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The Invisible Cost Of Emotional Labor

Melanie Lockert
May 1, 2019

When we think of work, we tend to think about trading time for money. Many of us go to jobs to earn a paycheck so we can pay our rent and buy food and live our lives. There’s also the inevitable domestic work that comes with adulthood. The never-ending onslaught of laundry. The dishes that pile up. All of this is expected.

Yet, there’s another type of labor that is invisible. Almost imperceptible: emotional labor.

What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor as a concept can include a lot of invisible labor that women take on. Managing calendars, making appointments, processing emotions in relationships, making sure the kids have birthday cards, and refilling the soap.

Emotional labor as a concept can include a lot of invisible labor that women take on. Managing calendars, making appointments, processing emotions in relationships, making sure the kids have birthday cards, and refilling the soap.

A recent tweet that went viral shared the story of how a man lived with his girlfriend for two years and was amazed that when they moved out after that two years they had never had to replace the soap.

Of course, this wasn’t some modern marvel, he just didn’t realize that his girlfriend was the one who replaced the soap, every single time. These are the types of things women think about and do nearly automatically, yet it is invisible.

Coming to terms with emotional labor

A couple of years ago I first learned this concept when I read Harper’s Bazaar article “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up”. The tagline of the article sums it up: “Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand.”

In the article, the author writes about how for Mother’s Day all she wanted was a house cleaning service and for her husband to take care of it. She wanted to not deal with the task of vetting cleaners, getting quotes, figuring out the schedule.

Her husband called one place and thought it was too expensive and decided to clean himself. All the while, the author then had to manage the children and the rest of the household duties.

Reading this article was like seeing something you’ve experienced all of your life but didn’t even know existed. For once, all of that work had a name. I nodded along as I thought of various similar experiences. I remember reminding my ex to wish his mother a happy birthday. Managing our shared appointments and calendars. Planning vacations. I took on so much invisible work in that relationship. 

Reading this article was like seeing something you’ve experienced all of your life but didn’t even know existed. For once, all of that work had a name. I nodded along as I thought of various similar experiences.

The article made me wonder how much of this was internalized as “things women should do”. I hadn’t even realized the extent of emotional labor I had performed throughout my life until that article shed light on my experiences.

Talking about emotional labor

I’ve been on an emotional labor kick ever since reading that article. I’ve sent it to all my girlfriends and when in a group of women, the article often comes up. It feels like we’re talking in secret code, about something only we understand.

Of course, if we want things to change we need to talk about it, not just among women but men as well. So, on my birthday, I decided to read that article to my parents as it came up in conversation.

I watched my mom smile and nod in that knowing way that can only come from lived experience. As soon as I was done reading the article, my dad, meanwhile, got defensive. “I don’t do that stuff,” he griped.

I said, “Dad, who planned this birthday dinner?” Crickets.

“Dad, who planned this birthday dinner?” Crickets.

“Who bought the birthday card? Who signed on behalf of both of you?” Crickets.

“My point stands,” I said.

In that moment, my dad realized how much unacknowledged work my mom took on to plan the whole evening. It wasn’t even discussed, it was just expected that she would take care of it.

It’s been interesting to try and have this discussion with men. Some get defensive whereas others are open and acknowledge this imbalance. Starting the conversation about these issues is the only way that men and women can find more balance in their relationships.

Why the cost of emotional labor matters

You might be thinking why any of this matters, besides it being an annoyance. It matters because women are already getting paid less. They are paying more for similar products as men with the pink tax. Also, there’s the consequences and costs related to having children and often caretaking duties that women take on for other family members.

In other words, there’s a lot on women’s’ plate — and much of the emotional labor, domestic work, caretaking duties all go unpaid — while women also deal with the gender wage gap and the pink tax. All of this makes emotional labor a very real financial issue for women. 

Imagine if women could free up some time and energy by not having to engage in emotional labor.

Imagine if women could free up some time and energy by not having to engage in emotional labor. Women could invest those resources into making money or taking care of themselves. In general, when we’re happier and less stressed we can perform better at work. When we’re not always focused on planning and caretaking and problem solving for others, we can redirect that energy to our own work, our money, and business.

We can start changing things by acknowledging that emotional labor exists and start the conversation among family, friends and loved ones. Slowly but surely, we can change the dynamics to better serve women.

Melanie Lockert is a personal finance expert, the blogger behind DearDebt.com and author of the book “Dear Debt: A story about breaking up with debt.” Melanie paid off $81,000 of debt and is now on a mission to help others do the same.

Feature Image: Shutterstock

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