Over the past few years, I have struggled with the concept and meaning of Valentine’s Day. As I have grown as a feminist and become more aware of systems of oppression that uphold what it means to be “normal” in our society, the idea of Valentine’s Day has become much less romantic than I once thought.
Since Valentine’s Day was just a few days ago, I think it is important to familiarize ourselves with the concept of emotional labour and how it plays out within our interpersonal relationships, particularly during this time of year. As you read this, emotional labour may sound like a completely foreign concept to you, something that you’ve never heard of before; or, you may know those two words all too well.
Everyday Feminism defines emotional labour as “the feminist idea that women – and other people that society labels “feminine” – are socialized to provide a vast array of emotional services for other people (usually men), most often without acknowledgement or pay.” Emotional labour is interwoven throughout almost every aspect of the lives of women, femmes and marginalized people. We provide emotional labour in more noticeable, overt situations, such as comforting a friend or loved one in times of distress, but also in subtle, nearly invisible ways, such as meeting the expectation to constantly make time and space for others’ voices and emotions besides our own.
Emotional labour is not isolated to just interpersonal relationships. It manifests itself in a variety of spaces, communities and institutions that we all take part in every single day. From dealing with the expectations of catcallers who want women and femmes to politely acknowledge their harassment to handling the harsh judgment in the workplace for being overly assertive, emotional labour takes many forms.
It is difficult to grapple with and recognize the effects of emotional labour. As a woman, I have been taught to be a caretaker, to understand and recognize the feelings of those around me and to give my time and energy to listen to others unconditionally. I take pride in being a good listener, a caring friend and partner and someone who wants to make sure others are happy, but it leaves me wondering: when does it end? Does it make me a bad friend or partner if I don’t have the energy to listen, give advice, or be a source of support?
The short answer to all of these questions is “no.” However, it has taken a long time for me to realize that sometimes putting myself first is absolutely necessary and it does not mean that I am the worst friend, partner, co-worker, etc. Resisting the pull of emotional labour and its ability to make us feel as if we do not have the right to think of ourselves and our needs is incredibly difficult and yet so imperative to sustaining not only ourselves, but also our relationships and communities.
The women, femmes and marginalized folks in your lives are constantly performing and giving emotional labour every single day, and this Valentine’s Day I hope you tell them how thankful you are for all that they do. Emotional labour isn’t all about the grand gestures or large emotional emergencies in our lives; it’s also about the small, seemingly menial things like asking how someone is doing, or if they need anything. We must all be aware of how we engage in emotional work in our daily lives and relationships and make a conscious effort to make emotional labour an equal effort. Our world is a difficult and sometimes scary place to navigate and we must all support and make space for each other’s emotional needs in order to create a sustainable resistance.