emotional labour

Self care and emotional labour

I made it about a block from my house yesterday, walking to the office, before I turned back and got in the car. I didn’t want to. It was starting to rain really hard, and was just going to rain harder on my way home, so it was more sensible to drive.

I need to walk on Tuesday, because Tuesday is the day I have my open office hours.

As you now, I detest email and phone calls and have been trying to set some boundaries around the care work involved in being grad chair. The strategy I landed on is a two and a half hour block of time on Tuesday I call my “open office hours” where I agree to solve any and all problems, from the trivial to the immense, for anyone who shows up. It’s intense, with lineups sometimes from the minute I pull my key out of my purse to the moment I race out to meet my daughter’s bus back home, but at least it has a clear beginning and an end.

Only, I discover, it doesn’t. Open office hours call upon all my talents: rule-enforcing, help-finding, recruitment, retention, firm talking-to, conflict management, bureaucracy-explaining, book-sharing, draft-reading, truth-telling, accommodation-finding. Sometimes professors and staff come to my open office hours, and I shift gears to help them as well. Many people enter upset and leave calm. Other people enter calm and leave upset. I have to make sure to have a cup of coffee in my hand when I arrive because I almost never have time to put up my “Back in Five!” sticky note on the door and go buy myself a cup.

For each student, I try to figure out the emotional temperature so I can adjust my affect. This might involve burying my own frustration to appear friendly. Or it might involve hiding my sadness. Or it might involve restraining myself from talking too much because the student needs the space to articulate her ideas and I am just supposed to listen. It might seem to students that I use my office hours to issue edicts and enforce my will on everyone, but most of the time, I’m really busy orienting the interaction to what I think the student needs.

God, this is as exhausting as it is necessary. I am so honoured to do it, but it is so, so draining. It’s hard work for me to sublimate myself and pay attention to everyone’s feelings at the same time that I am enacting authority, and care, and support. It is also both an honour and a burden to carry the emotional weight of these interactions. People laugh, people cry, people are angry, people are vulnerable–it runs the whole gamut. And these feelings attach to me, and I carry them in my body on Tuesdays.

It is an honour. The work is necessary. I truly am glad to do it.

But. I find that Tuesday nights I put my pyjamas on when I get home at 4 in the afternoon. I have a glass of wine. I go to bed at 9. I’ve tried this fall to develop more active and energetically replenishing  ways to find my equanimity on Tuesdays. If I walk to school, I feel fresh when I start, and if I walk home, the fresh air and the exercise helps reset my mood and blows the cobwebs out. Failing a walking commute, I go for a late afternoon run–I push myself hard, and I run outside, and the combination of tired quads and expanding lungs, along with sunshine and birdsong, really, really helps.

Only now it’s cold, and it’s dark. I’ll need a new self-care strategy moving into the winter, and in the absence of one yesterday, I’m feeling a little off, a little depleted.

What are your self-care strategies for the more emotionally demanding parts of your role in the academy?

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