Emotional Labor, Elastigirl, & Me

Last year, I turned 40 and started grad school while working part time at the public library as the Children’s Services Manager, living in a cohousing community, volunteering with my Sisterhood, and raising three teenagers. I’m between semesters at the moment and I’ve had a chance to do some reading by choice instead of reading by syllabus. One of the titles I picked up during this semester break was Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley.

I’ve also had the chance to curl up with my family and watch a few movies. In addition to our epic Marvel chronology review project, we decided to snag the library’s copy of Incredibles 2 (2018) for family movie night. Despite the fact that the original movie released when our eldest child was only a year old, my teenagers have always been fans of Baby Jack-Jack and were excited to see this sequel fourteen years in the making.

I was about halfway through Hartley’s book when we sat down to watch the Parr family pick up right where they left off at the end of The Incredibles (2004). And less than a quarter of the way through the film when Fed Up and Incredibles 2 collided spectacularly inside my head. I spent the rest of the film thinking about emotional labor, parenting, and midlife career change.

Last March, my mother came out for a wonderful visit. Usually, she and my father come visit us together, so having my mother out on her own was a visit with a somewhat different vibe. She hadn’t been able to make it out when my dad came by himself for Thanksgiving in 2017 because she was working that holiday weekend. My mother still works full time as a pediatric nursing supervisor. She went back to school and work when I was about 11 or 12 years old, completing a BSN in twelve months, since she already had a BS in Biology & Chemistry. Strongly called to the vocation of pediatric nursing, she’s been working in the field for over twenty-five years now.

Being roughly the same age she was when she returned to school with kids of similar ages, I did a lot of spiritual work around what going to back to school and work to answer a strong vocational call was going to mean for me. From my perspective as a child, the transition in my household when my mother changed careers midlife was not a smooth one. Redistributing the physical work my mother had taken responsibility for in our household was painful for everyone, never mind the emotional labor. The challenges of that period of our lives are something my sister and I still talk about on occasion; how we all sort of failed each other through that period of our lives. And here I was, getting ready to take on graduate school on top of everything else at the same age and same time my children’s lives — but now I was viewing it from the parental perspective and not the child’s.

I hoped my understanding and awareness of emotional labor — and my partner’s understanding and awareness — would allow for a less traumatic transition. All summer long, he and I had many conversations about what emotional labor actually is, the toxicity of patriarchal tropes surrounding emotional labor, how it was currently being distributed in our household, how my taking on graduate school was necessarily going to shift all of that, and how we could be partners in mindfully navigating those shifts. During these conversations, I shared my fears born of my experiences as a child and to his credit, he reassured me that he was confident we could do this differently.

So, I began grad school and Elastigirl went off to full-time superhero work and the distribution of what Hartley calls “the mental load” shifted in both our households. Our partners had the opportunity to step into a great deal of the emotional labor we had been performing for our families, just as Fed Up author Hartley’s husband did when she launched a full-time writing career.

While I didn’t totally love Fed Up – I found it fairly heteronormative and sizable chunks of were repetitive and unreasonably whiny –  as I read it, I did find myself filling up with gratitude for my partner and the growth in our relationship due in large part to his evolving awareness of and engagement with the issue of emotional labor. When I first started talking with him about this concept, he really didn’t get it. But he kept trying to get at what I was trying to communicate and at some point last summer, it clicked for him. I’m very grateful for his commitment to figuring out our household’s emotional labor together. No longer having to do copious amounts of emotional labor in order to get him to understand emotional labor has strengthened our relationship considerably all by itself. And his demonstrated support of my going back to school and work has meant the world to me.

Watching Mr. Incredible struggle with his initial resentment at Elastigirl’s new work and the demands of at-home parenting, combined with reading Hartley’s complaints about her husband’s lack of awareness around the “mental load”, made me appreciate how smoothly my partner helped to shift the load in our household last autumn while I was eyeball deep in reading, research, and writing about linked data, social justice in youth services, information organization design decisions, and early literacy development.

