For those not in the know, it's a concept that's been gaining momentum in feminist and academic circles for years after being coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in a 1983 article about 'emotional regulation' at work – namely, smiling to make customers feel comfortable. Over the subsequent 40 years, the term has come to encompass a specifically gendered type of unpaid work.
In short, it’s understood to be the 'work of caring'; work that has been societally gendered as 'women's work'. It spans an enormous number of acts, from childrearing to remembering birthdays, cooking dinner to apologising. We are raised to believe that women are just good at caring; the truth is, it's evolved into our nature over time thanks to stereotypical household roles. Today, despite changes in the world, women keep doing that work (or at least feeling like they should be doing that work) unpaid. Caring is a learned behaviour, which means that men can learn to be good at emotional labour too (and of course many do) – it just isn’t expected or incentivised for them.
And so it’s overwhelmingly women who bear the brunt of emotional labour, an inordinate amount of which is demanded at Christmas.
Emotional labour doesn't just consist of physical acts: listening, understanding and responding are all emotional labour too. In non-pandemic years this could mean things like having conversations with guests fall into this bracket, alongside cooking and cleaning up. In families of divorce or large extended families, it tends to fall to women to plot logistically in order not to offend or upset anyone. And in the chaos of the last few years, it can mean the responsibility of negotiating the restrictions and concerns we're negotiating thanks to COVID-19. These aren't fun things – they require high levels of energy and emotional intelligence.
Present-buying, wrapping, card-writing and list-making are enjoyed by many people, but that doesn't mean there is not an exhausting level of mental and emotional acrobatics being performed in order to accomplish them. That some women enjoy doing 'Christmassy' things does not detract from the fact that many feel it is expected of them. It is so ingrained, in fact, that if we forget someone or mismanage our time, the guilt we experience can be acute.
The social expectations at this time of year run deep and it can be very difficult to alter behaviours. It's not always as simple as saying "It's okay Mum, I'll sort the roast potatoes," because Mum still feels the responsibility is on her. It always has been. And if your potatoes are a roaring success, fantastic, but if you burn them to a crisp, she'll feel as though she has failed and so will begin her emotional labour of apologising.
There are plenty of ways to share the burden of emotional labour at Christmas. Think about what you’re asking people to do – asking your mum to delegate tasks requires her to problem-solve and that’s work, so be proactive. Tidy up after yourself. Load the dishwasher. Shop. Make cups of tea. And for God’s sake, remember where you put the sticky tape.
Here, four women* discuss the extent and impact of their experience of emotional labour at Christmas.
*Names have been changed