Tag Archives: emotional labor

Whose Need?

I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?

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The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.

I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.

Ironically, I realize now that by far my greatest failure in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover that accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.

This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.

The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another—a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide.

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Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.

As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.

I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.

Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!

The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is that there’s no recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.

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I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.

As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?

As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again—that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?

Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume that others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.

Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs along with the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.

Asking “Whose need is this?” My daily crime.

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Late Harvest

What does it mean to make a home? I wonder if it means something different to everyone, or if we have a common vision.

All my adult life homemaking has been a top priority, not so much for myself, but for others. Creating home has been my labor of love and one of my greatest contributions to relationship. Few things give me as much satisfaction as establishing a place of peace, beauty, security and clean, well-ordered efficiency in which to relax, play, share life and be intimate. In the past I didn’t count the cost in emotional labor, physical labor, time or energy. I didn’t expect reciprocity. I only wanted to be allowed to make the offering of a home.

It never occurred to me the enormous gift of creating a home would be largely invisible and mostly unappreciated.

My disillusionment was gradual. I realized one day that cleaning the bathroom meant nothing to those I was sharing it with. It gave me a lot of satisfaction, but was rarely even noticed by others. That was the first time I grasped that I wasn’t going to get thanked or validated for cleaning. If I wanted to clean, I needed to make sure I was doing it for myself and have no expectations that anyone else would pay attention.

I was on my own with the cleaning thing.

I was also on my own in evaluating a new home for ease of maintenance and housekeeping as well as suitability for pets and kids. I was the one who thought about clotheslines and their proximity to laundry facilities; flooring in entryways, bathrooms and kitchens; and outside and inside wood storage for the woodstove. I was the one who thought about how to deal with trash and recycling and where to put the litter box and store the dog food.

Not every woman is a natural homemaker. I think many perform as such because nobody else will and the culture expects it of them. I’ve always loved that kind of work, even knowing it’s unpaid and undervalued in the larger world. I assumed, in my innocence, that homemaking was an investment in a healthy and happy family, and that was the only payback I needed.

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The thing about being young is that we can’t imagine how decades of unappreciated and invisible work and support grind us down and polish a thick shell of cynicism. It turns out I did want some degree of appreciation and acknowledgement from my family for making a home. I couldn’t pull off the perfect wife/mother/housekeeping role with a clean white apron and endlessly abundant nurture, energy, patience, organization and efficiency with no return. I especially couldn’t do it while working outside the home, going to school and single parenting.

Fulfilling cultural expectations turned out not to be very fulfilling, after all.

Eventually I found myself alone. Children grown and gone, a file folder labeled ‘Divorce’, and freedom to make a home solely for myself at last. Complete and total control. Bliss! I had a wonderful time giving myself exactly the kind of home I’d always dreamed of. All my efforts were on my own behalf. I didn’t care what anyone else thought and I didn’t need anyone to appreciate the home I made for myself. Housekeeping was uncomplicated, easy and filled with joy.

I concluded that homemaking wasn’t, after all, a gift, a talent or an adequate offering. It didn’t translate as a declaration of love, support and commitment. My loved ones didn’t value my contribution. It was a meaningless use of my time and energy and put me in the vulnerable position of looking for validation and appreciation from others.

I felt like a fool, and it made me bitter. I promised myself that never again would I try to make a home for anyone but myself.

I never imagined, even as a teenager, that anyone would make a home for me. I wasn’t that naïve!

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Here in the tarnished and somber season of late fall and lengthening nights an amazing thing has happened.

I noticed it when I began coming home in the dark after work. My partner leaves lights on for me so I can easily negotiate backing into the driveway and navigate the steep cellar stairs. When I open the door at the top of the steps and enter the kitchen, the dishes are done. The house is warm and the wood stove glowing in the living room. The cat is fed. The kitchen smells of beef stew, chicken soup or baking.

Home. My home, but this time not created solely by me for someone else. This home is a collaboration, and it’s incomplete without me. I’m not invisible. My presence has worth. After all these years, all the meals and baking, all the housework and candles and welcoming lights in windows, the clean clothes, the fresh beds, the cared-for animals, the countless cords of wood for various stoves, all that invisible and unnoticed love, I’m reaping a late harvest.

