rethink masculinity: taking on emotional labor

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series from our Rethink Masculinity program with ReThink and DC Rape Crisis Center. The author, Stephen Hicks, is co-director of Rethink Masculinity and stylistically decided to not use capitalization.

i didn’t know about emotional labor until i joined the rethink masculinity course from CASS. the second class of rethink was about this foreign concept. i believe i heard the term emotional labor once and didn’t inquire further. 

go ahead, take a moment. it took me three decades, a handful of heartbreaks, and plenty of damage done to get a introductory tutorial in doing work that involved recognizing i had human emotions and needed to recognize human emotions in others. so, when i read the three articles we were assigned before class, i had a clay davis-like reaction.

the three articles:

for this venue, i’ll use this working definition of emotional labor I learned from the rethink masculinity class: 

defining emotional labor: the process of managing feelings and expressions in order to fulfill emotional requirements as part of a relationship, friendship or job. workers are expected to regulate their emotions with customers, co-workers and bosses. women are gender non-conforming people are expected to regulate their emotions for the comfort of men. emotional labor is required for any relationship to work.

emotional labor isn’t limited to cries and smiles. emotional labor can include planning dates, communicating one’s needs/desires/wants, calling grandma to cheer her up, and holding space for others to express themselves. hey, there’s even a checklist. it’s the action-oriented detail that keeps all kinds of relationships intact from romantic, platonic, familial, and professional. 

i immediately thought of how my former partner told me she was not my “container.” she was definitely present, but needed boundaries to my rampant unloading. and trust me, i unloaded. my job, my family, my friends, my roommates, and everything and everyone. me me me me and lots of grievances. i mistook my unloading as me practicing vulnerability and called it intimacy. and what made it worse, i wasn’t intentional about holding the space for her to share what she was thinking and feeling. way too lopsided. when i reflect on her words, she wanted me to do my own emotional labor and not simply unload onto her for her to be saddled with my unresolved woes.

also, i think of my mother, for she held (and continues to hold) the weight of sustaining the family throughout the good, bad, and mundane. her daily commute consisted of hour-long traffic jams to a workplace culture which didn’t value her vast expertise. and upon her return home, she shouldered the enormity of her sons’ classroom performance, extracurricular activities, in-school suspensions, and absent-father dramas. she’s now retired and her sons are out of the house, but she still invests in emotional labor — often going unreciprocated. 

to my former partner and my mother, thank you and i apologize for not doing more of my own emotional labor AND being there for you two. i want to make this right. 

on the macro-societal level, many of us cishet men are excused from this skill-building of doing emotional labor. we often don’t process emotions or hold space. as a consequence, women and queer folks are tasked with saving the day. they listen to us, schedule this and that, stroke our egos, and create comfort. they sustain us. in turn, we reap the benefits and return very little. i think there’s a multifaceted reason why we do this: part-immaturity, part-misogyny, part-you-are-so-much-better-at-this-adulting-and-caretaking-thing-i-will-freely-rest-on-my-laurels-yes-please-and-thank-you. 

fellas, it’s not too late for us to unlearn the old and practice anew. we should check ourselves. emotional labor doesn’t exist in a vacuum. we have to take responsibility for ourselves. emotional labor is a skill, which we should begin to hone. we have plenty of emotional labor to reciprocate. let’s start now.

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