Tag Archives: community

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

Making An Offering

The seed for this post was a podcast by Pat McCabe, also known as Woman Stands Shining, who is a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader and international speaker. In the podcast, she speaks about the idea of making an offering as part of our spiritual work.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

That idea started me thinking about offerings, what it means to make one, to whom we make them, and why. Spiritual and sacred practices are a strong theme in the trilogy I’m writing, starting with The Hanged Man. Mother’s Day has come and gone and Father’s Day is ahead. Many of us mark these days with offerings of some kind. For Earth Day, I joined a small neighborhood group and picked up trash, and I framed that activity as an offering. Yesterday I cleaned up my summer-only dance space and danced there for the first time this season. As so often happens, during that hour of dance this week’s blog crystallized.

An offering is “a thing offered as a gift or a contribution” according to a quick Internet search. A gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.”

The act of making an offering is ancient, a practice we began long before we could go out and buy a gift. Various cultures have historically engaged in ritual sacrifice (an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure), an altogether different degree of gift from a cute coffee mug.

I’ve long struggled personally with gift giving. There’s something in me that resents and resists the cultural mandates we’ve created to give gifts of a particular kind on certain occasions or days of the year. It seems to me modern-day gift giving has moved away from making an offering and into a demonstration of possessing money and spending it on some new piece of something, just for the look of the thing. We may feel real love, or gratitude, or whatever, but the only way we know how to express it is by buying a card (never mind the trees) and some kind of a gift.

I know that’s how we do things, but what does it accomplish, aside from contributing to our capitalist economy? Is that what we most want from the people in our lives — more stuff — or is that what we take because we can’t get what we really want? Is a coffee mug all we think we have to offer? Is a coffee mug all we think the other will accept? Are we unable to recognize and cherish an offering unless it comes gift-wrapped?

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

I’m thinking a lot about Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, because I’m writing about her in my second book. (This began before the recent trouble in Hawaii.) Traditional offerings to Pele involved tobacco, brandy, silk, crystals, tropical flowers and food. Offerings to Pele and other divine figures around the world involved ritual, prayer, music, song, dance and sometimes a sacrifice. Things, yes, although many were objects from the natural world, but also time. Presence. Creative, sensual and/or erotic expression. Community celebration, guided by spiritual leaders. Reverence. Appreciation. Gratitude. Acknowledgement of the Divine’s connection to the people and the natural world they inhabited.

Making an offering on this level is a demonstration of commitment and willingness to participate in the complex web of connection between people and nature. It’s a practice, not a one-time event. It’s flexible and not limited to the calendar or the clock. If there’s a community or individual need to speak to the Divine, time is set aside to do so. No money or commerce need be involved, because the offering is of self.

The offering of self, however, is often invisible, especially to our nearest and dearest. It’s so fatally easy to take one another for granted. The very act of feeding those we love is an offering we’ve been making and accepting since humans began. The acts of growing, harvesting, gathering, hunting, sharing and preparing food, absolutely necessary for survival, are almost obscured now by money and time constraints, ecological concerns, health issues, ideology and who does the dishes. Whether we recognize it or not, feeding another person is an offering of life. Parents know that making that single offering to just one child, let alone other family members, is a colossal, exhausting, unending task. Yet it’s so often completely invisible, and who has time to enjoy the act of offering food to another (or ourselves, for that matter), or incorporate ritual, play or creativity into our eating? It’s just another chore in our busy days.

So, if our offering is invisible, unrecognized, unappreciated or even rejected in favor of something like a coffee mug, does it mean we’re worth nothing, we are nothing?

Of course not, but it feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?

Making an offering means letting it go into the world and having faith in its worth. An offering is a gift, and a gift is a thing given willingly, without payment, remember? There isn’t a scorecard. It’s the practice of offering that enriches our spirit, not the outcome. Unfortunately, everything about our modern culture trains us to depend on immediate reinforcement. We’re hooked on likes, claps and our stats. We gloat over the number of our friends, subscribers, comments and shares. Deadliest of all, we compare our popularity and performance with the popularity and performance of others.

What others think about us and how the world perceives us is becoming more important than our own integrity and the authenticity and quality of our offerings. We’re forgetting how to trust and have faith in silence, in invisibility and in not knowing. We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

What about the offerings we make to ourselves? What about our ability to meet our own needs,  spiritual, physical, creative and emotional? Do we have any self to give ourselves? Do we tell ourselves there’s no time, no money and no point? Do we tell ourselves that whatever our self-expression is, it’s not worth anything, meaning we can’t sell it to someone or no one will approve of it?

Woodshed

I danced yesterday in an old woodshed that was attached to a local one-room schoolhouse more than 100 years ago. It leans and tilts. The roof leaks. The windows and doors aren’t square and the wind blows through gaps. I swept out the winter’s accumulation of mouse and bat droppings, leaves and dirt. It was a warm, sunny day and as I danced I gradually peeled off my clothes until I was naked. The sun came in the west window and made a square on the floor.

