Category Archives: Connection

Emotional Labor

A couple of years ago my adult son and I had a heated exchange during which I asked him exactly what he wanted from me. It was a useful question. For a moment we stopped being adversaries while he thought about it. “Umm, I don’t know. What I’ve always had, unconditional love, I guess.”

That moment has stayed with me, because as I asked the question I realized I really didn’t know, and I was both curious and interested. What does a fully emancipated twenty-something-year-old man honestly want from his mother? It was the first time it ever occurred to me to ask either of my sons what they wanted from me at any age or stage.

I never thought of anything except what I wanted to give them.

I’ve been reading about emotional labor recently, which leads me irresistibly to the concept of benign neglect.

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Emotional labor is the often invisible process of managing feelings and their expressions as part of a job or relationship. The idea often comes up as part of the ongoing discussion about gender roles and equality, but I’m thinking about it in a slightly different context.

Benign neglect is a term that originated out of city planning politics and now also describes an attitude of inaction regarding an unproductive situation one is commonly held to be responsible for.

I’ve written before about pleasing people, boundaries and reciprocity. Emotional labor is embedded in all of these, and it’s been a primary dysfunction in my relationships over the years, though I haven’t had any language or distinction about my experience of it until recently.

If you Google emotional labor you find definitions, descriptions, assertions about the disproportionate burden of emotional labor on women, and the powerful but invisible expectations regarding who is responsible for emotional labor in any given situation. What you don’t find is discussion about how to make visible and support the vital aspect of emotional labor in community, jobs and families. The discussion stops at equal rights.

Equal rights is an important discussion to have, but in the meantime we’re dealing with families, friends and jobs today and emotional labor is an inescapable need right now.

I think of emotional labor as glue. You don’t see it, but if it’s missing everything falls apart. If it’s applied carefully it holds things together. If we don’t keep a calendar and glance at a clock now and then, we can’t manage our lives. Either we learn to cope with appointments, deadlines, commitments, grocery lists and feelings ourselves or we rely on someone else to do it for us. Part of adulting is learning emotional labor.

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I’m a button sorter by nature, and I take a lot of pleasure in being organized. My life works better when I take the trouble to be effective and efficient, and it gives me pleasure to share with my loved ones the benefits of thinking and planning ahead and taking care of business. Remembering special dates, buying tickets, planning for bake sales and decorating for the holidays have all been offerings symbolizing my love and willingness to provide support to my family, along with the daily activity of simply showing up in my relationships.

I said that recently to my partner — “this is me showing up in the relationship.” He had no idea what I meant.

I was staggered. What do you mean, what do I mean? You know, asking if you slept well because you didn’t the night before. Or inquiring about the status of that headache you complained about yesterday. Or asking you what’s in your attention and what you’d like to do today. Listening. Sharing. Showing concern. Demonstrating that I appreciate you enough to be present. Reminding you that we’re almost out of cat litter. Thanking you for patching the mousehole in the cupboard. Showing up in the relationship!

Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

Yeah. Aka emotional labor.

He listened and shrugged. I didn’t describe anything he could relate to. He lives his life with me without showing up or not showing up. He just does what he does, says what he says, is interested in what he’s interested in. He doesn’t check in with himself every day to be sure he “showed up” in a way that reassures me of his ongoing affection and caring.

I do.

I’ve thought a lot about this since that conversation. I’ve been conscious of a huge annoyance and, underneath that, amusement.

All my emotional labor is completely unneeded. He never asked me to do it. It’s not useful. It’s invisible to him.

This made me wonder if that’s been true in all my other relationships as well, including with my kids, historically and presently.

That’s not right, though, because I’ve been with some real man-babies. My husband once called me at work because the baby had a soiled diaper. (Okay, it was a real blow-out, but still!) Then there was the guy who wanted a dog to fish with, but didn’t want to walk it, poop scoop after it or stay up all night on July Fourth holding its paw because it was terrified of firecrackers and invariably went into seizures (it had epilepsy).

