Why don’t we talk about the emotional labour of being a single woman in the ‘new normal’

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  • Contemplating what post-lockdown life will bring is draining, but what about the women facing it without emotional support from a partner? Writer Olivia Foster is living it and, quite frankly, she's exhausted...

    Twelve hours into the worst sick bug I’ve ever encountered and I’m lying on my bathroom floor, totally naked, surrounded by discarded Dettol wipes and the last of my dignity when suddenly a wave of panic mixed with acute loneliness sweeps over me. I have absolutely nothing in the house and, being a single woman and living alone, I have no one to help me. My mum is away, my siblings and friends are at work, so I know I must look after myself, alone, which is no mean feat when you can’t go more than ten minutes without being sick.

    Emotional labour,’ is a term that gets bandied about a lot, especially when it comes to people in partnerships. We hear how women, so much more often than men, have juggled both their own jobs and the responsibility of keeping their houses and families in shape over lockdown.

    In fact, a report from the Boston Consulting Group in May 2020 found that women are currently doing an average of 12 hours more household chores than men do. This could be anything from cooking, to cleaning, managing household expenses and bills to – if you have them – caring for children. It’s a stat that becomes particularly ridiculous when you consider that a reported 71.6% of women are in the UK workforce, meaning they’re effectively working twice.

    Similarly we often hear about the issues for older people, whose partners or friends might have passed on, who struggle with being alone, not only when it comes to chores or tasks but with feeling isolated and unable to ask for help; be that someone to help with the shopping, or someone to have a conversation with. But we don’t often talk about the reality of what it’s like to look after yourself, by yourself, all the time as a younger person. It seems silly in some ways to point it out but it is just another way in which the real life experiences of single women outside of the usual stereotypes are silenced. Our emotional labour ignored.

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    I know there are other women who feel the same as me – who recognise the very real exhaustion that can come from always having to look out for themselves with no help and not wanting to put the burden on other people. Rose is 38 and lives by herself in a flat in North London, she tells me that it’s when work gets tough that she feels it the most, ‘I’ve been on my own a while,’ she says, ‘And in many ways I love it, but there are some days when not having anyone can help becomes really tough. If I’ve had a stressful week at work then finding the energy to cook or clean my flat can feel impossible and it’s hard to talk about it without feeling like I’m moaning so I just say nothing.’

    No wonder really, that a report on millennial women found a third have felt lonely over the last few months. It’s an interesting stat when you consider the definition of emotional labour is the feeling that you need to suppress your feelings in order to make sure everyone around you feels comfortable. Indeed, it was originally described by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild in The Managed Heart as the need to, ‘induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.’ She has since said that she feels people shouldn’t always relate this to housework for example, but that it is something that can affect both women and men, not only at home but at work and in our general personal lives.

    For me limiting my personal emotional labour has been about being totally honest with people when I can’t take on additional tasks for them that might lead me to feeling frustrated and repressed. This could be not going to a birthday party when I’m already exhausted, or not offering to help someone if I know I’m already at capacity and won’t be able to give them the attention they need. But going forward from sick-gate I’ve also vowed to be more open when I’m not coping – and always keep a stash of restorative full-fat cokes in the fridge.

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