Have you ever heard of emotional labour? The concept has been around since the sociologist Arlie Hochschild defined the term in 1983. It's essentially the work that we do, either professionally or personally, to regulate and present our emotions in a socially acceptable way — and to care for the emotional well-being of others. An epic thread on Metafilter about emotional labour touched on the kinds of things that people (often women) are expected to do to maintain relationships: Make nice holidays and meals, shop for appropriate gifts for their families and often their partners' families, and — here's the kicker — send birthday cards.
Now the birthday-card topic sparked a lot of debate on that thread: A lot of people, it turns out, do not give a damn about birthday cards.
I myself do not especially care about birthday cards, either to send or receive. Except, though... if I really think about it, I do care, a little bit. When I open the mailbox on my birthday and there's a card or two from a friend or my mother or other family member, I get a tiny ping of goodwill, a reminder that there are people in this world who love me.
Which brings me to my shoebox full of cards. I married into a very large family, with women who have raised, say, 12 children and 65 grandchildren and who still manage to send my kids (the children of a nephew) a birthday card each year. I would like to be more like these women, who know that maintaining relationships is the work of a million little pings of goodwill — calling to ask about your job interview, remembering that you like apple and not pumpkin pie, sending you notes in the real old-fashioned mail.
I want to be more like them. But I dislike actual labour, such as going to the store for cards every week, looking for stamps, finding a pen, looking up addresses, and so on. And so, enter the shoebox full of cards.
I kept the box from my latest kid-shoe purchase, cut 12 dividers out of cardboard and labelled each one by month, and bought 100 birthday cards at the grocery store. I stuck a bunch of cards behind each month divider. At the beginning of each section is a piece of paper printed with that month's birthdays and the addresses of the recipients.
Because I like hybrid solutions for organisation, meaning both paper and digital systems, I have all the birthdays on my phone calendar too, with a reminder on the first of each month. If someone's birthday falls on the first or the second day of the month, I include them at the end of the previous month. In the box are stamps and pens.
Now, at the beginning of each month, I write a short note on a few cards, address the envelopes, and pop them in the mail. For birthdays toward the end of the month, I keep them on my desk with the outgoing mail and send them closer to. I have a few sympathy and thank-you cards tucked in the back for other kinds of relationship maintenance.
Because I detest crafts and my shoebox full of cards is more utilitarian than cute, I won't post a pic of my final product. Also, that's the whole point of Pinterest: If you want a practical but still attractive shoebox full of cards, check out this more aesthetically pleasing version.
You'll need a label maker, a "dicut tool" (I just had to look that up), card stock, tape, and a pretty box from a craft store. Complete instructions are here.
It it labour? It is, a little bit. But these little efforts are the foundation of strong relationships, and I want to try to be more of a giver than a taker from now on.