I thought of trees and stones offering their bodies to moss and lichen, the earth offering itself to plants, and blossoms offering themselves to sunlight and insects.

I thought of smiling into a stranger’s eyes and complimenting a cashier on the color of her blouse.

I thought of the creators of the music I was dancing to making an offering of their talent, enabling me to offer my dance.

I thought of homes, rooms and gardens I’ve created that are long erased. I thought of people I’ve loved with my whole heart and volunteer work I’ve done. I thought of my partner, who was running an errand in town so I could eat bacon the next morning. I thought of picking up trash on Earth Day and the new trash that’s been thrown out car windows since then, and how futile that makes me feel.

I thought about words, all these words, all these stories and ideas and thoughts in my head that are here, and on Medium, and in my books. I thought about all the words written by others that I read each day and appreciate, share, clap for or comment on.

I thought about procreation, the red tide and the milky seed our bodies offer to life, to hope, to continuance. I thought about offerings of tears, of blood, of pain, of rage and of surrender.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Offering is a circle. Life offers itself to us, and we can choose to offer ourselves to Life. What better offering can we make than our fully engaged participation and presence with ourselves, our experience and others? Such a gift can’t be bought or sold. It might not feed our fame, popularity or bank account. We probably won’t get validated by statistics or Twitter. Some people may never recognize or value it.

But our self-esteem will bloom. Our joy will increase. Our words and choices will add to the positive energy in the world. We will become self-empowered and spiritually strong and resilient.

I smiled and laughed and shouted as I danced, whirled and stamped and clapped. I offered up my white, winter-tender skin to the sun and air. A mosquito bit me on a knee; a blood offering. No one saw me, except maybe an astonished spider or two. No one cared. It was an offering of self to self, a private thing. It gave me joy. It gave my body a chance to move and be grateful. It fed my creative well.

It was nothing.

It was everything.

It was my offering.

Thank you for reading.

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

Depression and Other Unwelcome Visitors

Slowly, I’m finding online communities of writers. The most important among these is Medium, where I republish the most popular posts from this blog. As I’ve shaped Our Daily Crime, I’ve connected with other bloggers. These connections mean I spend at least an hour a day reading the work of others. I’m inspired, touched, tickled and provoked, and I feel at home in these digital communities because we all share the need to write and be read. We also share self-doubt, confusion, vulnerability, loneliness, the need for connection and the problem of earning a living.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

Over and over again, I read about personal struggles with depression, fear and anxiety. Many a writer sits down to their daily writing practice with goals and intentions and finds him or herself unable to do anything but express the here and now of their experience of ambivalence, avoidance, distraction or block. To be a writer is to occasionally live with shame and guilt about what we meant to write, what we should have written and the quality and subject of what we actually did come up with. We all doubt our ability, our value, and whether anyone will care enough to read our words. Creative expression is a daily leap of faith.

I’ve struggled all my life with depression. In more recent years, I’ve come to understand anxiety and fear are also large parts of the feeling I recognize as depression. Over the years I’ve tried to manage depression in many ways. Some worked, at least temporarily, and some didn’t.

It hasn’t been until the last decade that I’ve finally found a way to effectively manage and even largely banish depression. It doesn’t play with me anymore. Fear and anxiety still show up regularly, but the same method works to manage them, and I no longer worry that one day I’ll just give up, step over some unseen edge, and disappear into crazy, a fugue state or death.

One day, for no reason in particular except that I felt exhausted, despairing and bored with both, I said to Depression, “You win. I give up. Why not come out of the shadows and show yourself?”

Fat and happy, secure in its power, it did just that.

The first thing that I realized was that Depression is an experience, not an integral piece of me. It’s something draped around me. It can be separated from me.

The second thing I noticed was that my depression is male. He walked with an arrogant male strut and swagger and he spoke in a male voice.

I didn’t name him because he wasn’t a pet, he wasn’t a friend, and he most definitely wasn’t invited to be a roommate. He was merely someone who showed up at more or less regular intervals and made a nuisance of himself. He didn’t have the manners to knock on the door, wait to be invited or give any notice of his arrival. He just appeared.

I wondered what it would take to discourage him from visiting. What made me so attractive?

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Clinical depression is like a grey cave filled with fog. It numbs the senses and fills head and heart with cold, sticky, lumpy oatmeal. One is entirely alone with no hope. The simplest action, like opening one’s eyes, takes enormous effort. Depression envelopes and consumes every spark of power.

The only reason I’m in the world today is because I’m an unbelievably stubborn butthead. I’m also very nice. One does not cancel out the other, but nearly everyone persists in missing that important point, with the result that I’m constantly being underestimated. This is a wonderful advantage in life.

Depression was no exception to the rule. When invited, he disentangled himself from me, parked his butt in a chair I pulled out for him, and began to tell me how things were going to be from now on.

On that particular day, I hadn’t showered (or the day before that, or the day before that). Annoyed by his high-handedness, I interrupted to say I was going to shower. He told me not to. Who would care? What was the point? I wouldn’t see anyone. No one would see me.

