Tag Archives: reciprocity

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.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

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

Alchemy

Alchemy: A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination (online Oxford Dictionaries).

The Star

Emotional intelligence training opened my eyes to the power of needs in our human experience. Coming to terms with my own needs catapulted me into a new life. During the months in which I learned to navigate through my feelings, needs (click here for needs inventories), limiting beliefs and stories, I kept coming back around to the same question.

If I accept that all human beings have needs, and a right to have them met, what then do I do with my unmet needs, past and present?

We might all have a right to get our needs met, but that doesn’t mean we have a guarantee they will be met, or that we can hold anyone responsible for meeting them. We can meet some of our own needs, but not every one. Some needs require healthy connections with others, but not everyone has that. Some people don’t have a single healthy connection with another human being, let alone many, and one relationship can’t meet all our needs.

Unmet needs are devastating, make no mistake. They drive addiction, all kinds of violence and power-over behavior (like school shootings), mental and physical disease and illness, and suicide. A chronically unmet need is a nonhealing, stinking ulcer on the soul. We may hide it from others and even ourselves, but it never stops oozing blood and pus. Unmet needs can cripple and/or kill us. We can let go of some people, behavior and beliefs, but needs are intrinsic.

None of us can entirely meet another’s needs. We all have limitations of some kind, and finite resources of time and energy. Being unable to meet another’s needs is not necessarily because we’re unloving or uncaring. Most of our close relationships probably do meet some of our needs some of the time, and we meet some of their needs some of the time. It’s not black or white. It’s a continuum, a balance of reciprocity.

So, I ask again, what about our needs that just don’t get met because even our healthy connections are unable to fill them?

At that point we make choices. We can choose to:

  • Act out in some desperate, destructive or deadly way that hurts ourselves or others.
  • Blame the people around us for failing to meet our needs.
  • Blame ourselves for having needs and feeling the pain of having them unmet.
  • Deny that we need anything from anyone — ever.
  • Figure out how to neutralize the experience of unmet needs.

By neutralize, I mean accept and surrender to how painful it is to carry around a bone-deep, persistent longing for something that’s unavailable.

Acting out has never been my style. I’m also not much interested in blaming others for what goes wrong in my life. It feels like a cop-out and it disempowers me. Blaming myself — now that I’m very good at. I’ve spent years perfecting the art of self-loathing, but it’s never been helpful. Not even one time. Besides that, it hurts. I can’t pull off denial, at least not for long. I might refuse to admit certain things to someone else, but I don’t play games like that in the privacy of my own head. I have a file in my documents labeled ‘Denial File.’ Now and then I put something in that file and leave it there while I wrestle with my unwillingness to believe. When I’m ready to stop arguing with what is, I take it out and re-file it. Usually, the Denial File is empty, but I like knowing it’s there for the really tough information.

That brings me to the last choice, which leaves me standing squarely in my power. I don’t hurt myself, I don’t hurt anyone else and I get to think outside of the box — my favorite thing! What kind of alchemy transforms, creates or combines an unmet need into something beautiful?

For several months I’ve been researching outer space for my second book. I’ve compiled lists of constellations and the mythology around them. I have definitions of meteors, comets and nebulae. I’ve spent hours looking at images from space. Astounding, mysterious, vast and lovely, the universe is infinitely larger than the largest playing field I can imagine. I gulp down science fiction books and I’ve watched hours and days and weeks of Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and yes, yes, Star Wars!

I also, fairly frequently, turn up The Star card when I work with my Tarot deck. The Star symbolizes creative powers, confidence and diversity.

So, what if I create a cosmos? Great word, cosmos. It means “the universe seen as a well-ordered whole” (online Oxford Dictionaries). I’m always in favor of well-ordered, especially when I get to define it. All the pieces of my experience, including unmet needs, are part of a whole. I prefer combination and integration to amputation.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Here I am, with my unmet needs, my history, the people who have been significant in my life and a lot of passionate feelings to express and process. I’m an alchemist, a creator, and before me is a vast black nothingness.

I want stars in my cosmos, so every tear I’ve ever cried becomes a star. I fling them far and wide, like handfuls of tiny crystals. My cosmos is so vast there’s always room for more.

