The heavy toll of women’s unpaid emotional labour

Many women give a lot of time and energy to unpaid care and social issues, writes Joyce Fegan

The heavy toll of women’s unpaid emotional labour

Many women give a lot of time and energy to unpaid care and social issues, writes Joyce Fegan

While many of us probably had tiring weeks, two people had especially demanding ones.

One is new father and embattled Health Minister Simon Harris, and the other is CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan. Mr Harris held on to his job, after surviving a motion of no-confidence; and Ms Phelan held on to her life, having found out that her cancer has not spread.

Mr Harris will keep going with his brief, but Ms Phelan announced on Wednesday that she will pull back from her campaigning work.

There is one key difference between the two. Mr Harris gets paid for his work. Ms Phelan does not. But that’s not exactly new for women, is it?

Unpaid and emotional labour is women’s second nature. Some call it the “second shift”.

This is where, if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, both the man and woman get home from work, and the woman takes out the schoolbooks and goes through the homework, while keeping an eye on the boiling spuds. This is where the woman keeps a mental diary of the birthdays of both in-laws and blood relatives. This is where the woman starts the financial gymnastics in August to cover the presents and food and outfits at Christmas, and the school tours at Easter.

For men, who are at this stage protesting too much, worry not, it’s not all women, just the vast majority of them. According to our 2016 TASC (Think-tank for Action on Social Change) report, 70% of the family care work in Ireland is done by women.

When it comes to issues of social justice, women also volunteer, protest, and donate more.

All of this unpaid, often invisible emotional labour carries a heavy weight.

This week, Vicky Phelan had had too much, so she pulled back from the emotionally tiresome labour of campaigning. After all, not everyone thanks you for challenging the status quo, month after month, without respite.

She came to national prominence last April, after exposing the CervicalCheck screening scandal, having discovered that she, and hundreds of other women, were not told they had been given incorrect smear test results. She has not stopped since.

This week, after a viral infection landed her in hospital, she said she was pulling back from campaigning.

“My time in hospital has taught me some valuable lessons, mainly that I need to pull back from campaigning so heavily and focus on my health and my two young children,” the Limerick woman said.

She swore to continue campaigning and to contribute to the conversation around women’s health, but which, she wrote in capital letters, she would do on her “terms”.

This heavy work, followed by withdrawal, was a common trend during last year’s campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, a campaign also dominated by female activists. Well-known campaigners would regularly take social media breaks to detox from the toxic debate online. There were even self-care workshops for campaigners who wanted the amendment repealed.

The campaign was, of course, populated with male activists, too, from those door-knocking, to those getting paid in Leinster House for their work.

But, for the most part, those doing the unpaid, and oftentimes unwelcome, work of social change were women.

And having to include a caveat to appease men so as to try and reduce the likelihood of getting lynch-mobbed is another emotionally tiresome activity women undertake.

At an event in Dublin on Sunday night, British writer Dolly Alderton, who does not wear her feminism lightly, took questions from the audience of 1,000 women.

“How can I not come across as a crazed feminist when talking to this guy I like about things such as ‘Me Too’? How do I be truthful about what I feel and not offend him?” came a sincere question, which silenced the room.

Paraphrasing, Ms Alderton spoke about how women often place the male ego ahead of their experienced injustices.

As the conversation of the #MeToo movement continues to reverberate around the world, many women, victims and not, come up against the “witch hunt” or “this has gone too far” defence. We must temper our long-stifled rage in order not to offend men. Cue further emotional exhaustion. “Don’t come across too angry, they won’t listen,” is the well-meaning advice. Especially to women of colour.

Actor Idris Elba was asked how hard it is to be a man in showbusiness in the #MeToo age. A woman has yet to be asked this same question. He answered succinctly.

“It’s only difficult if you’re a man with something to hide,” said Mr Elba.

So for those with nothing to hide, please do not make it harder for people who campaign for change. Most are not trying to be troublesome; they are just trying to create a fairer world, which is safer for all.

When people point out a problem, often, the listener, if they are in a position of privilege, perceives it as a personal attack. Having to pre-empt this hurt and find a way to articulate around it is another way women silently expend kilowatts of emotional energy.

There is one more thing about invisible, emotional labour: it’s not easy. If it was, perhaps Ms Phelan wouldn’t need to pull back. But, then again, work worth doing is seldom easy, and oftentimes unpaid.

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