Have you seen those videos where they explain what emotional labor is? Well, I finally learned what it is this past year. Yes, I’m 34 and had no idea what it was or what it entailed. To paint a picture, a year ago, when I just moved into my new apartment with a roommate after 7 years of living alone, I was so proud of myself for emptying the dishwasher by myself without her asking. She came home and said nothing about it. How ungrateful! Why did she not even mention it?!
Well, I mentioned it. And she looked at me, incredulous, and told me: “You live here, I expect you to do things, and you expect me to praise you for it every single time? No, I will not do that”. My roommate reminded me last week that I was crying that week because of that situation. I had panicked because I felt unseen and unappreciated. And I really did not see a way out to make it better. Big blind spot.
The thing is, I expected (not wanted, but expected) her to act as my mom. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do exactly as you say. No more, no less. If and when I chose to do something ‘extra’, I expected to get a compliment about it. I never really felt like things were just as much my responsibility as they were hers. I did the chores once in a while, but only when I was annoyed by the mess or by the lack of clean dishes. It’s not that I lived in filth; there was just no method to the madness. Now that I live with a roommate, I am expected to take equal responsibility. That was new for me. Because why the hell would I do that? Why would I help you? There was one great exception: I flew to the rescue when I saw that it was really needed or when things really got out of hand. Ooh and it made me feel so important and so helpful! I didn’t even see the small stuff I should have been doing all along or could have been doing to help the people I love.
This emotional labor doesn’t only show in household chores but also in social interactions. I always asked people what They wanted to do. “Oh, I’m fine with everything, you choose”. By now, I see that that is also a form of handing off emotional labor. I don’t want to carry the responsibility of choosing, so you can do it. I made them responsible for my happiness. I now clearly see that it must have been a very heavy burden to carry. Especially now that I recognize I never wanted to carry that responsibility: “What if they don’t like what I choose for us to do?” I never even thought it was a real choice for me or for the other person to voice your preference, even if there are no ‘real’ limitations (kids go to school, work tomorrow, pregnant, so no alcohol). For some reason, in my mind, there were real reasons and wrong reasons not to want things.
Alright, let’s be honest, I still find this to be a bit of a blind spot. I probably still do it in a lot of ways, and I definitely do it when I’m in situations and with people where I’m already used to doing it. It’s going to take a conscious effort on my part to get better. But I will do better. I’m proud of this step in my growing up. On to the next!