Features | Call me ‘Mom’

To my friends, I am, and always have been, “mom.” I take care of others, whether that means supporting them emotionally in a time of need, or just helping them when they are too drunk to function by themselves. Somehow, I still end up being “mom” when I am drunk myself – even when there are more sober people around me. I care deeply about those around me, whether about their emotional wellbeing or their safety. I enjoy helping others – I love it when I am able to give advice to someone or just to be present and listen to someone discuss their problems.

In her essay “Feeding Egos and Tending Wounds,” feminist theorist Sandra Bartky provides the language to aptly name what I have been doing for years: emotional labour. This is the term that Bartky uses to describe the emotional work that women are often expected to do in their relationships with others. It can be seen as going the extra mile: keeping track of all the kids’ activities, thinking about what someone wants to eat when making a meal, or being a good listener and giving good advice. All because “women are just good at that stuff.”

While being empathetic and attentive are good personal qualities to have, their exercise can be taxing for those who possess them, because they are qualities that best equip someone to perform emotional labour. I love to help others, but this makes me very susceptible to the emotions of others; if my friends are sad or stressed, I can sometimes begin to feel that way as well. Further, although I often enjoy the supportive aspect of being the mom friend, I often feel obligated to fill this role, as if the wellbeing of those around me is my responsibility.

Sometimes I wonder whether I like to help others simply because it is an integral part of my personality and something I honestly enjoy, or because I was socialized to believe that, as a woman, I am naturally inclined and obligated to help others. When I talked to friends of mine who are women, I found that this was a widely held concern.

U1 Sociology student Caroline Portante echoed the sentiment that, when caring for and supporting others, there is sometimes the potential for damage to the person providing the support. When you are so concentrated on supporting another, it is easy to neglect yourself. “I wish it could just be something I chose to do, and not something I felt guilty about not doing,” Caroline said.

I have always felt as if helping others and offering advice was something that I loved to do and was naturally good at. But the first time I read Bartky’s piece, I began to question whether in some way or another I had been forced into that role. Would I still love helping others as much if it wasn’t expected of me?

This isn’t just about how I see myself, but how I see the other women in my life as well. In my relationships, my friends of all genders come to me for advice, whether that be about life, school, family, or relationships of their own. However, I find that when I need advice, I gravitate toward my friends who are women – on some level, I must feel they are more apt for the job. Emotional labour is valuable and beneficial to those receiving it – it is labour, after all – but it also comes at a cost to those who provide it.

Socialized for care

I asked two men that I know for their perspectives on how gender is related to emotional labour. A fellow first-year student in my residence expressed the commonly held notion that this gendered difference is natural. “Usually it’s women, because men tend to not have that… I wouldn’t say ‘instinct,’ but… women are naturally that way.”

The other, a floor fellow at New Rez, said that the idea of women being better at emotional labour “is socially constructed, and it comes from that idea of women being the natural caregivers of the home and the men going out and providing.”

The first perspective is likely the more widely held one on this issue. However, rather than a result of “nature,” emotional skills indeed stem from the way that we are socialized. It is a matter of who is raised thinking that they are obligated to help others, and is given the toolkit to do so. It is important to recognize that, if they are given the tools to do so and put in the necessary effort, people of all genders have the capacity to perform this type of emotional work. What we should analyze are the systems in place that steer women to be the most likely to do it.

Behavioural differences among family members can play an immense role in children’s development of skills (or lack thereof); this is clearly seen in the example of housework. My family is basically the archetype of the nuclear family, being composed of my mom, my dad, myself, and my younger brother and sister. Growing up, my dad was the one who made money while my mom was a stay-at-home mom. It was my mom who drove us all to school, our extra-curriculars, and our parties. My mom did everyone’s laundry and cleaned up after everyone. Not one of us ever really acknowledged it – she was merely doing what was expected.

As my siblings and I got older, we were asked to assist my mom more, usually with laundry or setting and cleaning up the table. Every evening after dinner my dad would say, “Let’s all help mom clean the table.” Then he would slowly walk away to watch TV or go to his office, leaving the rest of the family to actually do the work. Even then, my sister and I were the ones who were expected to help the most. If my brother walked away, no one would ask him to come back.

When Caroline was growing up, her mother was the sole worker while her father stayed at home. She noted, “There was some confusion on my part about why my mom wasn’t like other moms and why she didn’t stay at home. […] I don’t think I really understood why women ‘should’ be doing [domestic work], but I knew someone should and I didn’t know which [parent].”

Like housework, emotional labour is a skill that people learn to different degrees depending on how they are socialized into the gender binary, in order to conform to expectations of masculinity and femininity. From a young age, girls are socialized to perform work of support and care, which includes both housework and emotional work. We are often given dolls and kitchen sets when our birthdays roll around, while boys receive army toys, Lego sets, cars – anything that is stereotypically “tough.” In these toys and the way that we expect boys to play with them, there is no room for sensitivity, for emotional openness, for taking care of others. The chores given to boys, if any, contribute to the gendered expectation of toughness, whether that be helping dad fix the car or lifting heavy objects. We don’t often train boys in housework from a young age. As a result, there is a discrepancy when we grow older in the tasks we know how to do.