That was all I needed. I went and took a long shower. Washed my hair. Shaved my legs. Put on clean clothes and some jewelry. Depression sat in the bathroom and muttered at me. I ignored him.

I felt better then, and my irrepressible creativity began to stir, along with a childlike streak of playfulness that I usually keep well-hidden. One small act of rebellion had helped me regain a tiny sense of power.

One of the things that used to happen when depression struck was that I stopped eating. I’d go all day with nothing but a salad and a piece of toast. I hadn’t eaten a solid meal for several days on this occasion. I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry (this is common), but I knew I needed to eat.

Depression didn’t like it. He threatened and complained and trotted out all the usual points. I was too fat. I hadn’t been doing anything useful and didn’t need to eat. I didn’t make enough money to deserve to eat.

Photo by Florencia Potter on Unsplash

I put a chair at the table for Depression (I lived alone at the time), invited him to sit, set the table for two with complete place settings, right down to two glasses of water, made myself a meal, and ate. I offered him some food, but he refused. I read while I ate and ignored Depression, who sat and sulked.

Well, you have the idea. The more he protested when I wanted to take a walk, sit in the sun or work in the garden, the more stubborn I became. I politely invited him to join me in my activities, but he refused, which meant the more I got out in the world and did things the less time I spent with him. He hated my movies and my audio books. He thought walking to Main Street for an ice cream cone was a criminal waste of money, along with feeding the birds. The only activity he approved of was my work, which involved sitting for hours in front of my computer with headphones on doing medical transcription as fast and accurately as possible for only slightly more than minimum wage.

He absolutely hated my music. I quickly developed the habit of turning on Pandora first thing every morning and listening to it most of the day.

We also conflicted over sleep. Depression said there was no point in getting up in the morning because no one would notice. No one would care. In fact, the only things really worth doing in life were working and sleeping. This attitude ensured that I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. and walked every day at dawn.

I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t fight or struggle. I made sure he had plenty of space and a good pillow in my bed. I gave him a spot at the table and a seat in front of the TV. I took out a clean towel for him and invited him to browse in my personal library.

Every single time he told me not to do something I did it, no matter how much I didn’t want to. I was pleasant, noncompliant, resistant and stubborn as a mule.

You know what?

He went away.

One day, he was just gone.

I knew I’d found the key.

Externalized, Depression suddenly became more pathetic than terrifying. He was so predictable, and so limited. All he had to say were the same things he’d been saying all my life. He was boring. He was like a batty old uncle who must be invited to every family gathering and tells the same interminable stories year in and year out.

He came back, of course, but for shorter and shorter visits at wider and wider intervals.

“Back again, I see,” I’d say. I’d set a place at the table, take out a clean towel, make space in the bed and on the couch. I’d realize I was sliding again and concentrate on eating more regularly, exercising, playing music, putting flowers on the table or maybe scheduling a massage.

I tried to have conversations with him, but Depression had no conversation, just the same tired monologue, mumbling and whining. He was really quite sad. He stopped spending the night and then gradually stopped visiting altogether.

I guess he was no longer getting what he needed from me.

Fear and anxiety are still regular visitors. Things are different here in Maine. I don’t live alone, for one thing. I still play imaginary games, but only in my head. Still, when either fear or anxiety show up, I recognize them. (Anxiety bites her fingernails; I always recognize her hands.) I don’t try to keep them away and I don’t try to hide from them.

I focus on giving them no power. I don’t buy into their catastrophizing. I appreciate that they’re trying to keep me safe, poor things. All they can do is make up terrible stories about what might happen and then sit, paralyzed by their imaginings. I know they’re wretched. I wish I could help. I try to be kind — at a distance. They usually don’t stay long.

This experience is the sort of thing I used to hide, but I realize now that my struggles are not unique. I’m inspired by the creativity, honesty and vulnerability of other writers. It seems to me that coping with depression, anxiety and fear is like figuring out how to eat. Every body is different. Everybody needs to find their own path to healing, health and sanity. At times, it’s difficult to break through social expectations and shoulds and make a complete left turn into something creative, intuitive or outside the current norms.

Still, nothing succeeds like success. Turning Depression into an externalized character helped me see I didn’t have to define myself by it. I could choose to set aside that label and all it implies. Once I truly believed I had the power to choose, everything changed.

Sometimes, running away from sudden or passing danger is appropriate. However, running from these chronic spectres that dog my heels has not worked. I can’t get away from them. I can’t avoid or evade. Being chased by anything is fearful. The moment when I stop running, turn around and deliberately go toward whatever threatens me is the moment in which I begin to regain power. Monsters suddenly become mice. My own fear and abdication of power are what made them monstrous. I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to defend. I only need to consistently and patiently demonstrate that I will give them nothing they want so they choose to leave me.

It helps when they tell me what to do.

Don’t tell me what to do!

My daily crime.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

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