I was familiar with the concept of "emotional labour" -- and the argument that women do the vast majority of it, often to the detriment of their own personal and professional well-being (not to mention the idea that failing to do it makes us "bad" or uncaring in the eyes of some -- while men who fail to do this kind of labour are just "busy, important, or pre-occupied.”).
But then Cathy made a really great point, something I'd never really considered (at least not in these explicit terms) -- an "ah-ha moment" for me: "To me [she wrote] the social construct can certainly be expectations of women (as nurturers) versus men, but also of parents versus non-parents." She points out that people without children are expected to provide a great deal of support to parents -- "yet there is a lack of reciprocity towards those struggling with infertility who are not parents." This, she says, reflects the importance of parenthood in our society -- which is highly publicized, idealized and celebrated -- versus the invisibility of infertility, a loss that is not recognized or deeply understood by others.
Shortly after Cathy's post, a blogging friend posted an article on her Facebook page which has nothing to do with emotional labour specifically (let alone infertility or childlessness), but which included a highlighted passage that I thought was thematically resonant with Cathy's article: "I am constantly asked to consider the full humanity and emotional circumstances of women who are never asked to consider mine. If they do it at all it is magnanimously. I have to do it to survive."
Around the same time, Jody Day of Gateway Women flagged an article on Facebook outlining "50 Ways People Expect Constant Emotional Labor from Women and Femmes." As I read through, I kept thinking about what a similar list specifically about childless women might look like. Here are a few points that I came up with:
- If women's time is considered less valuable than men's, childless women's time is devalued even more so. For example, there is an expectation that we will cheerfully pitch in to cover for parenting coworkers who need to stay home with a sick child or leave early to attend their child's school event. Our own requests for flexibility are often deemed less important or "legitimate".
- In the same vein, there's an expectation that childless women will be available to care for aging parents, help them with errands and take them to appointments, more so than our siblings with children (even if they live closer to Mom & Dad than we do).
- Parents assume that, because we don't have children, we have a lot of discretionary income to spend as we please.
- We are expected to show interest in the children of our siblings, friends and relatives, and to listen attentively and sympathetically to parents' problems and stories about their children -- while our own interests and problems are often dismissed as less worthy of attention or ignored completely.
- We are expected to defer to parents in all matters related to children, even if we have our own knowledge and experiences to guide us and to share (e.g., childless teachers are often told they don't know anything about children, even though they spend the entire day a room full of them, 9 months a year, year after year).
- Parents expect us to attend gender reveal parties, baby showers, christenings, first communions, confirmations, graduations, weddings and birthday parties to celebrate their children and the milestone events in their lives (oh yeah, and bring gifts!). Yet our own birthdays or other milestones are not always marked or celebrated in the same way.
- If we decline invitations to these events or fail to show sufficient enthusiasm for them, we are expected to provide explanations and/or made to feel like something is wrong with us.
- We are expected to justify our decision to continue living without children, while parents are rarely expected to justify why they decided to have children. Similarly, we are expected to explain why we didn't pursue this or that path to parenthood ("Have you thought about adoption? surrogacy? donor eggs?") -- even within the infertility community, where childless living (still) remains an unacceptable outcome for many pursuing treatment or adoption.