By Dena Landon
The exhaustion that drags on you after listening to someone complain for an hour. The time spent recording birthdays in calendars, buying cards and mailing them. Reminding your ex-husband to call his dad on special occasions. Budgeting for, planning and buying the family’s Christmas presents. While you may not be familiar with the term for this – emotional labor – you probably know the feeling.
Women still do the majority of the housework, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics we spend an average of 1.6 hours more than men a DAY on household chores, caring and helping family members and taking care of the shopping. But we also perform a different kind of labor. It’s unpaid, often unrecognized, and just expected of us, but it’s still work.
Not only did the vast majority of the laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning fall on my shoulders when I was married so, too, did the emotional labor. Until I started to recognize it and push back. One year I reminded my ex-husband three times to buy his father a birthday card.
“I’ve got it, Dena. God! I won’t forget my own dad’s birthday!” he snapped at me when I finally offered to buy the card myself.
He didn’t have it. And he forgot to call his father that day, too, even though I texted a reminder. His dad called the next day, hurt, and blamed it on me.
“Why didn’t Dena remind you? Why didn’t she mail the card?”
Honestly, I could have screamed. This labor also takes the form of listening and calming him down after a bad day at work on a regular basis, but being told you’re a Drama Queen if you ask him to do the same for you. Serving as a pseudo-therapist when he needs to vent but not having that same outlet. I thought this type of work would end when we divorced but, like a lot of divorced women, I discovered that it didn’t.
Emotional labor doesn’t end with the divorce. In a way, it can become more exhausting.
“C’s last swim lesson is tomorrow and he’s graduating, would you like to come?” I invited, hoping his presence would make our son happy.
I had to text, “Don’t forget it’s his day to bring snacks to school tomorrow,” after he forgot three months in a row.
But it goes beyond the scheduling reminders.
“I’m sure your father wanted to be here, he just forgot,” when he doesn’t come to kindergarten graduation. A relatively benign example of struggling to respond tactfully when your child says, “Daddy doesn’t love me.” You don’t necessarily want to lie to your children, nor do you want to undermine the emotional intelligence they’re developing. You also don’t want to be accused of sabotaging your child’s relationship with a co-parent – even if that co-parent is doing that just fine on their own.
Emotional labor doesn’t end with the divorce. In a way, it can become more exhausting. And if you’re not careful you can start to view it with resentment and bitterness. Which is when it’s time to take a step back.
Who are you doing this for?
If I’m focusing on my ex it can feel gross to send those reminders and do that work. Like I’m still apologizing for him constantly, or responsible for his inconsiderate behavior. But I still want my child to have as good a relationship with his father as he can.
So I shift my focus.
It’s not about my ex, it’s about my child. Reframing my actions has also led to me to learn to ask myself: am I doing this because my child really cares or because I’m still clinging to the hope his father will become an involved parent? And if the answer is the latter, choosing to not do it. Not sending those reminder texts when I realize it’s more about my disappointed hopes and dreams of how my ex would choose to parent than my son’s needs.
This has also helped me set boundaries. I won’t remind my ex anymore about soccer practice or swim lessons. When I realized it was causing a lot of anxiety for me, I let it go. I’m no longer willing to bail him out of forgotten chores unless it directly impacts my son’s safety and well-being. And if my son says something negative about him I’ve memorized a pat response, “I’m sorry you feel that way, kiddo,” and then shower him with love and affection.
Even if you continue to perform all that emotional labor for a man who doesn’t recognize or value it, shifting your focus, stepping back from those actions that aren’t really about your kid, and learning to set boundaries can help you reclaim your power.
About the Author
Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Narrative.ly, Salon, bust.com, and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children’s Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram and Facebook.