Sociologists often call the management of family duties “worry work,” and the person who does it, the “designated worrier.” For years, that designated worrier was seen as the mom. But with parents in flux about work stability and with the mounting needs of ever-present family, that just doesn’t cut it right now. Both parents need gigantic reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of the needs of their family — and the kids need to step up, too.
Meanwhile, the invisible, emotional labor needed to support a modern family often remains gender-specific … and still does to a degree. A recent report from the United Nations found that women still do 2.6 times more unpaid work than men, including unseen tasks like school carpooling, caring for elderly relatives, planning holidays, staying on top of the family schedule and supporting family harmony. As a result, some family responsibilities remain so unbalanced that mothers risk burnout.
What Is Emotional Labor?
Although many tasks classified as emotional labor address a family’s emotional and physical well-being, any administrative effort that contributes to a well-run household falls into this category. Because many moms are the emotional center of the home, they are expected to be fully available when family members are sick, troubled, or stressed. Mom is also the invisible elf who ensures that everyone has clothing that fits, food to eat, and a schedule that works.
Emotional labor often extends far beyond the immediate family. Moms not only remember issues and occasions important to those residing under her roof, but she is also responsible for people who are important to her family, like her in-laws, her children’s teachers, and her spouse’s coworkers.
When you add these invisible tasks to a full schedule, it’s no surprise that many mothers feel exhausted even before the second shift of emotional labor begins. Understandably, this fatigue can lead to resentment and frustration. No one notices invisible labor until it goes undone, at which time moms can be criticized or made to feel guilty. Even worse, many parents feel uncomfortable outsourcing these unrelenting tasks since they are so closely related to the family.
Additionally, the unappreciated nature of emotional labor can cause a mother to withdraw when her family needs her the most. According to Amelia Nagoski, Ph.D., author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (Ballantine; 2020), parental burnout can lead to decreased empathy and a dwindling sense of accomplishment. Eventually, an overwhelmed parent may shut down due to a belief that “nothing you do makes any difference,” she explains.
The Benefits Of Shared Responsibility
Moms are the obvious beneficiaries of shared responsibility, but all family members win in a home that values equality. Data published in The Journal of Marriage and Family, suggests that men who take on more household tasks enjoy increased physical intimacy in their marriages. Fathers who share emotional labor set an important example for their children, particularly daughters.
Research conducted by the Association for Psychological Science found that fathers who embraced household responsibilities raised daughters more likely to pursue higher paying careers.
“How fathers treat their domestic duties appears to play a unique gatekeeper role,” explains psychology researcher Alyssa Croft.
How To Approach A Partner
Don’t assume that renegotiating emotional labor is just another form of work, making it easier to do these tasks yourself. Although it’s tempting to believe that mothers are naturally better at soothing school dramas, buying gifts, and making sure that the house is well-stocked, these assumptions are untrue. Any family member can learn by doing.
Fortunately, most spouses want an equal partnership, but are either unaware of this inequality or are unsure of how to do their fair share. Because these misunderstandings contribute to imbalance, approach your partner (and kids) with the goal of making them aware that you’re swamped. Be clear that you are asking for shared responsibility, not help (which implies that the task in question is solely your job.) Don’t wait for a full-blown crisis and acknowledge the contributions already made so that defensiveness is kept at bay.
It may help to explain that this arrangement will benefit your entire family. After all, you’re modeling the skills that your children will one day use to run their own households.
Once you calmly ask which items your mate and kids are able and willing to take on, know that everybody does tasks differently and there really is no ONE WAY. Relinquish control if you want support. Hovering over someone who is trying to share responsibility is continuing the cycle of imbalance. It is very common to assume that mom has a firm lock on emotional labor, while dad is only a helpmate.
This outlook must change, says Gemma Harley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, (HarperOne; 2018) because it “sets up women for an overwhelming dive into the deep waters of emotional labor but also inhibits men from growing and stepping fully into the role of parent,” she says.
Clarify Essential Tasks
The value of emotional labor is immeasurable because it ensures that those we love feel secure and cared for. However, not every task is essential. Lightening your load may mean dropping obligations that no longer serve you or your family. Ask yourself what you do out of obligation rather than out of necessity or joy. Keeping only joyful and essential tasks means that you can lovingly offer emotional labor because you don’t feel undervalued, overwhelmed, and used.
Harley says sharing invisible labor “gives all of us a chance to live fuller and more authentic lives.” Even better, when we share these responsibilities, we allow our loved ones to create their own systems, and their own deep connections.
5 Tips for Sharing Emotional Labor at Home
1. Don’t Expect Your Family To “Just Know.”
Many women are frustrated with a partner and children who don’t understand what needs doing or how to do it. There’s an expectation that tasks related to love and parenting should come naturally, but it’s possible that your family is unaware rather than neglectful.
2. Make Emotional Labor Visible
Put a list of the week’s tasks in a high traffic area (like the kitchen.) Ask each participating family member to place his name beside each task he plans to complete. Cross out completed items and encourage your family to do the same.
3. Don’t Get Pulled Into Someone Else’s Responsibility
It is very common for a family member to feel incompetent or uncomfortable when attempting something that you’ve always handled. It’s fine to offer advice, but resist the urge to jump into a task that isn’t yours. Allow your loved one to figure it out.
4. Sometimes Done Is Better Than Perfect
Accepting shared responsibility means relinquishing control. Sometimes, you must lower your standards and know that done is good enough. For example, your partner’s best attempt at thank you notes might be a bit sloppy, but at least they are finished.
5. Acknowledge A Job Well-Done
You know first hand how frustrating it is when no one notices or acknowledges your constant efforts. Positive reinforcement is a great way to ensure that your family willingly and lovingly continues to share responsibilities.