Saturday 17 August 2019

Tanya Sweeney: 'Frankly, there is something about stress and busyness that we love piling onto our lives'

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

I learned a new term this week: 'emotional labour'. No, not housework that would bring tears to a turnip but something else entirely.

Emotional labour, in the main, is the sort of work in which one is required to display specific emotions towards others. Think of the sort of insidious duties that women tend to shoulder: arranging play dates for kids, remembering to send birthday cards and thank-you cards. In short, the ongoing, niggling, thankless admin that ensures the harmonious running of family life.

Emotional labour also constitutes the energy expended in making sure that everyone feels okay and cared for. And really, who does that better than women, who tend to be natural people pleasers?

The term was first coined in 1983, by academic Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart, but there's something about the very idea that seems to have lit the blue touch paper today.

What this does mean is that women, still aiming to 'have it all' and already spinning plates on a near-constant basis, end up with a constant thrum of pressure in their minds: a to-do list that rarely clears.

Predictably, it's being touted as yet another 'hidden tax' that women shoulder. Add childcare and homekeeping into the mix, and it may seem as though we're running the show. But women have likely painted themselves into a corner.

We have been banging on about our ability to multitask for so long that while we were buffing our halos, the menfolk decided to let us get on with all of it. Nicely played, lads. Suddenly, remembering birthdays and writing thank-you letters became 'female' jobs - stuff women did uncompensated, out of the goodness of their hearts. Men: off the hook, good and proper.

Hands up if this intriguing household tango is even remotely familiar: if a husband/boyfriend/son/partner is tasked with a chore, they deploy that age-old trick: learned helplessness. In short, they fluff the gig so spectacularly, or do it in such a half-hearted way, that you could barely say the task was done at all. It gets to the point where it's just easier for wives/mothers/sisters to just get on with it. Wow. That's a lot of hands.

The thing is, many women are said to enjoy this 'emotional labour'. It helps us feel in control of our lives, apparently. And to be fair, there is something about stress, stoicism and busyness that some of us love piling onto our lives.

When I first heard the term 'emotional labour', a pang of recognition flared up in me. But on closer inspection, the theory that it's a gendered issue, or as one newspaper called it, 'feminism's next frontier', isn't quite right.

I have genuine beef with the term 'emotional labour', mainly because it makes remembering your mother-in-law's birthday sound like actual work. Turning it into an excuse for breast-beating helps no-one. Surely it's just being nice and considerate, in the same way that housework is… well, just tidying up after yourself, really? When did simple social etiquette become a female thing?

Surely having a list of daily responsibilities isn't a social malaise, but an individual one? If you can't negotiate the egalitarian running of your own life and your own home, that's your problem and not the patriarchy's? Surely, most of these tasks amount to little more than self-imposed pressure?

And isn't it a little remiss to note that, in the main, women are innately considerate, while men are less so? It's what got us here, the idea that women are so much better at this stuff. Men can multitask as well as any woman. As novelist Kathy Lette famously intones, put them into an orgy situation and see how well they can 'multitask'.

There's no point in dwelling on how to monetise this kind of 'labour'. If you don't want to send a thank-you note or keep in touch with an elderly relative, simply don't do it. Don't feel obliged to, on account of your gender. Let's not politicise the simple act of being considerate.

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