And then there were the kids. There’s no question at all that raising kids takes a lot of emotional labor. It’s both needed and required.

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

I guess I just got into the habit. Emotional labor has been my offering, my contribution, in every relationship. I’m good at it. Until very lately, I never considered reciprocity and I had no definition for emotional labor. I just thought of it as being a good woman.

When my son said he wanted what I’d always given, unconditional love, I had a moment of real satisfaction. I made so many mistakes, but at least I did that right. On the other hand, can those two simple words ever encompass the totality of heart, pain, frustration, energy, loyalty and years they represent? Unconditional love. That’s all.

Right.

I was with a man for a long time who had no interest in emotional labor. Once he had me hooked, he was never decisive, confident or clear again. He initiated no physical contact. He resisted making any plans. He made no effort to develop rituals, routines or regular check-ins. His job was stressful, he had some sleep and health issues, and his favorite excuse was “I forgot.” I gave and he withheld.

Eight years later (slow learner) burned-out, anguished and desperate, it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if I. Just. Stopped.

So I did. I stopped e-mailing. I stopped calling. I made plans without him. I let go of all my expectations and started trying to glue myself back together. I worked, took care of my own responsibilities, enjoyed time with friends and family and went on with my life. I set down all that emotional labor and walked away from it.

Guess what happened?

He floated away.

I’d essentially had an eight-year relationship with myself.

He did eventually (weeks) notice I wasn’t around any more and got in touch, mildly puzzled and reproachful. I was casual and said I’d been busy.

He told me he didn’t feel like he was getting the attention he needed from me. We were sitting in his car at the time. I’ll never forget it.

Until now, I’ve never put that experience in context with all my other relationships. After my recent conversation with my partner about showing up in the relationship, I changed my behavior. I stopped worrying about “showing up” every day. I’ve engaged with my own needs, daily tasks and schedule. I enjoy our time together, but I’ve stopped trying to make it happen. I switched my focus to making sure I show up for myself every day.

What I’ve learned from all this is that emotional labor is real and largely unconscious. Many of us give our lives to it. I’ve also learned it’s a choice. When it remains invisible and undefined and we’re operating out of unspoken cultural expectations, we become unconscious of much of our decision-making and motivation. Our desire to be a “good” wife, mother, daughter, lover, sister, whatever, becomes all-powerful and we throw ourselves into it without ever thinking about whether that’s what others want and/or need from us. We don’t consider asking for help or professional support if we’re caretakers. In fact, we feel hurt when our emotional labor of worrying, for example, is not received with gratitude and appreciation! If whoever we’re connected with does want our emotional labor and provides none themselves, we don’t notice. We just work harder.

This is where benign neglect comes in. Benign neglect is an attitude of inaction regarding an unproductive situation one is commonly held to be responsible for, remember? The culture may hold us to be responsible for a lot of things, but that doesn’t make it true.

What if we challenged the “commonly held” belief that all emotional labor is our job in any given relationship? What if we decided it’s not our responsibility, in addition to not being useful, to worry, fuss, organize or manage the feelings of the people around us? What if we took back our power to choose?

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

If I had stopped worrying about doing laundry for my teenagers, or insisting on family mealtimes, or keeping track of their schedules, what then? The sad truth is I was afraid people would think I was a bad mother. I knew I would think I was a bad mother. The kids didn’t do those things for themselves, so I had to do it in order to demonstrate my love, commitment and competence. What kind of a mother lets her kids wear dirty socks?

I didn’t consider the difference between organizing schedules for toddlers and organizing two big, smart, capable boys who saw no reason to bother themselves with boring things like schedules, grocery lists and clean socks. I was so busy demonstrating my feelings, especially my love for them, I never stopped to wonder if they were learning to express their feelings. I didn’t ask.

It annoys me that only now am I seeing ways in which I could have been a much more effective parent, partner, daughter and sister.