I want planets in my cosmos. I hang them carefully, one by one. These are the people in my life, past and present, living and dead. Some are hot planets, sere and lifeless. Others are cool and green and blue. Every cosmos needs a bloviating, bullying gas giant with heavy gravity that sucks more than its fair share of, well, everything! Rings are decorative, and spots and alien seas and strangely-shaped continents. Also, sand dunes and storms, poisonous (to us) gases, radiation, erupting volcanoes, mountain ranges and glaciers.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

How about moons? Cool and sterile or lush and verdant; I definitely want moons. I want constellations, too, and stories to go with them. Blazing meteors and trailing comets add movement. Nebulae add color and mystery. Galaxies swirl and spiral or spill like ribbons of milk against the darkness. Black holes suck. Suns supernova.

One by one, I use my unmet needs to decorate my cosmos. I turn them into color, texture, pattern, alien world, moon, star, sun, comet, meteor and nebula. I name them, animate them with feeling, polish them like jewels and set them in place. Maybe they stay in the farthest reaches of my cosmos, where I rarely visit them, or maybe I keep them closer. Perhaps my unmet needs appear from time to time in a meteor shower or a comet with a long tail, and I marvel at their beauty and mystery and remember again their taste and feel before they burn away to ash or disappear behind a planet.

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

My cosmos is my laboratory and my kitchen, illuminated by starlight. I stir and simmer over the heat of suns; chop and mix under waxing and waning moons; grind alien insects, rocks and roots for pigment and infuse gas and cosmic dust with color. I orbit, I dance from galaxy to galaxy in bare feet, combine a pinch of this with a handful of that until I float, weightless and free, in a cosmos of my own design and decoration.

Whenever the world is too much with me and I find myself staggering under burdens of unmet needs and other things I cannot release, I unlock a hidden door with the key I carry between my breasts and find star candles lit, suns asimmer, planets revolving and black holes lurking. Mortar and pestle, cauldron and crucible wait for my magical offerings as I combine, create and transform the material of my life into a complex and resplendent whole.

Alchemy. My daily crime.

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

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

Generosity

I’ve been trying to frame a blog around generosity for several months. Interestingly and unexpectedly, the idea of generosity has remained a Gordian knot in spite of word webs, notes and lengthy simmering in the back of my mind. Since I began chewing on the idea of generosity, I’ve discovered Unsplash, a site offering free use of photographs for things like this blog, and now I finally feel I’m getting a grip on the subject.

Unsplash features more than 300,000 photos from more than 50,000 contributors. It’s free to use and free to join. Users may upload photographs for whatever they want as frequently as they want.

If generosity is unconditional readiness or liberality in giving, Unsplash is surely a fine illustration of the concept. The Internet is filled with people practising their art. Some are trying to make a living. Many, like me, provide free content. Others start out contributing freely and then uplevel in order to earn a little bit of money with advertising, an Amazon affiliate program, a subscription fee, etc. In my view, some of the content out there is worth paying for, and other content is not.

Unsplash is worth paying for. Many of the photographers who contribute are professionals with content to sell, yet they continue to share some of their work freely with others.

Up to this point, I haven’t made a dime on this blog. It wasn’t about the money, but exercising my voice, my writing skills and my courage. I had no idea where it would go or what would happen with it. I had no idea if anyone would read what I wanted to write or how much I would grow to value the weekly practice of posting and maintaining a blog. I do want, however, to publish and sell my books in the future.

I think part of my struggle to get my head around generosity has been my own damaged sense of value. Those of us who feel we’re worthless assume we’ve nothing to give. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve declined attending a pot luck, a fundraiser, a party or even a funeral. I tell myself I have nothing to contribute, I was invited out of obligation or kindness, and nobody will even notice my absence.

Photo by photo-nic.co.uk nic on Unsplash

I am not Cinderella, and I do not possess a fairy godmother who will make me socially acceptable or worthy.

I wonder, looking back, if others have experienced me as being ungenerous or mean because of my lack of social contribution, when what was really at work was shyness, social anxiety and an abysmal sense of self-worth. I have no way of knowing.

On the other hand, I’ve volunteered my whole life. I’ve spent years working with children as a librarian, tutor, child development clinician, teacher’s aide, swim teacher and parent. I’ve participated in fire and rescue work as a volunteer EMT, as well as with animal rescue organizations. I’ve volunteered in libraries and as an oral storyteller, and I’ve volunteered as a dancer. I’ve worked in hospitals, nursing homes, public schools and libraries.

See? Nothing to contribute.

