Working Hard or Hardly Working?

When work becomes home and home becomes work.

I’m midway through my sabbatical and I must admit something, despite some embarrassment:

I’m exhausted.

It’s one of those moments where it’s remarkably clear how powerful our unconscious biases and unspoken cultural ideologies are. I imagined sabbatical to be a period of deep rest and creativity. But then again, in an institution organized around patriarchal white supremacy (education, work, family, all of them), I should have known those benefits would mostly accrue to white men.

It should be noted that my sabbatical caps a two-year pandemic hiatus from campus life, and a two-year adjustment to working from home (I’ve only just recently purchased a sound machine and a “do not disturb” sign for my office door). And in this an admission: I’m still adjusting. I still haven’t quite figured it out.

How, exactly, does one acclimate to work from home during a spouse’s unemployment? Or through the loss of a beloved pet? Or through a diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent major surgery? Or through the devastating loss of a family member?

The boundaries between work life and family life are thin — at best — when you are a woman in a society that has socialized you into caretaking. Now, here I should mention that I do not have children. And this, I know, should mean I have more free time, fewer grey hairs, and less household labor. And it is true that compared to mothers my time is more expansive.

But most women — mothers, non-mothers, straight, lesbian or bisexual women, women of color, white women, transgender women, and cisgender women — have expectations placed on them to do care labor. Certainly, our intersectional location shapes the when/what/how of the work, along with the extent of the exploitation and oppression that happens in the process of implementing those expectations. That said, there is a thread that reaches across these identities to in some way touch all of us.

I’m realizing, now, in a new way how deep inside of me rests entrenched ideologies around “goodness.”

Good person. Good partner/wife. Good writer. Good friend. Good host. Good patient. Good daughter. Good employee.

In her book Feeding the Family, Marjorie DeVault writes about five categories of unpaid family labor — care, household, kin, consumption, and emotional labor — all of which, when performed by women, are seen as unremarkable “labors of love.” Though, to say that they are “seen” is itself a stretch, as framing it as love’s labor renders the work invisible as labor. And many of us do this labor so as to be seen as, and to feel, “good” (this may be conscious for some of us, and unconscious for others, and someone somewhere has certainly opted out).

Of course, some of this unpaid family labor only exists in our inner lives, and thus is literally invisible unless we speak it out into the world. For example: keeping track in your head of all your family members’ dietary needs and ensuring that those needs are addressed when making grocery lists, doing the grocery shopping, preparing meals, cooking meals, and finally, serving meals.

Personally, it’s the last category — emotional labor — that is so pervasive and pernicious; the latter is because I’m often slow to realize my own need for self-care. When working from home in the midst of crises, it’s the emotional labor that outlasts all the phone calls and doctor appointments and time sitting on hold with banks. When working from home in the midst of crises, grief becomes a regular part of the landscape to navigate. No matter how many sound machines or DND functions one uses, grief can still slip through the cracks. Grief gives emotional labor extra weight and heightened urgency.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I immediately realized that emotional labor would shape my experience. When speaking with others, I felt compelled to manage my own emotions. In particular, while no one “made” me do this, I felt the urge to keep the negative emotions tucked away and to focus on the positives, such as:

I felt fine, it was an early diagnosis, surgery was the only required intervention, I would heal (physically) quickly.

This aspect of emotional labor is built into breast cancer culture. As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “the cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks, all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease.” I had internalized this expectation of “cheerfulness” long before I was diagnosed, and so there it was, showing up on my doorstep as soon as I got off the phone with my doctor. I carry it with me most days, still, as I acclimate to my new body.

For most of us, our emotional state of mind shapes our capacities for paid labor: how we show up to work, how we treat others while working, how productive and attentive we are. And yet we often think more about how we have to iron our work uniform and prepare a nutritious meal and ensure that the homework is completed. Our emotional lives are so very central to our existence, and yet emotional labor continues to be the dark horse of unpaid family labor (never mind the dark horse of paid labor, as Arlie Hochschild conceives of it). Given that as humans, emotions are a constant, emotional labor is always there, waiting for us — especially women — to perform it for ourselves and for others.

No matter the kind — whether preparing a birthday present for an aunt, helping a loved one cope with a setback, or cooking two different versions of the same meal to account for allergies — unpaid family labor leaves us feeling like we need a vacation after our vacation. Because, returning home from a trip away produces loads of laundry to fold and put away, groceries to purchase, schedules to coordinate, pets to pick up, suitcases to return to storage, and emails to respond to.

This is why Jessica Valenti wrote that she’s raising her daughter to “know that she is not responsible for my fulfillment or happiness,” why airline safety guidelines have us put our own masks on first, and why Audre Lorde wrote that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

I might not ever figure out how to balance working from home, but I can start here: we must always remember to include ourselves in the circle of those we care for.

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Speaking up for humanity through intersectional social justice. Open to all.

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Monica Edwards, PhD

Monica Edwards, PhD

I am a Sociology teacher at a Community College, writing these posts for my students, for my sanity, for anyone willing to think towards something better.

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