At bottom, I don’t think emotional labor is about equal gender rights at all. I think it’s about choice, and choice is about power. We can’t choose if we don’t recognize there is a choice, we can only stumble forward blindly, doing our best with what we think the rules and expectations are, external and internal, until, overburdened, overwhelmed and exhausted, we fall down and don’t get up again. Meanwhile, the people we love, the ones we’re doing all this labor for, are not saved by our labor. Kids grow up, have car accidents and bad relationships, choose crappy diets, fall into addiction, catch an STD. Parents grow old, have health problems, and become dependent. Siblings, friends, lovers and mates are not assisted by our worry, our ability to manage their feelings or our “showing up” in the relationship. All our loved ones might be a great deal better off if we hadn’t taken on all the emotional labor ourselves, because when life happens, as it inevitably does, they lack the skills we never let them learn because we were so busy being good women.

Also, when was the last time you were thanked for all your emotional labor? (What do you mean, “showing up” in the relationship?)

You gotta love the irony of the whole thing.

What would my relationships look like if I kept my emotional labor in balance with the labor of those I’m connected to? What if I could be more like my partner and trust that my affection and love for him (and others) are communicated and understood without such deliberate emotional labor? He just naturally demonstrates his feelings for me in our day-to-day life without all this effort and trying.  What if I relaxed and redefined what being a “good woman” means?

I’m going to find out.

My daily crime.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Connection: The Care and Feeding of the Spirit

In life coaching, I was introduced to the idea that human beings have three primary needs: Connection, contribution and authenticity. I have yet to discover a need that doesn’t fall into one of these categories, so at this point it’s still a frame that works for me.

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

For me, any discussion of connection must include spiritual connection, and to talk about that clearly I need to define terms.

Spirit: The nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.
Religion: The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
Faith: Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
Ideology: The ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual.
Sacred: Connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.

(All definitions from Bing search.)

SpiritualitySpirituality may refer to almost any kind of meaningful activity, especially a “search for the sacred.” It may also refer to personal growth, blissful experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension.” (Wikipedia)

The archeological record tells us we have sought to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole from the infancy of mankind. Long before written records were made, there was cave art, pottery and carving thought to represent sacred beings, including, in many cases, animals. When we began to write, myth, story and legend wove a rich tapestry of religion and other spiritual frameworks all over the world.

Our powerful need for spiritual connection has historically been a significant motivator geopolitically, economically and creatively. Our search for understanding who we are and what our place in life is, individually, culturally, politically and socially, firmly anchored in our conception of spirit.

How do we create a spiritual connection? How do we choose from such a bewildering array of beliefs and ideologies? How do we cope with tribal shaming if we don’t accept the spiritual beliefs of our family or tribe? How do we think about the “nonphysical part” of ourselves, and what, if anything, does that part of us need?

It’s taken me more than 50 years to even begin to answer these questions. The two biggest obstacles I had to overcome were disconnection from my own emotions and feelings, and denying having any needs. Disconnection and denial are both disempowering, and healthy spiritual practice, at its heart, is a practice of self-empowerment.

Some people approach formal, organized religion as a way to share power. Others are quick to use it to assure power over others, and at that point it no longer fits my definition of a healthy spiritual practice. Discovering and nurturing the shape of our own spirit is an act of dignity, privacy and self-respect. It has nothing to do with what anyone else thinks or believes. We decide where we stand on the continuum between science and faith, and we define what is sacred in our lives. We have the power, and we have the responsibility. No mystic, guru, psychic, yogi, mentor, sponsor or other spiritual or religious leader or authority knows what we need better than we do. We owe nobody an explanation, justification or apology for our spiritual practice, as long as that practice doesn’t seek to harm or control others.