Someone makes a home for me now, and waits for me to return, not to maintain it but to be part of it.

At the end of my workday, I’m actually at the end of my workday. I don’t have to unload the car, fumble my way into a dark house, turn on lights, get the woodstove going, make a meal, take care of pets and/or kids and/or adults, shut curtains and lock doors. My partner doesn’t meet me at the door with roses, wine and sweet talk. He gives me far more enduring and authentic gifts of a place and relationship to come home to. I discover those offerings are every bit as worthy as I imagined when I was a newly-married 21-year-old. All my work over the years was real. It was valuable. It was loving and important. It was a beautiful contribution. The fact that no one noticed or appreciated the home I made for them did not, after all, define the value of my intention.

I suppose it’s just one of life’s little ironies that now, at this late date when I’ve completely given up expectations and fantasies that others will perceive homemaking as an expression of love worthy of acknowledgement, someone in my life finally gives back to me what I’ve given in such abundance to others.

It’s a late harvest, but well worth the wait.

Being welcomed home. My daily crime.

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

Behind the Shield

Four years ago someone said to me “women and children should be behind the shield.” The impact of that statement was like a kick in the gut. I was shocked by the way the words made me feel; a tidal wave of fury, grief and despair. It was so overwhelming I didn’t poke at it right away, but ever since then I’ve been playing around with the idea of shields, my version of circling around a potentially dangerous object with twitching tail and ears pricked, curious but wary.

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A shield is a piece of personal armor used to actively intercept specific attacks. Traditionally, shields varied in size, shape and thickness and were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. Shields have probably been around as long as we have.

A shield implies protection.

I think my initial reaction to the phrase “behind the shield” was painful because of my fierce, primitive longing for the kind of protection and safety that image implies to me. I’ve always been hypervigilant and concerned with identifying safe places. I know where the exits are, physical and emotional. I maintain bolt holes, if-the-sky-falls plans and a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency.

Because my own anxiety and fear have been such sources of private and mostly hidden anguish, I’m extremely sensitive to others who suffer in the same ways, either specifically or generally. In the days when I was doing volunteer fire and rescue work, I frequently took the role of lying on the highway in the glass, spilled gas and ruins of a vehicle calming and reassuring a trapped victim, monitoring a pulse if I could get to a pulse point, explaining what was happening as we tried to extricate, establishing responsiveness and orientation and taking a history while the fire department deconstructed the car around us and the EMTs and paramedics passed me pressure bandages, a blanket or anything else that was needed and we had room to use.

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In short, I give others, animals and human, the kind of calm reassurance and protection I’ve always craved myself.

It might be this longing is buried within all of us, a kind of deep and primitive desire to return to the ultimate safety of the womb or a longing for the in-arms experience every baby needs and has a right to receive. Except that the womb is not always safe, and many of us do not get sufficient in-arms experience as babies. It might be that I’m uniquely broken in this, but I doubt it. I suspect much of our irrational and destructive behavior has to do with trying to feel safe, sheltered and loved, including sexual and behavioral acting out and addiction.

In any event, my desperation to be shielded motivated me to become a willing shield for others. This adaptation was greatly assisted by being female and then further strengthened when I became a mother.

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I never thought of myself as a shield. It never occurred to me such a role was a choice. I defined myself as a protector, a nurterer, a figure of maternal and female strength, a life-giver and a peace maker. I thought of myself as a good woman. I automatically placed myself between the inconvenient, frustrating, dangerous, tedious and harsh edges of the world and those I loved. I protected my husbands and partners from the necessity to deal with anyone else’s needs (including my own) and threats to their egos (including me). I protected my sons from the immaturity and selfishness of my husbands and partners. I tried to protect people from their mental and physical pain, from the consequences of their choices, from their own feelings and from any other irritation, hurt or harm.

Shields were originally made to protect from specific kinds of attack, but I tried to shield others from all kinds of danger: blade, arrow, blunt weapon, words, pain, consequences, inconvenience, feelings and worry. I was determined to be a perfect shield for all my loved ones.

