Foreword by Sari Solden, M.S., LMFT
The new book by Regina Lark and Judith Kolberg Emotional Labor: Why A Woman’s Work is Never Done and What To Do About It, brings into bold relief a concept that may come as a surprise to many. Although it is 2021, there is a deeply held practice and belief by women that despite advances in “sharing the household tasks” with partners, they still carry the largest share of what the authors call the emotional labor for the family. Even while men increasingly share, help, or take on many of the tasks of childcare, home care, laundry and cooking, women of all ages very often continue to carry the mental and emotional work load and feelings of responsibility for the smooth operation of the household and the well-being of its members.
This comes as no surprise to psychotherapists such as myself, who hear daily shame-filled “confessions” from women with organizational challenges. The “unwritten job description” that I first wrote about in 1995, outlined the internalized gender role expectations that lead women to feel hyper-responsible for tending to the “niceties of life”; everything from remembering their mother- in-law’s birthday, their sister’s anniversary, sending flowers for sympathy, making sure the children have regular doctor and dentist appointments, writing thank you notes, planning parties, problem solving, attending to hurt feelings, teacher conferences, and on and on, and, of course, as the authors describe so colorfully, making sure that no one goes without the “f—ing ketchup! “
In my work over the last thirty years with women with ADHD, I have seen how the challenges with executive function (the management functions of the brain that keep our daily lives coordinated and smooth running) painfully collide with these gender role expectations, resulting in a toxic mix of clutter and shame that deeply affect their core sense of self and often the power dynamic in their intimate relationships.
In their new book, Lark and Kolberg, two outstanding organizers/feminists who have helped revolutionize the world of women with chronic and severe organizational challenges, now expand our perspective to help us see beyond women with executive function difficulties. They shine a light on how most women carry an enormous burden as a result of the mental gymnastics involved in tracking the needs of each family member in order to prevent both minor inconveniences and larger disasters.
This precision navigation by women often occurs below the radar, their automatic seamless coordination of their family’s lives going largely unnoticed by others. The price paid by women for this mental and emotional labor seeps into the pores of their everyday lives and saps their emotional reserves, often leaving little time for their own self-care.
The kind of system change needed to impact this dynamic will require ongoing direct, heart- to-heart talks within families and with partners. However, this process starts with women having an in-depth and continuing talk with themselves and with each other about the multi-generational internalized messages that work to maintain this system. Women can’t be the engine that keeps everyone else’s lives running smoothly, often at the expense of their own.
The authors illustrate how household management goes way beyond mere tasks and errands. They help the reader understand the intricacies of the constant mental calculus; the ability to instantly calculate like a sophisticated computer program all the shifts that need to happen to accommodate the whole system in an effort to prevent even minor negative outcomes. Women play the role of understudy for every person’s part in the family drama, ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps if we let go of some of the “emotional labor,” not only would we lessen our own mental load, but other members of the family just might gain more confidence, competence, and the ability to tolerate a little more discomfort (after all, it’s often only the “f-ing ketchup”).
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