A bro’s take on emotional labor

My wife Lisa is out of town this weekend, leaving me with both kids for four nights. I consulted the dad playbook which reads: “To avoid a crisis, fly your mom out ASAP.” Now I pride myself on being an involved dad, whose ninja moves include defusing a public meltdown and administering a bottle while feeding myself with my left hand. Yet as a parent, I’ve learned that my involvement is often more bark than bite.

Emotional Labor, WTF?

I was recently introduced to the term emotional labor. Coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983, it describes service-based work (i.e. that of flight attendants, nurses, call-center workers) which requires a high degree of emotional self-regulation. The jobs in these fields were held mostly by women. My (Internet) research of this term indicates that somewhere in the 2000s it became much more expansive and nebulous, but at its core, always about the imbalance of work between the genders, at home and in the office.

I’m still confused by the term, so I’m not going to use it. Instead I’m replacing it with an acronym SSDTGU (“Shit Someone Does That Goes Unrecognized”). Ever since I coined the term I’ve been collecting an inventory of SSDTGU in hour household.

An inventory of my marital blind spots

It turns out that this list is long. There’s the friend’s 4th birthday tomorrow. Normally, I’d just show up and eat some ice-cream cake. But no, when I’m riding solo I’m getting the gift, wrapping it, writing the card, not to mention getting both kids to and fro. (Just eating cake is way easier.)

Then there’s feeding young kids. Holy moly. My dad tactic in the past has been iPad bribery combined with the brute-force approach of yelling. The ongoing negotiation for each menu item and each bite, makes a Crossfit workout look easy. The list goes on…

SSDTGU is also captured on date nights. My opening salvo might be making the dinner reservation. But Lisa implores me that I can’t stop there. There’s the need to book a sitter, then getting the kids ready in their PJs, laying out the instructions for Apple TV, ensuring we have enough cash, and ordering takeout for the babysitter. Like the ice-cream cake, it turns out that the SSDTGU that accompanies date night can, well, ruin date night.

Before I realized all the SSTDGU in our marriage, it would manifest in marital tiffs. I’d plead: “Why don’t you just tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it?” And that was the point. Telling me about SSDTGU is a form of SSDTGU itself. I know, so meta.

She went so far as putting the situation into terms I’d understand. “You’re like a really smart and talented analyst who lacks initiative and constantly needs to be micro-managed.” Touché.

But bro, ain’t that the deal?

I absolutely know what you’re thinking. Especially the bros reading this. “But you’re the primary breadwinner. It should be unbalanced, that’s the arrangement you guys have.” And you guys are right. That is the bro-y self-justification that I relied upon for years.

But here’s the thing. Yes, every couple has their own internal arrangement. Yes, equality is often not the goal. But, SSDTGU is a tax. It’s an emotional tax. In our marriage often times all Lisa wanted was an acknowledgement of the SSDTGU. Yes, she wanted my help. But what she really wanted was a little empathy, and appreciation – a damn “thank you [for the SSDTGU].” And by definition, it’s impossible to acknowledge something that falls in a personal blind spot.

Emotional labor at work: It’s complicated

SSDTGU gets way more complicated in the workplace and I’m not ready to write about it (yet). But I will share two small anecdotes. Every couple days, in our Slack channel someone will ask for a dial-in / login information. The men (myself included) never respond to these requests. Personally, I know someone else will do it – so I ignore it.

The second example is more embarrassing. I usually have a work-related lunch and ever since I started tracking SSDTGU, I realized that if I was meeting a woman for lunch (once we picked a spot) I’d assume she’d make the reservation. And these were not “mentoring” lunches, these were professional peers and oftentimes women who were more experienced than me. When I met men for lunch, the reservation-making was much more collaborative (à la “Should I make the reservation?”) Like I said, this is embarrassing (and possibly a patriachal-worldview-induced blindspot). Whatever it is, I’ve stopped doing both.

From measurement to mastery

There’s a management aphorism that says: “What gets measured, gets mastered.” And that’s been my own experience with SSDTGU. “Measurement” has enabled  appreciation, acknowledgement and compassion. And that’s helped our family flow in many beautiful ways. Take the example below (where Shabazz Palaces is a rap group and Elsewhere a concert venue):



I’m the blue bubbles, my wife the grey.

I held up my end of the bargain and but still need to remember to help get the babysitter situated the night of the concert. It’s a far cry from mastery, but hell, we can always aspire.

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