Tag Archives: boundaries

Allowing Possibility

Have you ever had a dream of finding an undiscovered room in a familiar house? I have, several times. I like those dreams. A large piece of furniture moves aside, or I walk into a room I know well and find a new door in it.

Last weekend, my partner and I went to our small local theater and I saw Book Club while he went happily off to Deadpool. (Honestly, I’m so tired of comics, superheroes, space adventures, special effects and unending battles and chases. Whew. It felt good to say that.)

The movie was a relief. I didn’t have to spend most of it with my eyes shut trying to filter out the entirely overstimulating and, at the same time, boring hyperactivity, and it wasn’t excellent. It didn’t require anything from me except to sit back and relax.

No spoilers and this is not a movie review, but Jane Fonda tries way too hard. Instead of marveling at her artificial youthfulness, I felt rather sorry for her. There was also a lot of unnecessary drinking. It didn’t add anything to the story. Some of the humor was more of a wince than a chuckle, but there were some truly funny moments. The writing was a little inconsistent. It’s not really a movie about sex at all, by the way. It’s a movie about connection and being an aging woman.

Overall, though, I could relate to these four women and I found the movie oddly touching in an unexpected way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, in fact, trying to understand why it made me feel so bittersweet.

It has to do with giving up. Well, not really. Not giving up, exactly, but settling. No, that’s not quite right, either.

It has to do with gradually forgetting to entertain possibility.

That’s better.

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

We inhabit our lives like a house. It’s a finite space, and we’re intimately familiar with the floorplan, the closets, the windows and the doors. Our house is defined by ourselves and the way we live, and it’s also defined by the external world and people around us. Outside our house is a world where all kinds of potential physical and emotional harm crouches, waiting for us to take a risk and leave our shelter. Outside our house is a wilderness of Unknown.

When we’re young the house of our life is new and exciting. We experiment using the space in different ways. We begin to figure out what we like and don’t like, what works well in our lives and what doesn’t, who we can live with and who we can’t live with. We gradually accumulate furniture in the forms of memories, scar tissue, hand-me-downs, beliefs and new stuff we find all by ourselves.

The years go by and we learn a lot (hopefully) about the way the world works and who we are. We notice an ever-enlarging population of people younger than we are.

Then, one day, we’re in our fifties. Then our sixties. Then our parents are old. Not older. Old. How did that happen? Then our kids are as old as we were when we had them. It’s entirely disconcerting. We begin to think of ourselves as middle-aged and secretly feel older than that a lot of the time. Then, if you’re a woman, comes menopause, which, just as the onset of menstruation changed everything in the beginning of our lives, remodels our house.

For one thing, we need to tear out the heating system and replace it with cooling and fans.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

By this point in my own life, I’ve made a lot of choices and taken notes on how they worked out. I’ve made decisions about what I will and won’t do, and about what I am and am not interested in. I’ve decided what dreams to discard and interests to drop, because I’m out of time, energy or both. I’ve decided I know exactly who I am, what I’m capable of and what I need and want. I have an entirely private (because it’s shameful) list of things I’ve given up on.

Book Club speaks to the ways in which we begin to limit possibility as we age. In my case, it has nothing to do with age, though. I’ve been slamming doors behind me my whole life. When I was 18, I turned my back on high school. When I was 20, I left residential college, never to return. When I was 21 and got married, I gave up on dating or looking for love. When I was 27 and had my first child, I stopped dreaming of freedom and adventure.

And so on.

Of course deciding we’re never going to do something ever again practically guarantees the Gods will throw it back to us sooner or later, giggling. Now when I hear myself say, “Never again…” I can smile.

An even darker aspect of refusing possibility has to do with the dreams and desires we’ve never fulfilled. I’ve always struggled with financial scarcity. I tell myself nearly every day that I’ll never be financially successful, and it doesn’t matter, because I have a good life, I have what I need, I’d rather have my self-respect and integrity than be rich (note the belief that one can’t have both), and it’s not a big deal. I say all those things to myself because I don’t see any possibility of financial security. If I haven’t found it following all the rules and working so hard, then maybe I don’t deserve it, or it’s just not something I can earn or have. I don’t want to live the rest of my life hoping for something that never happens.

The story I tell myself is that I’d love to find a great job where I could contribute my talents, do meaningful work, be part of a team and get adequately paid. I’m always watching and listening for that job. But I know I’m too old, the things I love to do will never pay well, the kind of thing I’m looking for wouldn’t be here in rural Maine, and I’ll struggle to maintain adequate housing and feed myself forever.

