Community, Connection, Social Justice

Emotional Labor and #MeToo

Emotional labor was already on my mind when the tsunami of #MeToo happened.

Emotional labor—keeping relationships mended, nurturing families and friendships, clearing the way for the daily demands of life to move easily—is socialized into women from an early age and devalued by a patriarchal society. Shining light on this invisible work is one of the essential lenses used in Relational-Cultural thinking. 

How do these two things intersect? One day into #MeToo, a friend of mine posted that she felt a surprising rage when a male friend responded with how sad it made him. I noticed my own anger at my partner when he expressed distress about seeing so many #MeToos in his social media feeds. It seemed unreasonable, this anger over what he was feeling, exactly something I would want to avoid in order to maintain harmony.

Two days into it, I caught myself trying to formulate the best words to capture my own #MeToo rage but wanting to make sure my partner didn’t feel attacked. “Oh, I mean, not you of course,” I tagged on to the end of my sentence before realizing what I was doing. “I’m trying to figure out how to talk about this without making you feel bad.”

“I’m not asking you to do that,” he answered.

Let’s unpack. While talking about systemic sexism that results in women living with a lifelong heightened sense of danger, sexism that results in many women disconnecting from their bodies in order to endure the necessary steps to forward their careers, or just survive, sexism that leaves women economically and socially disadvantaged, I worried about upsetting the man listening to me. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Because my desire to protect his feelings was so intertwined with my everyday functioning in a patriarchal society, I couldn’t see it, and felt resentful of the extra labor on my todo list.

Then I saw the Trevor Noah piece about Louis CK. (He gets to it in the second minute)

Noah hits emotional labor on the head with one sentence:
“All women in Hollywood should win double Oscars for acting like all the men were cool all along, every single one of them. This shit is insane.”

This is about emotional labor– and it’s what keeps jumping out about #MeToo– women acting like men are just fine because they have to keep the waters calm. I value emotional work. I love being around friends who can steady me, and I’m pleased to be able to offer that skill when my friends struggle. I value the relational cushion afforded by being in tune with other peoples’ feelings. The relational part is what gives beauty and power to #MeToo; we use our relational connection to prevent anyone from being alone in their #MeToo call. We just need to be mindful of how we use our emotional labor skills. Are we using them to support and connect, or to hide?

RCT looks at more than relationships– it looks at the culture that holds them. The cultural piece of this brand of emotional labor is safety and survival. Marginalized populations are required to manage the emotions of more powerful people; their well-being depends on it. Why didn’t more women come forward earlier? They valued their careers. They wanted to be safe. Generations have taught us to keep the waters calm in order to survive, and we keep it calm by keeping our upset to ourselves. This piece that we’re taught through cultural norms is so deeply entrenched that it’s almost impossible to untangle from our everyday relationships. How many people are facebook friends with the people on the other side of their #MeToo posts? I know I am.

It’s possible to place too high a value on calm waters. It’s not our job, not women’s job, not marginalized peoples’ jobs, to keep the water calm. It’s our job to keep each other in some sort of water-safe contraption while the people causing storms figure out what to do about themselves. This is the purpose of our #MeToo group. We are holding each other in a safe place while we sort out our reactions without worrying about emotional care-taking of people who carry the “power over” mantle. We are using our relational network to push back against cultural harm.

Shining light on something doesn’t make the storm. We’re already in it. It’s up to us to help each other get to shore.