We produced the following article as part of our annual Therapy for Black Girls campaign in honor of Minority Mental Health Month. This year Therapy for Black Girls focuses on “Hanging Up Our Capes.” Join us as we release ourselves from the externally and internally imposed pressures of showing up as “superwoman” in order to prioritize our well-being and foster healthier, more authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love.
A few weeks ago, one of my friends sent me this video on TikTok of a therapist (Dr. Nikki) sharing what she’s been noticing in the couples work that she does. She states feeling drained after working with heterosexual couples because of the effort it takes for her to hold the responsibility of being objective in session and serve the couple. She explains it’s hard for her to be empathetic towards the men after seeing how they are treating their women partners. In addition to seeing how much emotional and domestic labor the women are putting into their relationships. When I first started the video, I thought to myself, “oh no I can’t relate. I love working with couples.” But as I kept listening, I realized how much of what this therapist was saying rings true for the clients I see as well, whether in my individual or couples sessions. I work with plenty of women who feel overwhelmed with the responsibilities of keeping the household afloat, being an emotional support for their partner, and thinking of everyone else’s needs, but not feeling anyone is doing the same for them. So much so that when I played the TikTok video for one of my clients a few days later, she began to cry because she felt so seen by the words Dr. Nikki was saying. Which led me to consider, how many other Black women are feeling this way?
Where does this feeling come from?
To understand this feeling, I think it is important to provide language and definitions to describe it. The term emotional labor was coined by sociologist and professor emerita Arlie Russell Hochschild to describe the work of managing one’s personal feelings in a professional setting. However, with time the phrase has grown in popularity and expanded in meaning. Now the main definition people think of when they hear emotional labor refers to the unpaid, and invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. This is not to be confused with mental labor, which describes the invisible and intangible tasks involved in running a household. Both of these types of labor typically go unseen and tend to fall on the women in heterosexual cis-gendered relationships. But why is that?
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Because patriarchy, duh. From my experience – and I’m sure most other Black women’s as well, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism are the foundations this country and society have been built on. Thus being the three roots of all evil, that every problem in this society can be traced back to in my opinion. But that’s another blog article for another day. My point is that due to patriarchy, men and women are socialized to believe and behave in certain ways that are damaging to us as individuals, as well as to our relationships. In the book Communion by bell hooks, she reminds readers that women are not inherently better at loving than men. However, women are taught to be more enchanted with love and more nurturing; while “male children are not consistently taught how to nurture. Instead they are most often aggressively socialized to reject nurturance and choose domination.” She also goes on to say that embracing this patriarchal assumption that women are more loving than men leaves space for women to: 1. Excuse men’s lack of emotional intelligence because we already expect them to be deficient, and 2. Not challenge or explore our own ways of loving because we already believe we’re better at it than they are. When the expectation is for women to be more loving and nurturing, we tend to feel guilt or shame if we’re not measuring up. Thus leading us to take on way more than necessary in our workplace, family, romantic relationships and friendships. But for the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the load women carry as partners and parents.
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What does taking on this invisible load look like?
- Emotional Labor: Some cases include constantly setting aside your own emotions to deal with your partner’s, being the one to provide emotional support but not feeling it’s reciprocated, putting a lot of energy into considering how your partner’s past or external situations are impacting their behavior and providing them grace, but not receiving the same consideration, thinking of how you word things in order to avoid a strong emotional reaction, or not feeling as though you can express the emotions that are coming up for you in the moment, so holding it in or waiting for a “good time” to catch them when they’re in a better mood. In parenting, being the parent that’s expected to deal with the child’s emotional behavior, teach them how to process and express their emotions, and being the only parent the teacher calls to share how the child is doing or if something is wrong.
- Mental Labor: This is summed up as remembering all of the things that need to be done to keep the household running, whether it’s just you and your partner or children in the mix. Tasks such as keeping track of doctor appointments, school performances, sports games, parent teacher conferences, grocery lists, scheduling social events, buying and sending gifts, and giving reminders so that things get done, are all examples. Consider for a second if you needed to leave town for a few weeks, would the household run smoothly without you? Would the house be clean, dinner made, fridge stocked, dishes washed, and the kids to school and their other activities on time, with their lunches packed and permission slips signed? If your answer is no, then odds are you take on all of the thinking and remembering to help your partner and/or kids function.
- Not having boundaries: Lack of boundaries with your partner and/or children comes in many forms. The first thing that comes to my mind is not saying no and treating that as a full sentence. Instead, the yes is so automatic because many women tend to feel as though they have to say yes to everything, because if they don’t do it, then who will? Or they believe saying no and prioritizing their self care would make them selfish, a bad partner or parent. It looks like that scene in Love & Basketball where Monica’s mom just stated she was tired and not feeling too well, and her Dad walks in asking her opinion on which shirt he should wear and then giving her both shirts to iron “just in case.”
How do we stop doing it?
- Unlearn generational scripts of womanhood. Odds are, you do everything in the relationship and house because that is the dynamic you saw in your household as a child. Most clients I see that have taken on this burden of being everything for everyone, saw their moms and/or grandmothers do the same thing. So it was modeled for and instilled in them from young. Especially if they were the eldest daughter, they were trained and expected to be second in command when taking care of siblings and the house. So when it’s their turn to have their own family, it’s easy to continue doing what they’ve always done. The first part in unlearning is recognizing where these messages come from and deciding to challenge them. Reminding yourself that being a good partner and parent is not synonymous with doing everything for everyone. If we do everything for everyone else, how will they learn to do it for themselves?
- Express your needs. There’s a reason it’s called the “invisible load.” Some partners may not even realize that you’re carrying this all because it’s what they’re used to, or what they saw their moms do. So it’s seen as the norm (which also continues to contribute to the problem). Addressing how you are feeling and expressing what you’re needing from your partner and/or children can be the first step in getting those needs met. Making sure this is an ongoing conversation is important as well. Having check-ins with your partner around how things have been going is important for couples to maintain a healthy relationship.
- Delegate. According to a 2015 report, same gender couples tend to have a more even share of responsibilities and do so by dividing tasks based on work hours and interest/preference. You and your partner can create a household to-do list and delegate tasks to each other based on who likes doing what or who has more time available instead of traditional gender norms. There can be a shared calendar placed in an area that everyone can see and add their events to, so that it is not your responsibility to keep up with it all. You can also consider giving age-appropriate tasks for the kid(s), such as cleaning their own room, putting their clothes in the hamper, helping unload the dishwasher, or checking the mailbox. That way they get to learn responsibilities, feel helpful and included, while taking some small things off of your plate.
- Set boundaries. Many of the women I see in my practice have taken on so much that setting boundaries seems like a daunting task. But it is a necessity to maintain your mental health. You have to find a balance between work responsibilities, household needs, and the duty you have to yourself. Remembering that you’re more than someone’s partner or wife, you were a whole person before they came into the picture and that woman deserves to be taken care of as well. As this article on Science Daily states, “Mothers must also feel nurtured and cared for if they are to have good mental health and positive parenting behaviors. When women feel overly responsible for the invisible labor of running a household and raising children, it can negatively impact their overall well-being.” When you don’t set boundaries, and do everything for everyone you are taking away their agency, not holding others accountable, and possibly building resentment and bitterness within yourself. Always remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup.
In case you are interested in learning more about the invisible load that women carry, you can read this peer reviewed academic article published in 2019 here. It provides statistical data that lets you know you are not alone in how you are feeling.