If there’s no possibility, I can work on accepting what is and try to be peaceful.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Book Club was redemptive. It reminded me that possibility still exists for me. I’ve done things in the last five years I never imagined doing in my wildest dreams. Why do I think it’s all over now? Why do I make so many iron-clad assumptions about the size and shape of my house? Why am I deliberately trying to ditch my dreams? Why do I think of myself as a food item on the pantry shelf with an expired sell-by date?

Am I too old and jaded to invite miracles? Am I too worn out to move a piece of furniture (a bookcase, what else?) and discover a door behind it I never saw before? I know I’ve yet to discover my highest potential.

Maybe I’m just not very brave. I don’t want to fail anymore. I don’t want to be disappointed or feel I’m a disappointment, ever again. I don’t want to be let down, or hurt, or stood up or rejected. I don’t want to look like a fool. (I don’t mind being a fool, but I don’t want to look like one.) I don’t want to be scared.

I don’t want to play power games with people.

Perhaps this is the crust of old age, this gradual accumulation of weariness, scar tissue, limiting beliefs, and changing physicality that keeps us sitting in our familiar, safe house, where the edges and boundaries are well-defined and unchanging and we control the dangers of possibility.

Some people successfully shut out life, or shut themselves away from it. I’m never (there I go again) going to be able to pull that off, though. I’m too curious and too interested. An overheard remark, a movie, a conversation, a book or even a song lyric invariably comes along and kicks me back into motion when I’m threatening to lock myself permanently in the predictability and safety of my house. Then I begin to write, and then the walls waver and shimmer, new doors and windows appear, a corner of the roof peels away to show me the sky and I remember I’m still alive, still kicking, still wanting and needing and still, in spite of my best efforts, dreaming of possibilities.

My daily crime.

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

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.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

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

Positions of Power

I’ve written before about two positions of power: Power-over (maintaining or creating power inequality) and power-with (maintaining equal power). I’ve thought of this as a complete dichotomy, an either/or lens through which I look at all interactions and relationships, both mine and those around me. Lately, though, I’ve seen two other dimensions in the way we manage power. We are agents of power enhancement or power degradation.

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Power enhancement and power degradation are the states between power-over and power-with. If we seek to steal the power of others, we begin by sabotaging cooperation, negotiation and equal access to resources — all those things that create communities based in power-with. If our sabotage is successful, power degradation begins. We don’t have complete power-over, not yet, but we are beginning to break down independence, self-sufficiency and the boundaries of others. We are actively working behind the scenes, slowly and subtly corrupting power wherever we can. We might, at this point, have a change of heart and begin fostering behaviors and situations that recreate and enhance power-with, or we might continue with our goal of power-over. Once our goal is attained, we can cease to lurk in the shadows and come into the spotlight, flushed and triumphant, bloated with stolen power and proud of it.

On the other hand, if we seek to empower others who have been embedded in a power-over dynamic, we begin by managing our own power in such a way that we enhance the power of the disempowered and degrade the power of those maintaining or creating a power-over status quo. Ideally, we don’t give our power away, because that’s a finite resource and leads to burnout and exhaustion. A better way is to use our power to teach, to lead, to support, to legislate and to generally become the wind beneath someone else’s wings. In other words, we appropriately invest our power into teaching others how to discover, reclaim, maintain and manage their own.

An abused child or woman is not going to know how to take care of themselves and function, even if their abuser is magically whisked away. They have to learn. Actually, first they have to unlearn what they already know — all the coping mechanisms that kept them alive in their situation but won’t work well in the wider world — and then they have to learn new skills and behaviors. That takes time, appropriate support from power enhancers and protection from power degraders, at least temporarily, while the victims of power-over learn how to find and reclaim their own power.

The people who live and embody these two intermediate positions of power, enhancers and degraders, are my people — the caretakers. We are the parents and the teachers; the mentors, spiritual leaders, coaches, medical professionals and volunteers who work at shelters, missions, soup kitchens, and out of tents in far-flung places. Interestingly, most of these folks once came from the exterminated middle class. Also interestingly, we see frequent headlines about how some people in this group misuse their position of power and authority in the guise of “helping” others. Shielded by the mask of a power enhancer, they act as power degraders, abusing and exploiting others unchecked, sometimes for decades.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Power enhancement and degradation are not black/white good/bad positions. Many grassroots organizations seek to degrade power in an effort to address our power-over culture and help others reclaim their rightful power. You might say their agenda is to equalize power. The Southern Poverty Law Center is an excellent example. As parents, we might hope to work as power enhancers for our children. As resistance volunteers, we might work against organizations supporting inequality.