I earned a paycheck for some of that work, but one doesn’t get rich doing the kind of jobs I love to do, and the paycheck was never my motivation. I just loved the work. I felt as though I was making a difference in every one of those roles.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’ve always limited the idea of generosity to financial resource. Part of my shame about my poverty is that I’m unable to be financially generous, which I’ve believed automatically makes me stingy and uncharitable. If my generosity is measured by what I spend, it’s so small as to be negligible. I’m a rotten capitalist consumer.

In thinking deeply about generosity, I can see how my beliefs have distorted my view. I wrote some time ago about the failure of money, and that peeled away some of my limiting beliefs, but only the first layer or two. If I make generosity about money, I can never be generous, and I block the financial generosity of others toward me because I can’t reciprocate in kind. My desire to give is greater than my desire to receive. I desperately want to make a contribution. I feel disempowered when I can’t reciprocate someone’s generosity in a way that feels equal, and then I disconnect.

Unhooking generosity from money changes the way I look at it. Developing some trust in my own value also changes the way I think about generosity. Now I wonder if money is perhaps the least reliable indicator of generosity, not the most. Money is very visible and obvious in the world, but that doesn’t make it the most useful contribution. There have been times in my life when I’ve been in desperate need of money, but many, many more times when I’ve been in significantly more desperate need of someone to hold me, someone to believe in me, encourage me and simply love me. Money is easier to come by, believe me, than love and acceptance. Writing a check, donating a few dollars to the organization of our choice or buying a gift is easier, for many of us, than effectively communicating our love and appreciation for those around us in words or actions.

Some people give only to receive. On the face of it, it looks like generosity, but it’s not. My understanding of true generosity is that it has no hidden agenda. Conditional generosity is like conditional love; control and manipulation pretending to be something else. Behavior that seeks power over others, or is freighted with unacknowledged expectations, is the reverse of generosity.

Another way in which people use generosity to mask control is to force a “gift” onto another. In this case, someone informs us about what we need and given to understand we’d better damn well accept it and be grateful. Refusal is out of the question because of an unequal power dynamic. Acceptance of the “gift” also perpetuates an unequal power dynamic, because we’re expected to demonstrate appropriate gratitude (as defined by the gift giver) for something we didn’t want or need in the first place. We’re not allowed to express or receive what we really need, only submit to what someone else needs to give in order to get something for themselves.

A good litmus test for discerning authentic generosity is whether it occurs in anonymity. People giving to receive will never do it quietly. There’s always a camera, a video, a witness or a headline. There’s always a score card, a quid pro quo. There’s always a distorted power dynamic. Such people give to reward and withhold to punish.

You want to star in my production? Meet me on the casting couch and maybe I’ll put in a word for you.

At the end of all this excavation, I’ve finally begun to make friends with generosity. I am capable of being truly generous, and I have generous people in my life. I can discern the difference now between the real thing and a ploy to maintain or grab power. I may not have money, but I can appreciate, marvel and share. I can say thank you. I can give anonymously. I can exercise a generous compassion towards myself and others for our weaknesses and mistakes. I can recognize my desire for reciprocity and power-with as important pieces of my own integrity and freely disconnect from people and situations that don’t support what I need.

This takes me back to Unsplash. I know in this day and age it’s hard to think past the money, but as a creative person on line with free content I can assure you that no amount of money outweighs the gratification of knowing I’ve made a connection, that something I write resonates with someone else. Money is important, and I wish I had more of it. If I can uplevel the blog in small ways to earn a little bit of money, I’ll do it. The real reward, though, is when someone reaches out to me and says, “Yes! Me, too! Your words made a difference in my day.” It just doesn’t get better than that.

Because of that, I’ve developed a habit of contacting a couple of photographers every week whose work appears in this blog. Behind each photograph is someone living a life, struggling with the things we all struggle with, sharing their unique vision and eye with the world just because. Unconditionally. I go to their website, if they have one. I explore their pictures and read about who they are. I contact them and briefly introduce myself. I thank them for their collaboration with me, a collaboration that’s invisible to them unless I reach out. I express my appreciation for their contribution. It doesn’t take very long. It’s not as fast as writing a check or reciting a credit card number, but it’s a lot more fun.

So far, every single one has responded to say thank you. Thank you for acknowledging my unique creativity. Thank you for taking the time to remember the person behind the camera. Thank you for collaborating with me so we enhance one another’s contribution.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

There is no exchange of money in this generosity, only of humanity. They give freely. I accept the gift and add it to my own, paying it both forward and backward.

Generosity: Unconditional readiness or liberality in giving. A daily crime worth committing.

Please take a moment and meet photographers Jeremy Bishop and Annie Spratt.

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