Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Emotional labour" and childless women

Cathy at "Slow Swimmers and Fried Eggs" recently wrote a thought-provoking post about "emotional labour" -- the social expectation that we will be attentive to the needs and feelings and comfort of others. There's a whole list of examples of emotional labour in one of the articles I've linked to -- things such as remembering birthdays, anniversaries and appointments;  noticing that we're almost out of soap and adding it to the grocery list; planning family get-togethers (even with a small, informal gathering, you want to make sure the house is reasonably tidy and that you have some refreshments on hand to offer your guests); listening to a co-worker's problems; remembering your kid's bake sale is this week at school and making sure they have something to bring for it. All the little details we take care of that, individually, might not seem like a big deal, but taken collectively, can be exhausting.

I was familiar with the concept of "emotional labour" -- and the argument that women do the vast majority of it, often to the detriment of their own personal and professional well-being (not to mention the idea that failing to do it makes us "bad" or uncaring in the eyes of some -- while men who fail to do this kind of labour are just "busy, important, or pre-occupied.”). 

But then Cathy made a really great point, something I'd never really considered (at least not in these explicit terms) -- an "ah-ha moment" for me:  "To me [she wrote] the social construct can certainly be expectations of women (as nurturers) versus men, but also of parents versus non-parents."  She points out that people without children are expected to provide a great deal of support to parents -- "yet there is a lack of reciprocity towards those struggling with infertility who are not parents." This, she says, reflects the importance of parenthood in our society -- which is highly publicized, idealized and celebrated -- versus the invisibility of infertility, a loss that is not recognized or deeply understood by others.

Shortly after Cathy's post, a blogging friend posted an article on her Facebook page which has nothing to do with emotional labour specifically (let alone infertility or childlessness), but which included a highlighted passage that I thought was thematically resonant with Cathy's article:  "I am constantly asked to consider the full humanity and emotional circumstances of women who are never asked to consider mine. If they do it at all it is magnanimously. I have to do it to survive."

Around the same time, Jody Day of Gateway Women flagged an article on Facebook outlining "50 Ways People Expect Constant Emotional Labor from Women and Femmes." As I read through, I kept thinking about what a similar list specifically about childless women might look like. Here are a few points that I came up with:
  • If women's time is considered less valuable than men's, childless women's time is devalued even more so. For example, there is an expectation that we will cheerfully pitch in to cover for parenting coworkers who need to stay home with a sick child or leave early to attend their child's school event.  Our own requests for flexibility are often deemed less important or "legitimate".
  • In the same vein, there's an expectation that childless women will be available to care for aging parents, help them with errands and take them to appointments, more so than our siblings with children (even if they live closer to Mom & Dad than we do).
  • Parents assume that, because we don't have children, we have a lot of discretionary income to spend as we please.
  • We are expected to show interest in the children of our siblings, friends and relatives, and to listen attentively and sympathetically to parents' problems and stories about their children -- while our own interests and problems are often dismissed as less worthy of attention or ignored completely.  
  • We are expected to defer to parents in all matters related to children, even if we have our own knowledge and experiences to guide us and to share (e.g., childless teachers are often told they don't know anything about children, even though they spend the entire day a room full of them, 9 months a year, year after year).
  • Parents expect us to attend gender reveal parties, baby showers, christenings, first communions, confirmations, graduations, weddings and birthday parties to celebrate their children and the milestone events in their lives (oh yeah, and bring gifts!). Yet our own birthdays or other milestones are not always marked or celebrated in the same way.  
  • If we decline invitations to these events or fail to show sufficient enthusiasm for them, we are expected to provide explanations and/or made to feel like something is wrong with us. 
  • We are expected to justify our decision to continue living without children, while parents are rarely expected to justify why they decided to have children. Similarly, we are expected to explain why we didn't pursue this or that path to parenthood ("Have you thought about adoption? surrogacy? donor eggs?") -- even within the infertility community, where childless living (still) remains an unacceptable outcome for many pursuing treatment or adoption.  
Thoughts?  (On emotional labour generally, and/or how it relates to infertility and childlessness specifically?)


  1. dear Loribeth, it is a great post and I just love your list. I agree with everything on the list. I hope you don't mind - I copied it and put on my blog.
    kind regards from Europe.

  2. Dear Loribeth

    Thank you, this is so true and so poignant. Exactly what I am realising and being left to feel like at present and I do find this difficult particularly now.

    Your works make so much sense.

    Thank you, Denise Q

  3. Great article. Your list is spot on.

  4. Thanks for this Loribeth, it's so true. I so wish parents had to justify why they had children in the same way we get scrutinised. And I feel very lucky that I'd never heard of a 'gender reveal party' - sounds horrendous and I hope they never catch on in the UK.

    1. I have not yet been to one, but I have heard of a few of them... I am sure it's only a matter of time before we get an invite...!

  5. I can't tell if my comment took. Here it is again as anonymous


    Loribeth as usual your words hit a deep place in my heart. I could never begin to respond to this with the mental energy it deserves. I would be crying for several days. Thank you for voicing that which I've never been able to voice.

  6. I've had to start letting go of friendships that have become unbalanced where I've provided large amounts of sympathy to friends with children who have problems only to get no support when I have a problem or made to feel my problems aren't as significant. Over it. Fortunately most of my mum friends aren't in that realm, just one or two. I also think you have to teach people how to treat you. We have to stop feeling we are less and know we are as valuable as anyone with children. Once you feel that and project that people will treat you better.

  7. Hi Loribeth, you outline the concept of emotional labour so clearly here, and have given me lots to think about - thank you! Catherine

  8. So true. I often get the impression that my time is considered less valuable than parents. At work but even among my friends at times. As the childfree person in the group I am expected to always be flexible and meet when it suits them and at a child friendly venue.

  9. Extremely excellent post!!! I learned of the term "emotional labor" several months ago and it really resonated with me. In fact, I used it in a reply to a comment on my blog very recently. Hearing of this concept and understanding it has really been a game changer for me. I am now concentrating on doing my own work and not doing other people's work for them.

  10. I read this as I was once again sending off birthday presents to nieces overseas. I tend to stop when the niece/nephew or child of friends leaves home, so 18 (years) x 13 (children) x 2 (birthdays and Christmas) = A LOT! Putting the financial efforts (purchases, international postage) aside, the emotional labour is significant, and not returned.
    And yes, this all contradicts the myth of the "free and easy childless women/couples."
    Great post!

    1. I don't begrudge the money, really -- and I've always had fun shopping for the perfect gifts for my nephews & other kids -- even after it became clear that I would not be having any children of my own for people to shop for. (Although I have sometimes resorted to just sending money or a gift card when it was too hard to face all the cute things for kids.) But it's not always reciprocated -- or even acknowledged with a thank you note sometimes. It's hard to always be the one doing the giving. :(