My daughter says that I don’t have a job.
She is making a simple observation that, in comparison to me, her dad leaves day after day, often before she’s awake, and comes home after she’s in bed to work long hours outside of the home. Sometimes, he has to work on a Saturday too.
Her experience of him is like that of a mythical creature, magically appearing from time to time when he’s on a job. Other times, he’s at home full-time between gigs, and then she gets some much-loved daddy time.
I know she also experiences that I am always there, making meals, getting her clothes clean, wiping up spills, putting toys away, doing piles of dishes, and picking her up from school. And I am also always there, holding her when she’s devastated, sitting with her and listening when she’s angry, helping her put names to her gigantic feelings as they burst out of her, and guiding her towards greater compassion for her friends. I am there doing the silent work.
I am there doing the unseen work, the emotional labor, the unpaid work.
We talk all the time when she wishes her dad didn’t have to work so much, how lucky we are that he does. That he works, so we have money for the life that we have. I am lucky that I could choose to stay home with our child. We are so grateful for everything that he does.
And I know that my husband has guilt, too. Guilt about the long hours, missed school events, and the sleepy moments in the early morning, he has to steal with her to connect – to do his own emotional labor. When he’s between jobs, we share the emotional work and the school pickups and the dishes.
But that’s when he’s on a “break.” On vacation. Not working.
When I hear “stay-at-home-mom” come out of my mouth when people ask me what I do, I hear, “I don’t earn any money with my labor.” I hear, “I’m not viewed as worth something in our society.” And I feel shame for not having a more glamorous answer or proof that I’m really providing something tangible for my child besides clean shirts.
That’s the problem, though. The emotional labor we all provide as parents isn’t tangible right now, while they’re small. It’s completely thankless and may only be seen when our children grow up into (hopefully) well-rounded adults because of that unseen work – and even then, people will see what they do. How much they earn, where they went to school, what they’re giving back to society. We don’t see the inner work.
We don’t respect emotional labor.
I know when I walk by a frazzled parent wrangling their kids, one screaming over a dropped snack, the other fidgeting in the stroller impatiently awaiting wiped tears, and that parent is just trying to get them to keep walking down the sidewalk, I give them a look. It’s a look that I hope says, I see you. I see the work you are doing.
I see that you are working to solve a problem right now, and you’re doing great. It may not be solving a problem that will make your company big bucks, win a case, or change a law, or cure a disease – but it is a very real, human problem of how do we raise adults who listen and care. And hopefully, adults who value the unseen work just a little bit more.