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The Waves that created Ripples: Emotional Labor during COVID-19

This photograph was captured by Durga Menon

The pandemic as a universal experience revives memories of collective loss, uncertainty, disorientation, and labor beyond one’s known capacity. The weight of restrictions and confinement in words like ‘lockdown,’ ‘containment zones’ and ‘curfews’ invariably birth an internal dialogue within many individuals. Limited space sparked independent thinking as most observed the failure of systems and societal institutions in the presence of these violent, unpredictable, contagious waves.

The eventfulness of this global health crisis paradoxically brought lifelessness into people’s inner worlds when lockdowns imposed less movement. Households alternatively took on different shades acting as safe havens that momentarily felt like cages on especially labour-heavy days. The weight of responsibility began to enter family conversations marking the shift from an unconscious dialogue to conscious awareness of the impact hierarchical structures can have in creating subtle yet permanent ripple effects on family dynamics.

In Indian patriarchal scripts, role responsibilities and expectations continue to be viewed from a binary lens, determining the weight cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women have been socially conditioned to bear. Within the confining walls of homes, physical spaces began to occupy different spaces. With proximity becoming a part of confinement, the interplay of dynamics became more visible, mirroring the way systemic norms inherently perpetuate a power imbalance between genders. Performative roles highlighted a stark contrast between domestic duties, and emotional and physical abilities between cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women.

The impact of these socially approved patriarchal scripts has predetermined the capacity and weight cis-gendered women specifically had to bear when long periods of lockdowns seamlessly blended days into weeks that added up to months. The relentless uncertainty that was fuelled by health anxiety and fear of contagion invariably required family members to find creative ways to cope by rearranging living spaces to navigate the newness of striking a work-life balance.

While adaptation became a visible form of active coping, the heaviness borne by the labor to emotionally and mentally cope was often invalidated. Mental health needs began to enter more conversations only after recognizing the gravity of health and wellness against the backdrop of loss, death, and survival.

The use of patriarchal language began to sound louder than usual in the hollow echoes created by the silence of the pandemic. The contrast between these roles began to slowly emerge from under its ‘invisibility cloak’ as domestic spaces evolved into workout spaces, offices, and study spaces in upper-class homes. During the pandemic, the distinct division of labor became more visible in domestic spaces, as the extent of it was within view daily. The capacity to navigate the weight of a pandemic showed up in conversations that began to emphasize the connection between physical health and emotional well-being.

For centuries, the division of labor has been conventionally labeled by societal institutions, depriving much-needed conversation around the purpose and intention of categorizing the digestion of this labor in the way it has been allocated. In patriarchal language, the vocabulary most individuals are familiar with is the division of labor that is solely based on the inherent capability ascribed by physiology, anatomy, and social conditioning. However, the frequent visibility of these unyielding categories gave birth to new voices that began to waft into confinement zones. The deep silences at dinner table conversations began to shed light on the limitations of gender norms that bar individuals from diversifying their roles within the household.

The qualities attributed to cis-gendered women are related to their temperament and capacity to be nurturing, caring, and gentle. The roles women unconsciously carry require them to bear the weight of wearing multiple hats that involve both physical and emotional labor. The assumption that women are more competent than their counterparts in being emotionally available and attuned further reinforced attributes that an ideal woman is supposed to have.

Kitchens became stages on which women were viewed for their capacity to demonstrate their physical abilities, unconsciously erasing the effort they invested in emotionally holding a family. The weight of emotional labor was seen as a part of the physical labor that women were expected to do during the pandemic to provide care for the family. This blending of two very different capacities reduces the amount of effort in the eyes of others. This is indicative of how influential patriarchal language has been in conditioning society to view certain labor as worthy and unworthy of acknowledgment. Exhaustion and frustration that was endured may have been forgotten by others or even consciously hidden by women, as a way for housewives and working women to appear ‘good enough’ and ‘put together.’ The extent of responsibility could perhaps be erased as easily by women themselves, as emotional labor has not been considered as real, tangible measurable work.

In mental health, psychotherapists are often viewed as all-knowing, empathetic caregivers who hold the persona of a maternal figure in the therapy room. The perception of this label, ‘maternal’ also creates an internal standard in women to work towards and achieve approval of being able to balance both work and home, without losing their maternal qualities while being able to navigate the role of a modern working woman. The brunt of this search for approval in meeting this expectation began to feel heavy when domestic and work spaces began to form under one roof as online life started becoming the norm. The grunts and pants of several women evoked the question, “Why are our daily responsibilities going unnoticed?”

Unlike working women or housewives during the pandemic, therapists contractually commit to their clients giving them the agency to engage in emotional labor according to their pace, capacity, and consent to engage in such work. Working women during COVID-19 were not given the same autonomy to speak about their choice to be involved in domestic duties or prolonged periods of emotional labor. Limited freedom is a metaphor for the embodied confinement of women in these transactions of emotional labor. The embodied experience is permanently upheld and clearly defined by social reward mechanisms that shape behavior to be ‘good enough.’ Women's bodies carry an inherent programming that has been passed down through intergenerational emotional inheritance. The mechanism of social survival persists if one generation recognizes that this is valuable knowledge that will contribute to the birth and survival of the next generation.

Physical labor in the form of cooking, cleaning, and managing household responsibilities have become the more visible indicators of whether women perform the roles' duties. This has become the default path for women in seeking approval from others at the cost of invalidating other forms of labor they do.

The prolonged periods between and during pandemic waves encouraged several women to question the source of their stress and frustration in an era where patriarchal language does not necessarily have to dictate roles as strongly as it did decades ago. The deep reflective silences during these waves began to create ripples. These delicate ripples took the form of hesitant utterances that challenged the intergenerational burden of emotional and physical labor women have relentlessly carried.

The possibility of questioning the inflexibility of these roles is valuable, as it builds curiosity and intrigue around why generations of men and women have continued to remain fixed in their ways of managing domestic spaces. This incremental shift could evoke authentic dialogue to address the exhaustion and pain of continued labor, by allowing for nuance and deconstruction to re-invent language that is less hierarchical and more fluid.



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