Predictably, I failed, and nobody likes a shield that fails. I regularly heard about my inadequacy.

No one ever suggested to me that I protect myself, and no one invited me behind their shield, even for a rest. I approached every relationship with a craving to be taken care of, to be held, to be loved. I believed in romance and part of romance certainly included being taken behind the shield of some kind, competent man. If you’re thinking this was needy and dangerous behavior, you’re right. Somehow, I always ended up with one more person in my life I needed to shield, instead of the other way around.

The inability to trust and the craving to be protected and cared for can tear a woman apart. I’m certain there have been people in my life over the years who wanted to give me safety and security, but I refused to let anyone get that close. I don’t want to rely on anyone. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. At the same time, I’ve spent much of my life working happily with children, animals, in hospice and as a first responder.

For a long time I thought if I could get a good enough job and earn or save enough money I’d be safe, but I was wrong about that. We live well below the poverty line, but I feel safer now than during any other time in my life. I’m also less concerned about money than I’ve ever been before. Money is not safety. I also thought if I could just find the right home I’d be safe. I found the right home and discovered that wasn’t the solution, either. Wrong again.

Since I came to Maine, everything has changed. Now I live in a situation that does not require constant emotional labor. I live with an adult who does not need or expect me to protect him. I have found reciprocal relationships.

This morning, as I went about my daily breakfast routine, it occurred to me that I’m no longer looking for a shield to crawl behind. The need for safety doesn’t drive me now. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by safety. What is the threat I’m trying to protect myself from? Aging? Poverty? Being unloved? Abuse? Getting my feelings hurt? A blow to my pride? Abandonment? Betrayal? Internet trolls? Loneliness? Crazy people with guns? Illness? Death?

Yes. All these and more. And most of these have already happened, some more than once, or are happening right now.

In spite of that, I’m okay. I’m better than okay. I’m great. I’m resilient. I believe in my ability to survive and thrive. I don’t mind aging and I’m not afraid of death. I’m emotionally intelligent and I understand power dynamics. I’m as safe as anyone, and a lot safer than millions.

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I have my own shield now. I made it (without knowing what I was doing) out of dragonfly wings, cobwebs, stardust and the sound of bats flitting around my head in the dusky barn on their way out to hunt. I made it out of integrity, passion, dance, laughter, creativity, ritual and spirit. There’s room behind my shield for others to rest, breathe and make shields for themselves, but I’m not spending my days searching for those in need of such a shelter. I can’t make a shield for you or even my most beloved to carry. I can’t keep everyone or anyone safe. I can’t shelter the world.

The only person in charge of my safety is me. The only person I have a responsibility to keep safe is me.

I am not a shield. I don’t have to take the blows or go to war. I don’t have to buffer, neutralize or ameliorate the experience of life for others. I don’t have to prostitute and beg in order to be dragged behind someone else’s shield. I made exactly what I need for myself, and no one can take it away from me.

Knowing I have what I need, I’m no longer approaching interactions with others from such desperation to be cared for. I still don’t like to ask for help, but I’m practicing doing it anyway. I’m much better at taking care of myself and no longer put the needs of others before my own. I’ve developed useful coping mechanisms that help me feel safe.

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We all construct shields emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally and with our choices. None of them really protect us from our fears or the experience of life. There is no way to shield against generalized fear and anxiety. It’s counterintuitive, but the best path I’ve found to feeling safer and more secure is to drop my armor and open my arms to my fears. I don’t know why that works, but it does. Monsters are ten times larger when I’m running away from them. When I run toward them they shrink before my eyes, and sometimes they even run away from me. That’s why I build my shield from things like iridescent hummingbird feathers and milkweed fluff. It won’t stop a harsh word or a bullet, but I carry with me joy, wonder, awe, mystery and beauty. My shield is a story of love and a story about what makes life worth living. It reminds me to stand tall and unafraid, looking life in the eye, confident in my ability to endure, heal, laugh and learn.

From behind the shield: My daily crime.

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