I know I’m a good listener. I’ve been told that my emotional awareness and empathy allows me to help others understand their own feelings and the depth of the situations that may be troubling them. I’ve always thought it was my responsibility to be emotionally available to those I come in contact with, be it family, friends, partners, co-workers, and even bosses.
I have opened my mind and my heart and given my time to others for free to unload their burdens on me despite my own turmoil and trauma. Why? Because I was socialized to, because I thought it was my duty as a woman.
Unpaid emotional labor
The concept of unpaid emotional labor isn’t unfamiliar to those who work in the service industry. Working in a restaurant, I have to calibrate and change my own emotions to suit customers and their needs. This often looks like smiling through an uncomfortable interaction, or remaining calm when a guest is visibly displeased. It isn’t easy work, and it often takes an incalculable toll on my mental health because I have to deny and suppress how I actually feel and put a stranger’s needs before my own.
Most cisgender and trans women are experts at shifting their emotions and minimizing anger, pain, and sadness both in our professional and personal lives. If we don’t, we run the risk of being told that we are too dramatic, bitchy, and — my personal favorite — approaching “that time of the month.” Cis and trans women in general do not have the luxury of displaying their emotions, but we have to be hyper-aware of them whether they are boiling or subtle.
Unpaid emotional labor also includes the time we spend listening, counseling, and helping those in our lives manage their traumas or negative emotions for free and without reciprocation.
This burden often falls on the shoulders of women, because we are taught from a young age to identify and understand damaging emotions so that we can heal from the trauma that caused them. Less positively however, we are socialized this way because it is expected of us to be perceptive of the emotions of others, especially cisgender, masculine men, so that we can help them better understand their own feelings so that they can heal. But because most men aren’t taught how to do this for others or themselves, they often don’t reciprocate.
A two-way street
My relationships with women are symbiotic. We share each other’s joy as much as our pain so that we can heal together. But it took me 20 years to realize that those who cannot be there for me during the darkest of times don’t deserve me when I am thriving. In my own life, emotional labor has to be a two-way street. I have helped my male friends work through severe emotional issues. Part of that work entails listening to them talk about emotional and physical abuse, death, depression, or difficulties with their relationships with their families, friends, or partners. It can be exceptionally taxing on my mental health to make the space for this. I had to learn to put myself first, especially when they were incapable of helping me in the same way.
Most men are not socialized to have those conversations with each other because of traditional and toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is a product of patriarchy and describes the socially constructed behaviors that define masculinity as being unemotional, violent, sexually aggressive, and unable to understand or appreciate feminine qualities.
Imagine how free men would feel if they were not burdened by the limited notions of traditional, toxic masculinity and homophobia, and were able to discuss their emotions with each other. Expecting women to provide emotional labor simply because we are women is sexist. Not all women have the time, nor are we all nurturers, and we have every right to put ourselves before others in our lives. Self-care for women, especially women of color, is revolutionary.
In the United States, women dedicate about four hours per day to unpaid labor (which includes groceries, household chores, childcare, and cooking), compared to about two hours for men. According to a University of Michigan study noted in the New York Times, “American girls ages 10 to 17 spend two more hours than boys on chores each week, and boys are 15 percent more likely to be paid for doing chores.”
So not only are women taught to do unpaid labor, but men are taught that their labor is inherently worth payment. Women are taught to be mothers, lovers, receptionists, accountants, cooks, maids, and therapists. For free.
How men can pull their weight
To be blunt, women are already experiencing misogyny, systemic sexism, lower wages, pushback on our reproductive rights, street harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence, and more, so honestly, sometimes we just don’t have the time or space to help men explore their emotions. That doesn’t mean that men can’t have meaningful, emotional relationships with us, but they also must do their fair share.
I implore the men reading this to observe their own interactions with the women in their lives.
If you feel the need to lean on your female friends over the men in your life for emotional support, ask yourself why.
Begin having honest, difficult conversations with the men in your life about how you feel. Ask your friends how they are feeling, too. Try sharing or identifying each other’s emotions and what is causing them.
Before beginning a conversation about your personal issues with your friend, relative, or partner, ask yourself whether you are ready to reciprocate that work.
Before broaching traumatic topics, ask whether they are prepared to listen to a difficult issue. Not everyone has or should have the strength to internalize someone else’s trauma.
Learn about how gender, sexism, and toxic masculinity keep cisgender masculine men from fully exploring their emotions in a healthy and productive way. There are a multitude of resources available online: Everyday Feminism, The Establishment, Wear Your Voice, and Feministing, to name a few.
Unpack the elements of toxic masculinity so that you can be a better friend, partner, or relative to the women in your life. What this means is that you have to dismantle your male privilege, learn about how women are affected daily by micro- and macro-aggressions, understand how sexism isn’t just a wage-gap, it’s a multitude of learned behaviors and an oppressive, exhausting force. I encourage you to observe how you split unpaid labor with your partners, and be mindful of how your friends or male colleagues participate in sexist behaviors and language that contributes to rape culture and sexism.
We very honestly cannot tackle sexism without looking at the effects of emotional labor. It is important to understand that the social constructs of gender are harmful on both ends of the spectrum.
Having experienced some of the most difficult and oppressively sexist behaviors from men, I can tell you how wonderful it is to experience the opposite. My husband has dedicated so much of his time to understanding my perspective as a queer woman of color. Our relationship is fulfilling because not only does he understand his white, male privilege, but he actively works to unpack that privilege or use it in a way that benefits and uplifts me.
I believe that our marriage is strong and nourishing because it is symbiotic, and I would not have it any other way.