It’s important to note that our culture doesn’t financially support people in these positions of power particularly well. Teachers strike for better pay. Coaches lay down their lives in bullet-riddled school hallways. Nurses and doctors are vulnerable to addiction, burnout and fractured relationships. Ditto police and firefighters. Compassion fatigue is epidemic. None of these people are millionaires, and some are becoming homeless in places like California as the cost of housing skyrockets. I also note how many of these positions are filled by volunteers. I myself did volunteer fire and rescue work for years, and then animal rescue work and hospice. Red Cross depends on its volunteers. Many healthcare facilities and schools rely heavily on volunteers, as well as sports teams, churches and countless human rights organizations.

Yet it seems to me power enhancers and power degraders are the most important people in our communities. They have the ability to lift others up into integrity and excellence or destroy them. They shape our health, the way we learn and think (or not, sadly), and our spiritual wellness. We trust them with our children, our souls, our secrets and our lives. When they stumble, burn out, fail or waver, we roar with fury, demand justice and retribution, riot and demonstrate, never considering that we are the ones who put them in such dangerous, risky, heartbreaking and impossible positions in the first place. We place them on the front lines, put them under constant public scrutiny and pressure and make them responsible for understanding and fixing our increasingly unequal and dysfunctional social power dynamics.

Consider what a professional athlete gets paid, or an entertainer, or a “successful” politician. Compare that to what your children’s teachers are paid, or your local police or fire people, or your nurse practioner or the local softball coach or scout leader. Who has more direct influence in your life and well-being? Who will come help you in the middle of the night, organize community support or assist you with wedding or funeral arrangements?

Here is a graphic demonstrating the circle of power. (Please take a moment to notice the cutting-edge high tech used to generate this graphic. Impressive, yes?) Currently, a power-over dynamic is running the show, and it lies directly across the circle from power-with. We each occupy a place or places along the circle of power, and those places are dynamic and fluid, depending on the daily and even hourly choices we make. Some people spend most of their lives trying to equalize power between people while others work tirelessly to create and maintain unequal power. We all, whether consciously or not, behave in ways that degrade or enhance our own power and the power of others.

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

Nobody teaches us about power. Not our parents or schools, and certainly not the media. Yet our inherent rightful power and our need to manage it appropriately and effectively transcends ability level, age, race, sex, gender or socioeconomics. Individual power is apolitical. We all can take the same class, if only we can find teachers.

The problem is, there is no class and our best teachers are exhausted, demoralized, underpaid, underappreciated, overworked and drowning in a crippled education system while others are busy exploiting their positions in order to degrade the power of their students and colleagues. Even if some of the former know something about power management, they’re not in a position to teach anyone else about it. Power management and emotional intelligence skills (which are inextricably intertwined) are not going to show up on a standardized test or entrance exam.

We don’t know how to manage and maintain our power. We haven’t learned it and we can’t teach it. Yet we expect those people who support, protect and serve our communities, all those people who take these intermediate roles of power enhancers and degraders, to remain uncorrupted and infallible and spotlessly kind, compassionate, moral, ethical, and just plain GOOD. We give them power and authority blindly, because we can’t recognize appropriate power management from inappropriate either, and expect them to figure it out and do the right thing. We sure as hell don’t know what to do! When that doesn’t happen, we’re angry and we look around for someone to blame, someone or something to scapegoat.

Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash

How can we expect things to get better if we don’t make some changes?

I suggest we must begin at the beginning, at the foundations, with our children, which means a new paradigm of parenting. Every single adult that comes into meaningful contact with a child must be reeducated about the continuum concept and connection parenting. Children need appropriate connection and bonding throughout childhood. If that happens, they learn emotional intelligence and become secure, confident, curious, joyful people who practice power-with as a matter of course, because their own power has never been corrupted or coerced.

How do we freeze everyone in their tracks, wipe their data banks clean and overwrite with better information? How can meaningful change take place if we don’t?

Don’t ask me. I can think about it and write about it, but I have no idea how to tackle such an overwhelmingly impossible task, even if everyone would consent to it, and most won’t. They don’t want to give up whatever power they feel they do have, even if it’s just over their children.

In the meantime, there’s only this small attic room; a grey, chilly spring day outside; and whatever I do or don’t do with my portion of personal power this minute, this hour, this day. I will make choices to enhance or degrade the power of everyone I interact with, including myself. I’ll write, go swimming and pick up birdseed for our empty feeders. I’ll observe others, think about power and try to make mindful choices.

That’s all I’ve got today for my daily crime.

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