While my mother was visiting last spring, she and I went out to dinner and a play together. Over dinner, we talked a lot about emotional labor, about how nothing can start shifting successfully in a relationship until all partners reach a foundational understanding of what emotional labor is in the first place. Emotional labor has to become visible before conscious shifts can take place around who is carrying the load. Looking back, I believe this is what wasn’t possible when she went back to school and work because we didn’t have words for it then. It was invisible in my childhood household, even to those doing the work, much less those not. The distribution couldn’t be successfully consciously shifted because none of us even realized there was a distribution to shift.   

It’s not invisible now. Our society is finally talking about it. There are books to read. There are even animated family movies that illustrate it. Mr. Incredible has such a hard time at the beginning of Incredibles 2 because he’s struggling to grasp just exactly how much of the family’s emotional labor his wife has been doing. His initial reactions are heavily tinged with toxic masculinity, but something does shift for him over time. He begins to figure out what the work actually is and how he can best approach it all. This connected for me with Hartley’s descriptions of how her husband was very capable of taking on a larger share of the “mental load”, but that he needed the space and time to figure out what it how to do it in a way that worked for him.

The experiences of the last five months and my first semester of graduate school have been largely positive. We actually grown closer as a family. By openly negotiating and modeling shifting emotional labor in our household, I am also hopeful that my partner and I are setting new, more feminist paradigms in place for our daughters and son to carry into their own relationships in the future. As Hartley points out in Fed Up, that is potentially a powerful mechanism for meaningful social change and the deconstruction of patriarchal frameworks around emotional labor. That is just maybe how Tony and Violet get to show how emotional labor and relationships can be done differently when Incredibles 3 finally roles around.


Kate M. Brunner is a writer, youth services librarian, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon. During 2019, she is mostly focused on earning her MA/LIS from University of Wisconsin – Madison’s iSchool, but she will also be presenting at the SOA’s annual online conference, AvaCon, and attending the SOA’s 2019 “The Priestess and the Healer” Pilgrimage to Wales. Kate’s spiritual writings are published in Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd and The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context.

Categories: Family, Feminism, Film, Men and Feminism, parenting, Popular Culture

Tags: , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Whoa! I never had a word for that before, but as a mother with four kids in a blended family, I most certainly know what that is!!! Thank you for the eye-opening article.


    • Karen, Hartley addresses that in her book. How we know what this is on an experiential level, but haven’t necessarily had the vocabulary to talk about and engage it in the past. She shares her process of coming to understand what emotional labor is and how it is affecting her life.

      In my process, I’ve definitely come to a place where I believe this is a *very* important feminist issue. Challenging the concept that women are responsible for keeping everyone else comfortable in relationship — be that romantic relationships, community relationships, professional relationships, etc. — is difficult and uncomfortable for everyone involved. And very, very, very necessary if we’re going to get anywhere with shifting power dynamics towards a less patriarchal model.


  2. I love having a name for this heretofore unacknowledged labor. Kudos to you and your family for conscious partnership!


  3. Brava! You and your family are making some wise–and conscious–decisions. I must admit, however, that I have zero interest in superheroes or their families. I’m glad you and your family are enjoying the movies.


  4. I read Fed Up as well, and liked it (although I totally agree with your point about it being repetitive!).


  5. Fascinating post. I don’t have children so when I went back to school in my 40s I didn’t have to worry about how it would impact them, but my husband, a charming, but emotionally needy alcoholic, did make things difficult for me. Now my elderly mother lives with me, which has been wonderful, but sometimes challenging, because she’s an extrovert who gets down if she’s not out and around people, and I’m an introvert who needs my quiet time. So I’ve learned that every couple of days I need to take her out to eat, or out to a cute shop, or two. Meanwhile, she’s learned that I need to get out in the woods behind my home frequently.


  6. Great encouraging post about how your interests can lead you down roads you would never imagine.


  7. Amazing amazing


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