That’s not to say the guidance, teachings and wisdom of scholars, practitioners, philosophers, masters and thinkers are without value or interest. Yoga, martial arts, meditation, mandalas, drumming, dance, sacred traditional music and countless other rituals and traditions may be part of a spiritual practice, but none of these are essential. The real strength of spiritual practice doesn’t lie in appearance, embellishments, publicity or visibility and has nothing to do with economic or social condition.

A spiritual practice is an activity in which we are wholly present with ourselves in a nonjudgmental fashion and after which we feel empowered, anchored, refreshed and renewed. A healthy spiritual practice is a haven, a refuge, a place of solace and joy. It connects us to ourselves, to others, and to something larger than we are. It doesn’t matter if we name that something God, Allah, Spirit, Divine, Goddess or even Gaia, it all boils down to the basic human need for some kind of spiritual connection.

A few weeks ago I wrote about living a seamless life. My spiritual practices are frequently invisibly embedded throughout my every day life, requiring nothing more than my presence and intention.

Here’s an example: After a long day the kitchen is full of dirty dishes. I slather my hands with the most luxurious lotion/cream in the house and don rubber gloves. I turn off lights, tech and the TV. I light a couple of candles. I might play some music, or just soak up silence. I look out the window over the sink. I breathe. I relax. I’m present. I’m consciously grateful for a kitchen, dishes, a sink, running hot water, the ability to stand and use my hands, and food that creates dirty dishes. I take time to feel what I feel, check in with myself, daydream and drift.

I approach exercise as a spiritual practice. I’m not worried about my weight or health, but I do notice I feel better, sleep better and function better if I stay active, so my daily goal is to show up at some point with myself to move. Sometimes I dance. Once a week I swim, then soak in a therapy pool, then take a long hot shower. I walk, both by myself and with my partner. This winter I’m going to begin snowshoeing. I do Tai Chi. With the exception of walking with my partner, all of these activities are opportunities to have time with myself, quiet, undistracted time in which to be in my body, remember what a beautiful world I live in, practice gratitude, allow feelings, pray, chant, sing, work creatively, stretch and breathe. When I’m finished I feel relaxed, empowered, centered and grounded.

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A spiritual practice may be as simple as a special tree, rock, crystal, cushion and/or candle. It might be a secret altar or shrine, a string of beads or a stick of incense. It can take place anytime, anywhere, solo or in a group. It can be a five-minute pause or a long weekend of ritual at a hot spring, but it always makes us bigger. Anything that diminishes, restricts, confines, limits, shames, invalidates or disempowers us is not a spiritual practice, no matter what anyone says. It’s merely an ideology of control.

Many of us naturally find our way into spiritual practice without realizing what we’re doing, impelled by this often unconscious but powerful human need. Recognizing the need for spiritual connection, giving it language, honoring and allowing it, allows us to take back our power to define and protect sacred space in our lives, free from distraction, interruption, multitasking, pressure, hurry and the constant noisy static of media and entertainment. If our spiritual life is tainted by criticism and judgement, our own or others’, it won’t sustain us and our spirit will sicken and starve. We’ll begin to look outside ourselves for spiritual nourishment and become vulnerable to addiction, perfectionism, pleasing others and people who steal power.

The care and feeding of the spirit is the least talked about aspect of the need for connection, but it may be the most important. In the absence of spiritual connection, all our other connections suffer. True spiritual power transcends physical strength, youth and beauty, and it cannot be coerced or stolen. Our greatest strength may lie in our ability to create spiritual connection for ourselves and support others in theirs.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

The care and feeding of spirit. My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Die In My Arms

When I was pregnant with my first son in 1989, I approached parenthood the way I approach every new endeavor. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I had a shelf of books on pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding and parenting. Like most parents, I wanted to be the best I could possibly be.

It wasn’t until more than 25 years later that I came across the only book I needed, a simple paperback I’d never heard of or seen, a book never mentioned by health professionals, teachers or anyone else. The book was The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. It only took me a couple of days to read, and I cried through the whole thing. I’ve rarely read a book that so completely captured my private longings and sense of being broken.

