Men’s Unemployment is Women’s Work

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Men’s Unemployment is Women’s Work

by Aliya Rao on Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 12:38am

What sociologist Arlie Hochschild called women’s “emotion work”—“the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display”—is a permanent feature in society, largely resulting from industrialization. But its form changes with respect to the shifting socio-economic structures that constitute a woman’s world. 

In my recently published article, “Stand By Your Man: Wives’ Emotion Work During Men’s Unemployment,” I examine the form women’s emotion work takes during a male spouse’s unemployment. Research on unemployment has shown us that it has adverse consequences on well-being, a sense of self, as well as marital relationships. When it comes to marriage, research has focused on the question of how men who saw their role as providers dramatically change when they ceased being the family breadwinner. These studies explain that in families with flexible gender ideologies—that is, both men and women have broader conceptions of men’s role in the family beyond being the breadwinning patriarch—marital couples experience less strain and strife than couples who are unable to move beyond traditional gender norms and gender bias.

Courtesy of Mel MagazineSurprisingly, much of the extant research conceives of unemployment as primarily being emotionally consequential for just the unemployed individual—I noticed that the wives’ emotions were generally overlooked. Therefore, in my own research, I assessed the terrain of women's emotions, as they are affected by their male spouse's unemployment. What I learned illuminates the complexity of the emotional weight of husbands’ unemployment on wives. The wives of unemployed men I interviewed explained how they managed their own emotions and suppressed their anxieties in an attempt to preserve a “normal” atmosphere in their homes, for fear that their own anxiety would further upset their unemployed husbands. For example, Maeve, whose husband Nate was unemployed for almost two years, told me, “I can’t control how he’s going to take me being worried. So, I don’t tell him that I’m worried.” Like Maeve, the women I interviewed privileged their husbands’ emotional well-being over their own. Unfortunately, for Maeve as well as for most wives I interviewed, this meant these women dealt with their emotions privately; some explained to me that they coped by stress eating, or they suffered bouts of depression.

The point of this kind of emotion work—that of concealment—meant that their husbands were unaware that they, too, were trying to deal with their unemployment. After all, the entire family is impacted and bears the repercussions of the husband’s unemployment. Ironically, husbands did not shield their emotions from their wives. In fact, in their interviews, the unemployed husbands explained how they relied on their wives as a kind of therapeutic, emotional and physical support system. This is in line with previous research on emotion work which has found that in most arenas of family life, female partners do far more emotion work for their male partners than vice versa. 

“I can’t control how he’s going to take me being worried. So, I don’t tell him that I’m worried.”

Distinct from previous research, I discovered the myriad forms of wives’ emotion work, as well as the market-motivated reasons behind this emotion work. Unlike its counterpart in the public domain known as “emotional labor,” emotion work typically has been perceived as being separate from any notion of economic gain. Yet, these women’s emotion work was largely aimed at getting their husbands’ re-employed. They recognized that the job-search process in which their college-educated and white-collar husbands participated was an emotionally arduous process, where a confident and upbeat presentation of self was important to succeeding in job interviews. Consequently, wives focused their energies on positively shaping their husband’s emotions, conscientiously playing cheerleader in an effort to boost their husbands’ morale and professional self-worth. For example, Emily cheerfully told her husband Brian that “any company would be lucky to have him,” even while she herself worried that his dolefulness would keep him from doing well in interviews. 

While the women I interviewed often expressed their love and concern for their husbands, their own emotion work was driven by concerns about their family’s financial well-being. Emily, for example, worried about having to sell their house and downsize because of her husband’s continuing unemployment. During our interview, she expressed this worry as she asked me a rhetorical question, clearly emerging from her concerns about her husband’s presentation of self: “How’re you going to find a job when you have no confidence and are very emotional?”

This data highlights an ongoing societal trend where women’s emotions and emotional well-being matters less than their husbands'. Female spouses’ emotion work remains at the service of their family. Furthermore, the documented forms of this emotion work, driven by the goal of the husband’s re-employment, reflect the vast influence of the job market in molding emotional dynamics in these marriages. 

Aliya Rao
Postdoctoral Fellow 2016-18

Aliya Hamid Rao received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, joining the Clayman Institute as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the fall of 2016. Her dissertation was a qualitative study of unemployment which uses family observations and over a 100 longitudinal interviews. Her other work has examined how gender shapes religious conversion...