Emotional Labour and Letting Yourself Take A Break

I had a little bit of a meltdown this morning.

Nothing big, but I was feeling overwhelmed and teary. I have had a lot on my mind recently, what with trying to get life organized and getting things done in a day and keeping up with That Girl’s stuff. But more recently, things to do for myself, like health stuff.

It’s been the emotional labour that’s been hard.

I mentioned it to BDH this morning. Emotional labour is often a less-prevalent thing to people who don’t have to put on a pleasant countenance as a part of their jobs, like caregivers and nurses and teachers and yes, stay-at-home parents, do. So, although BDH has to be pleasant and diplomatic in his job, his is more intellectually and physically taxing than emotionally.

I tried to find an equivalent he would easily relate to. So I said, “You know all those times when you are stressing and going over conflicts and worries of the job in your head?” To which he replied, as he is a pragmatist, “Yes! And do you know what I do? I EAT SOME TOADS.” (This is a catchphrase that means “I tackle the least-favourite jobs and just get them done.”)

To which I replied, “No, you wake up at 3 am and are up for an hour and a half fretting and doing emails and worrying.” Which isn’t exactly the same thing, of course. While not the best analogy, I wanted to get across the idea of the internal processing that goes on while keeping things on an even, productive keel on the outside.

Anyway, my point was that there are days when I feel overwhelmed. And it’s not the amount of work that I have to do, or the nature of the work, or how I spend my time during the day. Those are all the external things, and, as BDH pointed out, I have at least six hours while That Girl is at school in which to get things done. It’s plenty of time.

It’s the internal stuff that gets exhausting sometimes.

It’s the keeping a lid on the worry, or the irritation, or the frustration, and putting on a happy face while dealing with your children and family. It’s gearing up to deal with therapy or discussions with teachers or other providers, which cover some (for me, anyway) emotionally fraught details about my kid and her progress and her future, while also keeping track of details and lingo, and being pleasant and calm throughout. (Sometimes it’s doing that while a giggling, manic, tired Stinkerbelle is present and needs corralling.)

It’s all the internal processing of trying to make notes about something Stinkerbelle says that needs to be taken up with teachers or therapists while thinking about what needs to be packed in her backpack and is her lunch sufficient and when can I book time to get my ultrasound and what time is the orthodontist appointment again and do we have shoes for her to wear today and what do I need to take out for supper, all while trying to answer her many questions and needs for attention and keeping her from irritating BDH while he’s getting himself breakfast or ready for work, while getting us ready to get out the door on time.

It’s keeping all the mental balls in the air, some of which make me worry or generate concern, thereby adding more balls to juggle. Organizing family stuff and managing expectations across the board and soothing and nurturing a small growing person, with a calm and pleasant smile. Doing a good job.

There are people who scoff at the prospect of emotional labour. But, as BDH could tell you, just spending the bulk of a day managing That Girl on a weekend to give me some time off can be really exhausting and, while he’s happy to do it, he’s tired and it’s hard not to get snippy by the end.

(Ooh, that would have been a more compelling analogy, wouldn’t it. DOH.)


The thing about emotional labour, and being a parent — as any parent can tell you, and in particular a stay-at-home parent — is that it’s constant. It never stops. Even when you are on vacation, you are still “on”: getting reluctant teeth-brushers to do a good job, keeping kids well-behaved around others, jollying along little ones who are reluctant to go to bed, reading a story when you are tired and just want to sit and unwind, or staving off the “I’m bored” complaints. And, for the sake of your child’s well being and for the comfort of those around you, being pleasant, happy, and even-tempered while you do so.

And, at least for me, the cracks will show. More often than I care to admit.

While I love That Girl more than life itself, she can be a bit of a handful. Her memory and comprehension issues are such that we have to repeat questions and instructions and have discussions over and over again. She dwells on things — obsesses is a bit strong a word, but once she gets an idea or a plan in her head she will hold on to it and talk about it repeatedly FOR DAYS. She’s got a bit of “learned helplessness” going on that — admittedly, just to get things done in a day, is partly our fault, but also SHE IS VERY EIGHT YEARS OLD — means that her first inclination is to let us do things for her rather than take the initiative, so finding things and getting things and doing things independently is still not natural for her.

So our days consist of a lot of repetition, a lot of urging and utzing her along, and a lot of cheerleading and reinforcement. And it’s important to be happy and positive and pleasant. She can’t help what she needs from us, and she is such a good girl.

But I get tired. And I feel guilty. Oh, the overwhelming guilt. Guilt that I am tired. Guilt that I am unpleasant. Guilt that I am not doing enough for her. Guilt that I did not think of something. Guilt that I am prioritizing some things over others. And guilt that others might notice.

So, stuffing that down while deflecting can be a bit of emotional labour too. And I am bad at it. If there’s one thing I am truly bad at, it’s that I am a horrible liar. I have no poker face.

Also I am, by nature, a worrier. And an emotional person. OMG I AM A RECIPE FOR DISASTER. No wonder emotional labour is exhausting.

So. Back to having a little bit of a meltdown this morning.

One of the things, which came up in the midst of our discussion, that BDH was trying to get me to do was to email an acquaintance and make a plan to go out for coffee. Which is a very important thing because… SELF CARE, right? Go out! Make a friend! Have some fun!

Except… one of the traps a person who engages in a lot of emotional labour finds his or herself in is that it is hard to justify taking time out to meet your own needs when there are others around you for whom IT IS YOUR JOB TO PRIORITIZE CARE.

It is hard to let go. It is hard to let yourself let go, to give yourself permission to be off-duty. (Which, let’s be honest, you won’t be, not really — you’ll sit there at a coffee shop fretting and planning and worrying, probably even talking about that very thing! — until you get good at letting yourself be off-duty. It is a learned thing.)

So, in the interest of letting go of some of that emotional labour, of taking some time off to do some self-care in the form of “BEING AN AUTONOMOUS ADULT WHO GETS OUT INTO THE WORLD AND TALKS ABOUT OTHER THINGS THAN IF THE WEATHER IS SUITABLE FOR WEARING A SUNDRESS AND HOMEWORK AND OMG BRUSH THOSE BOTTOM TEETH”, I sent the email to the acquaintance that I have been meaning to try to meet for coffee for months now, to try and plan something. And we’ll see if she’s still interested, or available.

But it’s a step in the right direction, right?

Self-care is important for everyone. But for people whose jobs involve more of the emotional labour than physical or intellectual, sometimes it’s hard to justify to yourself. Allowing yourself time off, to disengage for awhile, to be an independent person… WHAT IS THIS WITCHCRAFT?

I’m getting better at recognizing it, which is good. Now, I just have to get better at actually doing it.