By then, of course, it was far too late to apply the information as a parent.

As I embark on the second half of my life, I think about the continuum concept every day. I grieve for us all, victims of rape culture, many of us broken and maimed sexually, physically, mentally and emotionally. Few of us have any idea what a healthy human relationship looks like, and fewer still know how to go about creating and participating in one, or are in fact able to because of the damage current parenting practices and other social norms cause.

My own needs for affectionate, nurturing touch and in-arms experience are chronically unmet and over the years I’ve learned to spend time in water, in the sun, with animals and in nature as substitutes for human contact.

The trees and forests here are nothing like the pine and aspen forests I knew growing up in Colorado. The broadleaf forests in Maine are tall and deep and thick, every layer incredibly rich, lush and complex. The trees are a mix of fruit, evergreen and hardwood such as birch, beech, oak, ash and maple, to name but a few.

Over the months, as I’ve walked this place and made friends with it, I notice a thing about this forest.

The trees die in one another’s arms.

Orchard Field

Trees of all ages grow here. Older, damaged or weak trees begin to lean and die. They can also remain standing in death, becoming snags for wildlife and insects, or rot from the inside out and the roots up with the help of fungi and moss. These can be pushed over with one hand, and as they fall they collapse wetly into pieces, releasing the woody smell of mushrooms. Smaller trees can sometimes find a way to fall all the way to the ground, especially at the edges of forested areas or along the river, but the huge old trees away from the edges have no room to fall entirely. They might drop branches or break at various points up the trunk, but the whole tree can’t come down at once.

Die in my arms 09/27/17

All over this 26 acres old trees are leaning, dying or dead, held in the arms of their healthy, living neighbors. Some neighbors of the same species are no doubt family members, but it doesn’t matter. A tall, strong ash might hold an old beech, or a maple support the skeleton of a pine.

This is not a dutiful, quick, can’t-wait-to-get-it-over-with embrace, but a years-long in-arms relationship while the dead tree rots and breaks down, feeding its patient supporter and the rest of the forest, until the moment comes when the last of its body decays enough to fully rest on the ground where it was born.

The forest grows together, lives together and dies together.

Die in my arms 09/27/17

Yesterday morning I went out to clear around an old shed we plan to put a foundation under and use. At one time there was an arbor along the south side of the building that supported a grapevine. The arbor is long gone now, and the sprawling grapevine is as thick as my wrist in some places and has spread over an area of about 50 square feet. I went to work, lopping saplings and woody growth and pruning the rest. The vine had produced some purple grapes as it crawled up the shed wall. I’ve never tasted a grape with such intense flavor, but there weren’t many. I wondered if we built a temporary trellis and I gave it some attention we might be able to take cuttings and save it. If it can survive years of neglect and still fruit, it seems to me it’s happy here.

Apple and grapevine 09/27/17

I worked away until I came to the foot of an old apple. This tree is gnarled and twisted, as they often are, and the entire trunk is hollow from below eye level to my highest reach with several entrances and exits. This particular apple is early, and the fruit has mostly dropped and been eaten by wildlife. As I knelt under the tree, cutting back woody undergrowth, I looked up.

The grapevine, having no trellis to climb on, had over the years climbed the tree instead, and pounds and pounds of purple grapes hung down from the apple tree canopy, invisible unless you stand right under the tree.

Die in my arms, I thought, looking up in wonder. Live in my arms. Flourish, shelter and fruit in my arms.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Trees are not people. Clearly, people are not trees. We have demonized the continuum concept. We have civilized ourselves into cities of concrete and steel, hospitals, institutions and prisons. Touch in our culture is about rape, violence, abuse, violation, capitalism and control. The need and desire to give and receive touch is viewed as inappropriate and dangerous. We’re addicts, homeless, outcast, broken, sick and lonely. We’re divided from one another, competitors and enemies. Few of us will die in anyone’s arms.

No, people are most certainly not trees.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted