Tag Archives: relationship

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

I’ve become an Amazon affiliate on this site, which means I advertise for Amazon by directly linking books, music and DVDs to their website. If you click on a blue link naming a book, etc., a new window will open showing the product. If you buy the product via a link from this site I’ll earn a small commission.  I’m actively updating all the blog posts and pages, including my ‘Bookshelves’ page, to reflect this. Thanks for your support!

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

Dirty Laundry

Today is laundry day, and I’m sitting in the laundromat writing this week’s blog.

I’ve always liked doing laundry. Turning a bundle of dirty clothes, sheets and towels into neat, fresh-smelling folded piles gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

At present, we don’t have a usable washer at home, so part of our routine is to hit the laundromat every couple of weeks. We know it’s time when my partner runs out of socks and I run out of underwear. At that point we collect dish and bath towels, sheets and clothing and our stash of quarters and head into town.

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Sitting here, I watch a man open the mouth of a bulging cloth laundry bag and empty it into the machine. I see scrunched up socks, some more hole than sock; inside-out pant legs, whites, colors, sleeves and bandanas all tangled and mixed up together. He feeds in quarters, adds soap and sets the temperature to hot before heading back out, either to sit in his truck in the parking lot or otherwise kill time until the load is done.

I get a lot of pleasure out of the laundromat. Watching people deal with their laundry is every bit as entertaining as looking at someone’s bookshelves. Dirty laundry is a great social leveler. We all have it, and if we don’t deal with ours directly, someone else does. Our dirty laundry records the story of our lives. Our scent is imprinted on it. The presence of our pets decorates it. It remembers the day we spilled our coffee in the car, the morning the hot grease spattered and the nosebleed we had in bed. It gives away our cigarette habit and the acrid, sweaty smell of our secret copious alcohol consumption.

Two middle-aged women come in with stuffed pillowcases, a couple of plastic laundry baskets, a heavy green garbage bag and a couple of drawstring laundry bags and commandeer a whole row of machines. They work well together, efficient and brisk. Obviously, they’ve done this before. They sort lights from darks, taking care to untangle and unscrunch as they load the machines. They check pockets. One of them goes from machine to machine with soap and the other with quarters. They choose hot water for the whites and warm for the colors. I wonder if they are friends, family members or from an organization like a shelter or a boarding house. Perhaps they’re church ladies dealing with donated clothes for charity. The washing machines take 39 minutes, and then the women load up a bank of dryers. As the dryers finish, they work together to fold bedding, mate socks, and put shirts on hangers. I see no children’s clothing, only adult size. One of them says to the other they’ve spent over a hundred dollars, and I wonder how often they do this. It takes them three trips to load up a battered van with all the clean clothes, and off they go.

Photo by frank cordoba on Unsplash

Dirty laundry is a cultural artifact. Back in rural Colorado, Wranglers, snap button shirts and lots of bicycling, hiking and yoga gear slosh in the machines. Here in central rural Maine everyone wears Carhartts, long underwear and thick socks. This is a blue collar community, where farmers, heavy equipment operators, sawyers and mill workers wear the same lined heavy canvas and flannel working clothes all winter.

A worn-out looking young women with a little girl comes in. Mom loads up the washer while the little girl helps by handing her things. I see no men’s clothes in this load. They sit down at a round table, the little girl with a grubby board book she found in a basket of children’s toys in the waiting area. Mom, after checking her cell phone briefly, sits idly, now and then glancing at a TV screen on the wall where a movie I’ve never seen is playing with the sound muted.

When I came to Maine, my partner had a routine. Everything went in the same machine. Socks were permanently turned inside out, because he can’t tolerate the feel of the seams against his toes. It all got OxiClean, soap and hot water. He likes things machine dried so they’re soft.

I quailed. Half of my clothes were cold water wash. I always separated colors. I much preferred to line dry.

Negotiating The Right Way To Do Laundry is one of the many hidden landmines in every living-together relationship that no one ever talks about.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

Being old and wise about choosing our battles, we adjusted to one another. I stopped trying to turn his socks right-side-out. I learned to keep my cold water wash separate. I decided life was possible if I didn’t separate whites from colors and he decided clothes were still wearable if washed in warm water instead of hot. I line dry my things and machine dry his. I don’t waste time folding his clothes, because he prefers to keep them stacked neatly in a laundry basket that lives on the floor next to his side of the bed. I fold and roll my clothes, just as I always have, for my sock drawer, my underwear drawer, my tee shirt drawer and the closet shelf where my jeans live. We happily share the expense and the work.

A woman my age with a thick Maine accent and hair an improbable rich brown with no grey comes in with a load. She’s very short, and can’t reach the top of the big commercial washer to put in detergent. She goes to the counter and gets a step stool from the attendant. Her load is comparatively small and consists of a couple of violently flowered towels, jeans, shirts, socks and underwear, all looking as though they belong to her.

I love to sit and watch the contents of the washer go around through the porthole window. The gush of water, the frothy bubbles of soap and the rotating clothes give me a feeling of all’s-right-with-the-world comfort. In a crazy world, stained by so much hate, bloodshed and tragedy, here’s something within my power. I can do the laundry.

Watching the clothes whirl is like watching the inside of my head. Amongst a jumble of ideas, thoughts, feelings and memories, bits and pieces show themselves or claim my attention for seconds or minutes or hours or days, only to disappear as other colors and patterns come to the forefront of my mind. Now I catch a glimpse of my favorite pair of underwear, purple with turquoise spots. That’s like the brilliant scene, passionate and gripping, I want to write today as I work on my second book. Then a heavy brown sock shows itself, one of the pair I wore on the day I did Tai Chi in the church basement, sock-footed on the cold floor, reminding me that after this I’ll swim, and tomorrow is another Tai Chi day. White socks tumble by too quickly to tell if they’re mine (right-side-out) or my partner’s (inside-out). We need to run to the store. My partner did this chore last time. It’s my turn, but I don’t want to do it today. Tomorrow after Tai Chi? What’s on the grocery list? The sleeve of a plaid flannel shirt plasters itself momentarily against the window and is pushed away by the leg of a pair of heavy canvas Carhartts. Why are men’s Carhartt canvas pants size 32 x 30 a perfect fit, but the same size in denim is too big? The red cloth napkins we’ve been using flutter past.

The expression ‘airing your dirty laundry’ makes me smile. Oh, the shame of admitting feelings, anxieties, mistakes and less-than-perfection! Those unsightly yellow sweat stains under the arms of our shirts must be hidden from the eyes of the world at all costs, along with our humble granny panties, our favorite tattered and torn ancient tee shirt and the old towel the cat lies on. Whatever happens, we mustn’t confess the tangled smelly jumble we occasionally make out of our lives, or uncover our wounds and scars. We must never reveal neglected, malodorous piles of stained laundry in which our hope, innocence or self-esteem are buried.

Some people think admitting to dirty laundry is simply not nice. It lacks class. It’s impolite, and breaks the code of maintaining appearances at all costs. The Emperor is certainly wearing clothes, and they’re never dirty.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

I challenge that. Cleansing is a sacred act of courage and wisdom. If we can’t clean out our infected wounds and cleanse our spirits, our homes and yes, our laundry, our lives won’t work well. Beating, shaking, washing and airing our laundry in the sun and fresh air is an act of healing and renewal. Allowing the world to see our dirty laundry is the beginning of cleansing and repairing, the beginning of uncreasing, unscrunching and untangling the things that disempower us. Doing laundry is a spiritual practice, a reminder that we are just like everyone else, an offering to others of our authenticity and humanity.

Dirty laundry. My daily crime.

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