Are You Doing Enough to Help With “Emotional Labor”? Ask These 8 Questions

Is the invisible work split fairly? Ask yourself these 8 questions.

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These days, pretty much every parent is doing a lot more work than before. But still the question could be asked: Am I doing enough? All parents are doing more work right now. But who’s doing more? Who is assumed to do certain tasks?

The honest answer is that many men aren’t doing enough. Women not only bear most of the domestic labor but also the mental labor necessary to keep the household running. Many wives and mothers are tasked with not only managing their feelings but also their families’ in order to accomplish the daily tasks. This mental management is often referred to as “emotional labor,” or the invisible work necessary to manage households, often in spite of working 9-5 as much as their partners. And it takes a toll on women and especially wives and mothers, who often grow exhausted and resentful if their partners ignore the invisible burden.

Now, some use “emotional labor” as the catch-all term for this mental management. This in part can be attributed to a number of articles published that use the term in that context. However, experts note that the term “emotional labor” isn’t entirely correct, referring to sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart, which coined the term “emotional labor” as a means of describing people who had to manage their emotions as a result of their professions. A much better term is “mental load”

Regardless of terminology, recognizing when imbalances in domestic labor exist and what you’re requiring from your partner is essential to a true partnership. Yes, if conversations are had and couples are fine with the work they are each doing, that’s one thing. Problems arise when assumptions are made and conversations about helping out — or about why one person only helps out when they are asked to help out — happen again and again without any change.

“The couples who have the conversation are the ones who are more aware of [the imbalance in workload] and they actually do the best,” Darcy Lockman, author of All the Rage, previously told us. “ It’s when couples imagine, like my husband and I did, that it’ll just work out that way. That’s when people get into some trouble because things do tend to default to mothers without explicit conversations.”

It’s important, then, to not only have regular check-in conversations with your partner to discuss who’s doing what and what more can be done to balance the scales, but also take matters into your own hands. To do work without being told but to also ask yourself questions about who’s doing the work in the first place. Change can only happen when this realization sets in, so it’s necessary to ask yourself: am I truly doing enough? Here, then, are some key questions about emotional labor and household imbalances that everyone should consider. As a platoon of cartoon soldiers once said, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Do I Have a Sense of the Contribution My Partner Makes?

Bearing the mental load means being the person in the relationship who’s constantly remembering to remember. And it often falls on women in relationships to be the one doing the remembering: keeping track of birthdays, the last name of friends, where the spatula might have gone. So, it’s crucial to ask yourself — especially if you’re the one working eight hours a day — if you truly recognize how much your partner is doing. “By asking yourself this question, it’s an opportunity for humility on so many different levels,” says relationship coach Marie Murphy. It’s also an opportunity, she adds, to “recognize your own ignorance.”

Am I Doing My Share?

Once you realize the amount of work it takes to keep a household running, take stock of the chores and ask yourself where you fall when it comes to contributing to them. Write down everything that needs to get done and find places where you can contribute. Or write down what you currently do and what your partner currently does. This might seem like asking for a fight. But this isn’t about I-told-you-so’s. This is about recognizing imbalances that might exist and finding ways to handle them. It’s about being a better partner. “It’s important to make yourself fully aware of the work your spouse and family members put in,” says Michelle English, LCSW, the co-founder and clinical director of San Diego-based addiction treatment center Healthy Life Recovery. “Not only does this make you more appreciative, it allows you to gauge what you’re providing relative to your partner.”

Do I Consistently Help Out?

The conversation about domestic responsibilities should, in an ideal world, happen frequently. But, often, one person says they’re overwhelmed and the other partner steps up to tackle whatever tasks they are assigned. Those assigned tasks eventually fall by the wayside, the conversation repeats itself, and the seeds of resentment grow. It’s important to ask yourself — really ask yourself — if you consistently help. Are you vegging out on the couch when your partner is doing work? Do you only handle tasks when you’re asked to handle them? Do you do work without asking for rewards or recognition?

“I haven’t met too many male clients who can own this ‘I’m not helping’ thing. It’s hard to get there,” says Murphy. But when you do, she suggests phrasing your I’m-here-to-help reminder as, “What can I do that will ease the various burdens and stresses in your day? What can I do that will make your life easier? Or what can I do that will help you feel more supported?” Asking for that and sticking to your request is crucial.

Am I Stepping Up for the “Invisible Work”?

When it comes time to handle things like scheduling activities, arranging playdates, or simply knowing where to find things around the house, are you offering to help, or are you letting your spouse take care of things? Often, one partner’s head is a checklist of 1,000 things that need to be done. Take a good look at what needs to get done and find the places where you can step in. Ask what you can do to help at your next discussion. But also just handle what needs to be handled.

Do I Know How My Partner is Feeling on a Day-to-Day Basis?

It’s hard to know what the other person is actually feeling or even thinking about. After a while, not addressing those feelings can cut into intimacy and lead to disconnection. “If you ask that question, and the answer comes up as, ‘I don’t know,’ that’s an indication that maybe there’s a little more that you personally can do to elicit information from your partner and to create space for connection,” Murphy says. “And that can be challenging, especially during times like this, because normal household business is disrupted, everybody’s stuck in the house all day. It can be really hard to create that space, to have time together that is dedicated to intimacy of any kind. But you have to get creative and you have to fight for it.”

Do I Notice How Things Are Affecting My Family?

It’s very easy to develop tunnel vision and only think about how a situation is affecting you and your own life. But your partner’s life has been affected too, and it’s important to recognize what they’ve had to sacrifice as well. “It can be easy to see our own behavioral choices and judgements as relatively common among those around us, but this can be detrimental to our relationships,” says English. “By doing so, we overlook how others around us are dealing with situations. Emotional awareness is crucial in order to carry a larger mental load, as it isn’t just the ability to recognize and make sense of your own emotions, but also that of others around you.”

Am I Putting My Best Self Forward?

Mental load is also about what you personally are requiring your partner to handle. Everyone needs — and deserves — assistance, understanding, and space from time to time. But it’s important to ask yourself “What can I do today to be my best?” Because if you’re always a grump or sour about how your work day went, you’re asking your partner to do a lot of emotional work to either tend to you or simply be frustrated by you. Being aware of what energy you’re sending your family — and taking measures to correct it when days turn out to be more frustrating — is crucial to lessening someone’s burden.

What Qualities Do I Want to Put Forth in My Relationships?

A good question to ask regardless of circumstance. Accomplishments are a driving factor in most people’s lives. We spend our days in search of tangible, provable results. But many times, those outcomes are out of our control, at least to a point, and focusing on them can cause us to lose sight of the moment at hand. “What we can control is the way that we interact with our children and our partners,” Murphy points out. “And that’s something that we can dedicate ourselves to every single day. When you decide who you want to be, the things that you’re able to do and ultimately have change as well.”

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