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9 Mothers On The Pains And Joys Of Emotional Labor

by Tori Telfer

May 16, 2017

Emotional labor is a tricky beast, mostly because it’s difficult to quantify and because it doesn’t always look like traditional work. For mothers, it can range from remembering an entire family’s doctor’s appointments to making sure you’re getting along with the PTA parents to smiling as you make your toddler’s breakfast on four hours of sleep. It’s an intangible thing that, nonetheless, sucks up tangible time and energy. Actually buying the diapers is not emotional labor so much as remembering that the diapers must be bought—but the latter is still a form of work.

Much of what has been written about emotional labor concerns wives and women in the service industry. In 1975, feminist Silvia Federici published a slim tract called “Wages Against Housework” in which she wrote that “the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it.” Though Federici’s work also touched on the invisible emotional labor of keeping a home and a husband, the phrase itself was coined later in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in The Managed Heart. Federici would argue that the service workers studied in the book were not so different, workwise, than the housewives she sought to free.

But the furious rhetoric of emotional labor dissipates when children enter the picture. After all, a male partner demanding that you serve him cheerfully is infuriating; a baby, on the other hand, is not perpetuating the patriarchy. And yet, he, too, demands a “managed heart.” Here, nine mothers explain what emotional labor looks like in their complex, tough, and joyful journeys into motherhood.

Jareesa Tucker McClure, project manager and freelance writer

Kids: One (4 months old)

Partnership status: Married two years

Aid with childcare: Full-time daycare

“Before we had a baby, we were pretty egalitarian with how we ran our household. I was worried that having a baby would ruin that system, but surprisingly things have gotten better. It's like having the baby has made us both cognizant of the fact that we both need to do the work to keep our household running. Once we had the baby, I was surprised to see my husband care about things like how often she had a dirty diaper—he kept a journal!”

Mischa Haider, applied physicist 

Kids: Three (5, 3, and 1)

Partnership status: Married six years

Aid with childcare: None

“A lot of [my emotional labor] has to do with managing relationships. One of the big challenges of parenting and motherhood for me is balancing my love for my children with also knowing that the way they work out their disagreements and desires among each other is going to form them into the people they become as adults. How I help them manage their dynamic is going to impact a lot of people moving forward.

I’m very averse to siblings being forced to be friends with each other. For many of us in the LGBT community, our family is our friends. As a transgender woman, I’ve dealt with some level of rejection from what would be considered my [biological] family. I want to equip my children to feel that the world is beyond their siblings. More importantly, I want them to learn to respect each other, accommodate each other, and develop positive values. It’s like a minisociety. I feel very powerless over what happens in the world at large, but I feel a bit more empowered having children.”

Lisa Barr, author and journalist

Kids: Three (20, 18, and 17)

Relationship status: Married 12 years

Aid with childcare: None

“My first husband literally disappeared. You can’t even imagine that kind of parenting. You’re going through hell, and yet you still have to be ‘fun mommy’ because your kids are also going through hell. You can’t place your emotion on the kids. It’s too much for them to bear.

A lot of the pain, my current husband has been able to heal by his sheer strength. In the courts, my girls were asked, ‘Why should David be your dad?’ My daughter, who was 5, said ‘Because he’s the head of my Valentine’s Day party at school.’”

Donna Cruse, director of business development

Kids: Three grown children; four grandchildren (7, 4, 3, and 2)

Relationship status: Married 37 years

Aid with childcare: None

“On our first date, my husband was folding towels for his mom before we could play tennis. That won my heart pretty easily! During our child-rearing years we were a solid team. I don’t remember if we had any big discussion about sharing the duties, or who would do what. We did what we liked. But then he went through a rough few years when he was not himself—many medical issues and depression, et cetera. This drained me emotionally. Suddenly, after 30-plus years, I needed to work hard at the emotional part, and I was carrying the team in every way. Just me.

Being a grandmother is much more rewarding than motherhood. As a grandmother I am not concerned that this child be perfect, just that he or she feel loved.”

Mikki Ealey, senior court office assistant ​

Kids: Four (32, 26, 14 and 4)

Relationship status: Single

Aid with childcare: After-school care

​“My ex-partner never really took on any of responsibilities. ​As women, we are always the nurturers, the caregivers, the schedulers, and much more. My last baby was breastfed for almost four years. I had a challenging time weaning her off of the breast. She actually drained me physically. Now I’m focusing more on my health because I am going to be 50 this year! My biggest stressor was when I was paying a thousand dollars a month for daycare. That put a huge strain on me, but I had to do what was best for the baby. I paid for good, decent care.”

Anna-Lisa Alexander, stay-at-home mom

Kids: Three (4, 2, and 9 months)

Relationship status: Married six years

Aid with childcare: No childcare

“Emotional labor is trying to stay cheerful while balancing the limitless and often conflicting attention needs of three different miniature humans, 14 hours a day without weekends off, and still have energy to be cheerful afterwards so my husband can have a pleasant evening. I spend a lot of time and energy managing everyone's moods. The thing I struggle with is not that it’s unappreciated, it’s that supplying constant love and attention takes a crazy amount of time out of my day. That is invisible, but the mess that piles up while I’m doing it isn’t, so there’s guilt that comes with not having time to take care of other responsibilities.”

Kate Elazegui, creative director at ESPN

Kids: Two (twins, 17 months)

Relationship status: Married four years

Aid with childcare: Nanny

“The more uncontrollable the situation, the more controlling I have to be so that I don’t feel totally lost. The babies bring that out in me. It makes me feel upset if they should have had something and I should have known. I left for work this morning, and Emily [my wife] was staying home with the kids. I said, ‘Don’t forget when you go outside with them, they need to wear sunscreen.’ She was like, ‘Uh, I’ve been a mom as long as you have. I know these things.’ But it’s like, I can’t not tell her. And yeah, that does get tiring.”

Sarah Netter, writer

Kids: One (3 1/2 years)

Relationship status: Single

Aid with childcare: Preschool

“Right now I am the protector of his story. When you adopt a child, you automatically become part of the educational task force of the adoption world. If someone has an honest question about the process, I will find a way to answer it without invading anyone's privacy. If people are simply being rude and nosy, I shut them down. I have been asked how I paid for it, whether or not my son tested positive for drugs, what do I know about his birth father, why I just didn't get pregnant, where I got him. (Target. The answer is always Target.) Those questions aren't getting answered. I'm happy to fill my role as educator, but I'm not going to fill someone's appetite for gossip.”

Photo by Channing Johnson

Elise Hu, international correspondent for NPR

Kids: Three (4, 21 months, and 1 month)

Relationship status: Married seven years

Aid with childcare: Nanny

“I’ve had to learn to be really efficient and be ok with the fact that I’m not around all the time. I’m trying to be a good role model for them and show that Mama has a job that she really loves and is trying to be a badass at it. Also: stepping out of yourself. Putting yourself in the perspective of a one-year-old. Or a four-week-old. And then having to adjust that perspective for each kid. That’s constant mental and emotional work. But it’s made me a far more empathetic person.”

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9 Mothers On The Pains And Joys Of Emotional Labor