The problem isn’t just that there is a gendered discrepancy in how people are socialized; it’s that there is also a gendered discrepancy in how these different skills and traits are valued.

The social perception of women as naturally better at caring for and keeping track of others arises from this kind of socialization. It’s important to disentangle gender from the provision emotional labour, just like housework. This connection is detrimental to people of all genders, especially women.

Devaluing care: why the difference matters

Why does it matter that skills associated with care are socialized as a feminine trait? The problem isn’t just that there is a gendered discrepancy in how people are socialized; it’s that there is also a gendered discrepancy in how these different skills and traits are valued.

I always thought it made sense that my mom did all the extra work that she did – after all, she didn’t have another job. However, when I talked to my mom’s friends who worked full-time jobs, it became clear that they often still had to oversee all the cooking, cleaning, and other domestic work. Sometimes referred to as the “double burden” or “double shift,” this phenomenon of working mothers in heterosexual partnerships continuing to do the bulk of the housework is well-documented. Domestic work, somehow, is not seen as real work, which makes it easy for many to ignore that the burden of it is disproportionately placed on women. The issue is the same with emotional labour.

Western masculinity is largely defined by the rejection of the feminine, and norms of masculinity dictate that men cannot be seen as weak (hence the popularity of phrases like “act like a man!” or the cissexist “grow a pair!”). In particular, emotions are seen as something innately feminine, and therefore a sign of weakness. While women are socialized to do this devalued work for them, men are raised to believe this work is beneath them even as they benefit from its provision.

The convenient conception that emotional labour is something that women are “just naturally good at” results in women being expected to provide emotional support in their relationships, often without acknowledgement, thanks, or reciprocation. For women, the combination of a sense of obligation – common in the case of relationships between women and men – and a lack of emotional support, is draining. This can be negative when, in the act of supporting others, we forget to support ourselves.

This also affects the quality of relationships between men and women, whether platonic, romantic, or otherwise. A relationship where one person does all the emotional labour will not be fulfilling for that person if the care isn’t reciprocated.

There are also consequences beyond personal relationships. In the service industry, which has a high concentration of women, jobs like waitressing or secretarial work are often seen as basic, relatively “low-skills” positions, as the ability to perform the personal interaction aspect of such work is considered more of a personality trait than a skill or action that takes effort. This affects the rate of pay given to these jobs – vocations for which “feminine” traits are helpful are, not coincidentally, lower paid and less prestigious.

Fighting the emotional labour binary

The fellow rez student I spoke to said that, as a man, there is a lot of pressure to hold in emotions. “It wouldn’t be as easy for a male to talk too much about emotions because it is often seen as a weakness.” He noted, however, that the expectation to express or not to express emotions depends on the person you’re talking to. A man “expressing his feelings” to his girlfriend or wife, for example, is not a sign of weakness.

Men don’t seek out women instead of other men for emotional labour just because they think women are better at it; it is also because they do not want to be perceived as anything but a man (particularly by other men). There often is a rejection of emotions in order to prove one’s masculinity, which can be taxing on one’s mental health. Further, I find that by not engaging in emotionally fulfilling relationships, we restrict ourselves from fully experiencing what it means to be human.

These social standards regarding emotional labour can thus also harm men. Psychologist James M. O’Neil first conceptualized the term gender role conflict (GRC) to describe the way men relate to the expectations of their gender. He defines it as psychological state “in which restrictive definitions of masculinity limit men’s wellbeing and human potential.”

One result of GRC is a standard of restricted emotionality and lack of room to freely develop how to express emotions and deal with them. This gives the appearance that men are naturally less skilled at giving advice, listening, or other personal interactions that require emotional engagement.

Supporting and caring for others, and being able to expect support and care from the people in our lives, is an incredibly rewarding part of human existence and something that we should all have access to regardless of gender. There shouldn’t be negative repercussions for expressing emotions, and people who provide emotional support should be acknowledged and respected.

Parents need to examine the gendered ways that they raise children – stop instilling girls with an obligation to always put others first. Teach them that “No.” can be a complete sentence. If we create a society in which children are raised the same way regardless of gender, then everyone will have the tools to be able to help and support others; it won’t fall solely on women.

By not engaging in emotionally fulfilling relationships, we restrict ourselves from fully experiencing what it means to be human.

However, there is also work that can be done in our own lives to develop more emotionally fulfilled, well-rounded relationships with each other.

As women, we should hold the people in our lives accountable if they benefit from emotional work we perform while offering little in return.

As O’Neil outlined, men and boys aren’t allowed to express their emotions and have them validated. Without expressing and understanding one’s own emotions, it’s unlikely that one will be adept at understanding and supporting someone else’s emotions. As the floor fellow I spoke with said during our conversation, “The people who want to support you don’t care [if you are emotional]. Those are the people that you should be going to for support, the people that are willing to not attach higher feeling to your gender.”

So, men, make an effort to provide that non-judgemental support for each other. Stop shaming each other with toxic language like “Be a man,” or “Don’t be a pussy.” The work of subverting hegemonic masculinity, what it means to ‘be a man,’ is emotional labour, and taking this on is just one way that you can help take the burden off the women in your lives.