“What Are We Doing This Weekend?”

Women's Health South Africa|August 2020

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“What Are We Doing This Weekend?”
How you answer says a lot about the invisible (and draining) work you may not even realise you’re doing. Let us explain…
Penny Carroll

You’ll probably respond quickly, without a second thought.

After all, you carry a master calendar for you, your partner and perhaps your kids in your mind, seamlessly synced to a hectic mental to-do list that features everything from “buy toilet paper” and “phone sister-in-law” to “research holiday”. Your politely enquiring partner, on the other hand, is blissfully unaware of the brain toggling and stress management required to oversee multiple schedules, stay on top of housework, remember birthdays and plan catch-ups – all while dealing with a full-time job. The stuff you’re doing? It’s called emotional labour and as it routinely falls in the laps of women, it’s been dubbed the next feminist frontier.

Emotional labour isn’t restricted to the home; it extends across workplaces and friendships too. But, until recently, it’s flown so far under the radar that most of us weren’t even conscious of it. Then US writer Gemma Hartley penned an article about it and suddenly women woke up – and were furious.

Hartley, who explores the concept in her new book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, And The Way Forward, explains: “emotional labour is the unpaid, invisible work that women usually undertake to make sure everyone around them is comfortable and happy, often at their own expense.”

Emotional Overtime

This work includes both the mental and emotional kind, but it’s the latter that’s the real kicker. When teamed with a busy headspace, it creates “a very specific frustration”, Hartley says. Consider how it feels to swallow your outrage at being expected to organise the office end-of-year party every year or internally scream when your partner asks “where are my keys?” again – then multiply that by how much it happens throughout your adult life. “When women are the only ones doing this work for, say, an entire household or a workplace, it becomes a very heavy load,” says Hartley. “You are emotionally spent, it takes up a lot of your mental space.”

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August 2020