How Emotional Work Adds to the Gender Gap

With everything that wives and mothers have to remember, it's no wonder this steering wheel is covered in reminders and to-dos. . Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

Being a wife and a mother is not glamorous work, especially when kids are little; it's often thankless, unrecognized work — no matter how old your kids are. There's no prize for remembering to buy more toilet paper before the last roll runs out and no trophy for locating missing shoes with lightning speed. There's no reward for making sure the diaper bag is stocked before an outing and no promotion for successfully soothing a sad tween after her team loses or she fights with a friend.

No one congratulates me when I notice with half-closed eyes at midnight that all the ice trays need filling or my husband won't have his morning iced tea. Ditto when I see to it that our older daughter has supplies for every day of school spirit week (Crazy hat? Check. Pro sports team jersey? Check.) or when our younger daughter gets registered for (and taken to) the weekly toddler class at the library. The after-school dance and gymnastics classes, the keeping track of school half-days, writing thank-you notes, the sending gifts to far-away relatives on both sides of the family in time for birthdays or holidays, the finding of summer camps (and getting physicals and filling out forms and paying) — that's all me.

My husband and I are both college-educated people working full-time jobs. He is a wonderful partner and father and this is no way an attack on him or a complaint about him. (He plows the snow, spends tons of time with the kids and handles all of the home repairs. Plus he's a feminist.) But sometimes I wonder: Why am I the default person tasked with all that mental responsibility? The answer, of course, is that I am a woman.

What is emotional work?

Mother comforting crying daughter at school
Women have been cast in the role of nurturer and attention-payer, but such skills don't always come naturally. Sometimes, playing that role takes work — and lots of it. stockphoto mania/Shutterstock

But before I go further, let me clarify something: I am happy to take care of my family, and I don't expect every single thing — heck, most things — I do to be appreciated or acknowledged. You surely have your own list of chores that go unnoticed but you do anyway because you love your family. It's part of life ... yet it's an inequality that has always nagged at me, even though I couldn't quite articulate it. However, I recently learned there's a term to describe the mental labor associated with being a wife and mother: It's emotional work, and Money magazine recently referred to the role of worrier, organizer, rememberer and attention-payer as "the invisible workload that drags women down."

In May 2016, Ellen Seidman, a writer/editor, wife and mother of three, wrote a blog post entitled, "I am the person who notices we are running out of toilet paper, and I rock." It's an exhausting (though probably not exhaustive) look at what she calls her "seeing superpowers," which she says enable her family to exist. From noticing that they are running out of [insert food item, toiletry, piece of clothing, toy, art supply or home item here] to remembering shoe sizes, library book due dates, prescription refills and annual physicals, Seidman bullet-points out the vast number of details and to-dos packed into her brain. Reading her post made me realize two things: First, I have all that stuff in my head, too, though I never paused long enough to appreciate the sheer volume of it. And second, it's no wonder my brain feels fractured into a zillion pieces by the end of the day.

Do men have an equivalent set of mental tasks that I don't know about? Or is it that our willingness to do these things allows everyone else in the family the freedom not to, as author and sociology professor Lisa Wade writes in the Money magazine article?

Unequal pay

Working mom
Women, on average, earn less than men in just about every occupation, which adds to the frustration regarding the lack of recognition for emotional labor. michaeljung/Shutterstock

In 2015, female full-time workers made only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20%, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR). "Women, on average, earn less than men in virtually every single occupation for which there is sufficient earnings data for both men and women to calculate an earnings ratio," the IWPR says.

A Pew Research Center survey from 2015 shows that in close to half of all two-parent families, both parents work full-time. And in those working-parent households, more than half of parents surveyed said the mother did more in regard to managing the children's schedules and activities. While that statistic isn't so surprising, what's interesting is how mothers and fathers described the division of labor in their homes. Fathers were more likely to say responsibilities were shared equally, while mothers were more likely to say they did more around the house.

Maybe all this emotional work is why women feel like we do more than our partners do, even if the husbands think we took out the trash an even number of times this week. And maybe our partners don't realize just how much mental juggling happens inside our pretty little heads.

"Like much of the feminized work done more often by women than men, thinking, worrying, paying attention, and delegating is work that is largely invisible, gets almost no recognition, and involves no pay or benefits," Wade writes. She's not the first woman to suggest that emotional work should be compensated in some way. In July 2015, writer Jess Zimmerman penned an article on The Toast that posed this question:

Offering advice, listening to woes, dispensing care and attention? That’s not supposed to be transactional. People are disturbed by the very notion that someone would charge, or pay, for friendly support. It’s supposed to come free. Why? ...
Housework is not work. ... Emotional work is not work. Why? Because they don’t take effort? No, because women are supposed to provide them uncompensated, out of the goodness of our hearts.
It’s counterintuitive, but it’s worth trying to think of emotional labor as a service – one that’s provided in response to constant demand.

(It's worth noting that Zimmerman's thought-provoking essay on feminism spawned a massive discussion thread so chock full of personal anecdotes and excellent points that someone indexed and organized the comments into an annotated 49-page PDF. Seriously, consider reading it. I got lost in it for hours.)

A labor of love (that's worth it)

Mom and son cooking in the kitchen
It's work to build someone's confidence or plan activities, but doing it builds bonds and strengthens relationships. Kzenon/Shutterstock

Now, I'm not going to argue that women should be paid for emotional work. Managing my home and my family is a labor of love, it's part of the stage of life we're in and I'm grateful to be able to do it. But I will argue such work has value, and my super-mom services are definitely in constant demand.

Payment for emotional labor isn't issued in money. It's issued in strong relationships and the fulfillment those bring to our lives. As the saying goes, nothing worth having comes easy. The people who do the emotional work are the social glue that keeps families, communities and societies together.

So while it's work to buy a gift and send it out before a certain date, it shows the receiver that you thought of them and you thought enough of them to remember in advance about their special day. It's work to build up someone's confidence, talk them through a difficult time or fill your family's social calendar, but doing those things builds interpersonal bonds, which in this digital-driven world need all the help they can get.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed, as my house seems to have a more equal partnership than others I've seen. But I'm going to keep performing dozens of free, unappreciated labors of love every day, even though my head may pound by bedtime and my patience may run thin, because it's good for my family. It's what my working mom did for me, and it's what her working mom did for her. And I won't complain about it, either. At least, not much...