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The value of little and hidden

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In several recent articles, the term “emotional labor” has been used to capture the work that (mostly) women do to keep a family running smoothly. In Mel Magazine, it was defined as “Free, invisible work women do to keep track of the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life: the glue that holds households, and by extension, proper society, together.” In the book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward,” it is “emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy. It envelops … emotion work, the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labor, invisible labor.” Neither of these definitions would suit the woman who originally coined the term. She meant for emotional labor to mean “the work of managing one’s own emotions that was required by certain professions.” It was a term coined to describe a phenomenon in the workplace. I’m kind of a stickler for terms, so even though I want to discuss the concept in the first two definitions and popular usage allows it, I cannot call it by the name assigned to the third.


It’s not really emotional labor. It is the little and hidden work of the feminine genius. It is both contemplative and active. It is ordinary and sacred. It is the heartbeat of homes and the breath of souls.


Why has the conversation around “emotional labor” as defined in the first two examples become so important? I think, in part, that we want to be seen, and the work of those first two definitions is mostly little and hidden. It’s the myriad of intentional movements that make up such a large part of our lives but that go unnoticed unless we don’t do them. They are the small, ordinary, but often sacred threads that, stitched together, are a life of holiness in service to others. And some days, women just really want someone to notice.


Perhaps that is why Instagram and Pinterest hold the attention of so many of us. For many women, those feeds are a parade of heretofore little and hidden efforts on display for public acknowledgement. But does that somehow profane the sacred? When we capture it and publicize it is it still a quiet sacrifice? That depends: Did we do it so that we could capture and proclaim it or did we do it because God called us to it.


It’s not just social media. I have days when I make a list of everything I did just to see if I can give it shape, to somehow quantify it. Then, I show the list to my husband. Usually this happens when I am tired and when I crave affirmation and encouragement.


What if I were to hold most of these moments captive in my own heart? What if the only one who always saw and noticed them was Jesus? I think that then they would be more contemplative and I would more clearly hear God’s affirmation. Like so many women, I learned to strive when I was very little, and I will spend a lifetime learning to choose, instead, to rest in the unconditional love of Christ. These labors of a woman in service to the ones she loves are not expendable. They are right and necessary and good. When they are united to the sacrifice of Christ, they are also holy. He is all that is needed if only we can learn to see ourselves as he sees us, and then rest in the sure knowledge that it is enough.


Why do we share what we share, whether in an edited montage of little squares on Instagram or a list recited aloud, in order to be seen at the end of a long day? When a woman shares the litany of little and hidden things, she can do it in a way that glorifies God and calls attention to his presence in the ordinary, his innumerable answers to just as many prayers offered as she goes about the daily round. Or she can share in a nearly frantic effort to be seen and known and acknowledged as she works to keep all the necessary minutiae of life moving decently and in order. She can share from a place of quiet, confident contemplation, or she can share from a place of desperate desire for approval and exaltation.


And so it is as we go about another ordinary day, setting the rhythms of a new season and sensing the needs of people close to us whose growth and changes present new challenges with every turn of the calendar page. We can continue to strive to live a life that meets the expectation of a capricious crowd in order to bask in cheap human glory. Or we can offer the people we love the recollected movements of a woman who understands that God created her to be a feminine genius and to put her gifts to use in the ordinary quotidian duties of a particular place where he lovingly placed her. Little and hidden, there is a certain, genuine, warm glow that is the reflection of the good, the true, the beautiful — the fruit of contemplative prayer in the active world.


Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019