Skip to main content

Mendo Lake Family Life

The Hard Work of Emotional Labor

By Shannon Dean

Many families share domestic duties in a way that would have been foreign to previous generations. For example, most dads will willingly do a load of laundry, change a diaper, or cook a meal. Many moms can complete home repairs, handle vehicle maintenance, and throw a ball. These shifts are healthy because they allow children to see both parents contributing to household tasks regardless of gender.

Unfortunately, the invisible emotional labor needed to support a modern family often remains gender-specific. A recent report from the United Nations found that women do two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. 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 are responsible for remembering issues and occasions that are important to not only those residing under her roof, but also to her in-laws, children’s teachers, and her spouse’s coworkers, among other people.

The Potential for Burnout When you add these invisible tasks to a full schedule, it’s no surprise that many mothers feel exhausted. 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, since these unrelenting tasks often involve family relationships, many parents feel uncomfortable outsourcing them.

Additionally, the fact that emotional labor can often go unappreciated 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 Books, 2019), 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 Mom is an obvious beneficiary of shared responsibility, but all family members win in a home where equality is valued. 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. In addition, fathers who share emotional labor set an important example for their children, particularly daughters. Research published in Psychological Science found that fathers who embraced household responsibilities raised daughters more likely to pursue less traditional, and possibly higher paying, careers. “How fathers treat their domestic duties appears to play a unique gatekeeper role,” explains researcher Alyssa Croft.

How to Approach a Partner It is very common to assume that Mom has a firm lock on emotional labor, while Dad is only a helpmate. We must change this outlook, says Gemma Harley, the author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward (HarperOne, 2018), because it not only “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.”

Fortunately, most spouses want an equal partnership, but are either unaware of this inequality or are unsure of how to do their fair share. So approach your partner with the goal of raising awareness about how much work you actually do. Don’t wait until there’s a full-blown crisis to do this. Acknowledge the contributions he already makes so that he doesn’t become too defensive. Be clear that you are asking for shared responsibility, not help; the latter implies that the task in question is solely your job. It may help to explain that shared responsibility 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 him which tasks he’s willing to take on, know that he may have his own way of completing them—and this means that you will have to relinquish control. Hovering over a partner who is trying to share responsibility is continuing the cycle of imbalance.

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 reassures families that 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, their own sets of priorities, and their own deep connections. 

Shannon Dean is a freelance writer.