No Miracles Here: Emotional Labour at Christmas

If Christmas is a time for sharing, then what’s the deal with emotional labour?

Feature by Kate Pasola | 12 Dec 2017

You know a feminist theory’s gone mainstream when even the Telegraph is writing about it. Over 30 years have passed since the term ‘emotional labour’ was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, but of late the concept has finally made its way via feminist Tumblr and Metafilter into the public consciousness. Put simply, emotional labour is the type of task or responsibility left to a female member of a group – be it a family, a friendship circle or an office – usually because others regard her to be more suited to it than her male equivalents. Often this isn’t even a conscious decision – women are expected to do these jobs because that’s the way it’s always been.

There’s no handbook to what constitutes emotional labour, and that’s exactly the problem. In a household, emotional labour manifests itself as scheduling the family’s appointments, counselling the children or delegating chores. In a workplace setting, it might be organising birthday cards, keeping communal spaces clean, making coffees, greeting visitors or comforting a colleague who’s having a bad day. In hetero relationships it could be the co-ordination of schedules to find time for dates; in friendships it’s unreciprocated advice and support.

Emotional labour is a type of responsibility often woven into the general workload of women under the assumption that higher competence in certain areas is inherent, rather than learned. Women are simply more domestic. Better listeners. Thoughtful. Multitaskers. Detail-orientated. Sociable. Empathetic. Emotionally intelligent. It doesn’t occur to us that these skills are the product of women spending their childhoods learning to copy feminised traits like domesticity, emotional maturity and sociability.

Of course many women resist these expectations, and many men step up to do their share of the work. But the point remains that if a woman excuses herself from carrying out emotional labour, those around her notice. Er, has anyone noticed the fridge is empty again? The birthday girl is crying? The father-in-law is pissed off? Likewise, if a man opts into acts of emotional labour he is often praised disproportionately; such a nice guy.

The Christmas Miracle

This unfair distribution of labour is especially prevalent during the festive season. Sure, women aren’t explicitly asked to juggle their usual responsibilities with choosing gifts for the in-laws / upholding precious family traditions / donning sparkled dresses and handing out salmon-topped blinis / keeping an extra panettone in the freezer in case of unannounced visitors. If anything, such competence and festive vigour is often met with gasps of bemusement and you-shouldn’t-haves. But really, if you’re a woman, you should have – at least as far as society’s concerned.

Leslie Bella, author of The Christmas Imperative: Leisure, Family and Women’s Work told the Washington Post that "women feel compelled to create rituals and follow traditions, especially around Christmas," because of a need for what she calls "family-making." The traditions, the extra bows on presents, the final shift of Christmas shopping, the final dusting of glitter is often described in the article as a ‘self-imposed labour’, implying that it’s an opt-in system for the most enthusiastic of women. But that’s usually not the case. A woman, especially of the baby boomer generation, is often validated according to their ability to make Christmas magical for relatives and friends.

And, while the young girls of the family learn – wide-eyed and whimsied – the work that goes into a standard (not even perfect) Christmas, they’re also often subjected to the assumption that females are naturally more capable of socialising with adults. They’re instructed (sometimes whether they like it or not) to talk to their uncle, to kiss their grandmother, to sing a Christmas song, to twirl in the middle of the room. When they’re teenagers, they’re expected to engage in family politics, and when they’re adults, to resolve it. Meanwhile, on the whole, boys are left to be boys until, well, forever.

Beyond the family

This unfair distribution of labour manifests itself beyond family contexts, too, leaking into young relationships and friendship circles. Take Monica Geller, Friends’ emotional labour extraordinaire. Remember The One With The Late Thanksgiving, in which Chandler and Monica announce they’re taking a break from hosting Thanksgiving every year? Of course, it’s no surprise to any committed viewer – throughout its ten seasons the programme regularly portrays Monica thanklessly hosting the group with little assistance, especially from the e’er hapless Chandler. But for Monica’s pals, it’s a different story. The group respond with fury and disappointment. They ignore the fact that Monica is currently orchestrating a gruelling adoption process, and set to convincing her (note: not Chandler) to reconsider.

When it comes to the day of Thanksgiving, the gang chastise Monica for ordering in dessert (and forget to pick it up for her), before turning up late. Sure, Monica is an accomplished chef and open about the pleasure she takes in cooking and organising, but she’d also stated clearly that she did not wish to host. What’s more, the only culinary help she feels confident in accepting from co-host Chandler is with the cranberry sauce (because “it’s low-profile and nobody cares”). And let’s not pretend that his attempt to wash the cranberries with actual soap isn’t a gag too far. A man in his mid-30s who can’t wash fruit isn’t funny. It’s depressing. Though these scenes are fiction from the distant past (the episode first aired in 2003), the Men Can’t Cook trope irritatingly persists as a golden excuse, despite titanic amounts of evidence to the contrary.

These tropes and stereotypes that play into this problem are not only tiring for the women picking up the slack, they’re offensive to men who actually do a fair share of all the work, year-round and at Christmas. And, just as neglected emotional labour affects all genders, the disparity is also only solved when all genders begin to notice and act on it. Every dude who assumes the women around him will take care of dinner or who finds it hilarious to buy thoughtless gifts on Christmas Eve contributes. Every outlandish compliment for the hubbie’s godforsaken bread sauce or the adolescent nephew’s surprising conversational skills contributes. The media’s idolisation and sexualisation of good fathers and kind men contributes. Every single person who fails to acknowledge the quiet, automatic, well oiled machine of emotional labour, operated disproportionately by women – contributes. This Christmas it's time to take notice.