that the only households where childcare and housework were shared equally were those in which the father had stopped paid work, but the mother had continued.
Social justice advocate Dr Ebun Joseph noted in a recent series of webinars how female academics were getting less work published during lockdown than their male colleagues - and therefore emerging from lockdown at a career disadvantage - because, despite men and women doing the same paid work from home, the great majority of the unpaid labour was being done by women. When men do unpaid domestic work, she says, it is called "helping", creating further distance from the idea of unpaid work as an equal responsibility.
This unequal division of unpaid work is not, however, emotional labour. It's physical (cleaning, tidying, driving) or mental (budgeting, helping with homework). Emotional labour as we currently perceive it, according to US author Gemma Hartley, is an unending lady list that might read: "Arrange play date, call in-laws, choose gifts, manage calendar, send reminder, delegate chores, organise office party, speak softly, explain patiently."
This concept of emotional labour came into focus after Hartley wrote a Harper's Bazaar article in 2017, Women Aren't Nags - We're Just Fed Up. It went viral. She followed it with a book, Fed Up, in which she describes how her husband would say, "All you had to do was ask," regarding household/family tasks. This, she says, is the crux of emotional labour: having to ask. Having to remind, cajole, nag, beg. The assumption that the domestic care-management role belongs to the woman, because this is how men and women are socialised.
It takes conscious effort, therefore, to step back from our prescribed gender roles - unless, of course, you are a lone parent, in which case you will already be doing everything yourself anyway. (Outsourcing some of the physical, mental and emotional labour to cleaners, nannies and assistants is not usually an option for lone parents, unless you're Madonna.)
"There is a lot of temptation to get involved in emotional labour with my partner," says psychotherapist Philippa Vafadari. "If we send birthday cards to his family because I have prompted him to do so, for example, then his family will think we are nice, thoughtful people. But that feels infantilising to me. I might prompt my teenage son to say 'happy birthday' to his grandma, but not my 55-year-old husband. If he hasn't worked it out for himself by now, then it's not my place to remind him. I'm not his mother.
"I think [this approach] has been beneficial to our relationship. It cuts out potential codependency but doesn't mean that we don't care about and love each other. In a crisis, we have pulled together and supported each other. That seems like the more important time to emotionally labour. It feels too draining on a day-to-day basis."
The origin of the idea of emotional labour does not, however, come from reminding your partner to send their family members greeting cards, or doing it yourself if they forget. It was coined in 1983 by US sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in connection with the paid workplace, its original definition "to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others". In other words, to fake emotion for the benefit of your employer's profit margins.
Hochschild looked at airline cabin crew and debt collectors as opposing examples of how emotional labour is factored into a job: cabin crew are trained to be "nicer than natural", debt collectors to be "nastier than natural". Between these two extremes, she argues that within the mainstream workforce, a third of men and half of women have jobs requiring substantial emotional labour that requires them to manage their own emotions all day, every day, in order to produce the correct emotional response in others: restaurant workers, care workers, customer service workers, education workers. Nobody likes a grumpy waiter, an unsmiling teacher, a chilly retail assistant. To experience a worker's genuine emotional state - tired, fed up, resentful, bored, preoccupied - would crack the illusion of "service with a smile"; we'd run a mile.
Hochschild spoke out strongly against what she saw as the misrepresentation of the term since its re-emergence in 2017 after the Harper's Bazaar article. Housework is emphatically not emotional labour, she says. Nor is emotional labour just a female thing, or even a heterosexual thing, as much as a gender construct.
"The gender-equality lens has traditionally focused on women, but it's important to remember that both men and women do 'emotion work' and very often gender makes two jobs out of one," says Suzanne O'Keeffe, lecturer in education at Maynooth University and a member of the Sociological Association of Ireland.
"For example, I've spoken with male teachers who've said they're frequently asked to fix boilers, re-set timers and carry out jobs that men are 'expected' to be good at.
"Similarly, women are considered naturally good at caring, organising and providing. This suggests why the responsibility of care falls to women inside and outside the workplace. But care is a response to the expressed needs of others, and it's wrong for anyone to assume that it is more naturally suited to one gender rather than another.
"A useful way to understand the link between gender and emotional labour is to look at the division of the human subject into mind and body. This idea has dominated Western thought for quite some time. Men have been representationally aligned to mind (reason, judgement, etc) and women to the body (emotion, passiveness, etc). This understanding has informed art, biology, culture, history, philosophy... which makes it difficult to tackle the complex web of gender and emotional labour."
Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at UCD, says that emotional labour is all about love - and how the genders have been assigned distinctly different caring roles when it comes to expressing that love.
"How does humanity survive?" she asks. "It's through care, not through economics. If we don't receive care, we die." Emotional labour has come about, she says, because of the "segregation of spheres in the Western industrialised world - care was definitively assigned to women after industrialisation".
She explains, "The assignment of care is culturally disproportionate to women. The masculine identity of care is being the breadwinner, while women are not deemed successful in their femininity unless they are caring - these are culturally assigned roles. Masculine dominance, feminine nurturing - it's an identity issue. Masculinity is not defined by caring. We need to make care and emotional labour gender-neutral, because without care we are a dysfunctional society.
"People die without love. We are sociable mammals and need affiliation. When women perform emotional labour, all of humanity benefits. We are a highly dependent species.
"Men are not socialised to see [emotional labour]. It's not an assigned responsibility, which is why the socialisation of children is hugely important. Human beings are ethical, moral beings, yet the will to care for others is not recognised or enabled.
"Our culture is driven by the rationalist philosophy of I-think-therefore-I-am, rather than I-feel-therefore-I-am, as though feelings are not rational. Feelings are entirely rational. And by not recognising emotion, we are not recognising emotional labour. We are so much more than just economic and cultural beings."
Obviously, we will still want to send birthday cards to Grandma and maintain all the loving bonds that glue families and wider society together - we just don't want it to always be the perceived responsibility of the woman.
Which is why socialising our male and female kids to be equally tuned into physical, mental and emotional labour is so vital for our continued social evolution.
In order to communicate the idea of non-gendered caring and emotional labour, we need to talk to children about it, both at home and at school. Group discussions engage children and young people in thinking consciously about care, who gives it, who receives it, and how it is something that involves all of us. Not just your mum. The key is to make it an open subject for discussion, rather than something unquestioned and unexplored.
Why is dad taking the bins out? Why is mum wrapping a birthday present? Why do we think dad knows more about DIY and cars, and mum knows more about everyone's school time table? Is that accurate? Is it like this in your house? Talk to your kids about your own biases and assumptions. Ask their opinions on everything. Get their feedback, and learn from them. They are probably not as biased as you, because they've had less time to form them.
Let them know that it's not a quiz or a test, and there are no right or wrong answers. Let your kids know that you value all of their input, even if they come out with the occasional jaded gender stereotype. Ungendering care is a long haul project, undertaken one small step at a time. The main thing is to involve boys and girls equally, and to keep a sharp focus on your own unconscious biases.