Tag Archives: unconditional love

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

Boundaries 2: Furry Pickles

This is the second of I’m not sure how many blogs about boundaries.  See last week’s blog for the beginning of the discussion!

Today the aspect of boundaries I want to explore is the one I have the most trouble with.  This aspect concerns managing boundaries with people we love.

Continuing with our metaphor of food on a shelf, last week I was comfortable with my identity of strawberry jam.  I know who I am, I’m in an intact container (most of the time) and I intend to be labeled accurately and effectively.  That’s all INTRApersonal start-where-you-are work.

However, there’s other food on the shelf.  The universe doesn’t revolve around strawberry jam, alas!  In fact, next to me is a jar of dill pickles.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

We’ve been together as long as I can remember, sitting side by side on the shelf.  We’ve watched other food in other containers come and go.  The eggs in particular have quite the turnover rate.  We’re companions, friends, and in fact it’s not an exaggeration to say I love Pickles.

But one day I notice something has changed.  The clear green juice in the jar with floating bits of herbs and spices is getting cloudy.  And is that—could it possibly be—grey fur along one side of a pickle?

Disaster.  Catastrophe.  It can’t be true.  My beloved Pickles is beginning to grow fur.  Everybody on the shelf knows what this means.  Sooner or later, the refrigerator/cupboard/shelf Gods will cull Pickles.  Gone forever.

I can’t imagine my life without Pickles.

Naturally, I want to help.  No kind of food could possibly want to wear grey fur.  There must be something I can do.

If I love Pickles, I must be able to fix this.

If I really, truly love Pickles, and my love is real and unselfish and unconditional (and Pickles is worth that kind of love), there’s a way for my love to fix this.

If I fail to fix this, my love is at fault.

That, ladies and gentlemen, eggs and bacon, is where I lose my boundaries.  It’s all very clear and self-evident when it’s laid out in black type on the page, or in this case, screen.  Love can’t fix everything.  Love isn’t always enough.  Sometimes we can’t “help” other people.  Bad things happen to good people all the time.  Loss is part of love.  Right?

My brain understands this.  My brain functions pretty well.  My brain is not the problem.  It’s my heart, my emotions, my stories, my beliefs and my expectations that are unruly and stubborn.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

Perhaps I haven’t explained it well, my connection with Pickles.  I know him better than anyone.  I understand him.  He’s the most important person in my life.  He’s part of who I am.  If I lose him, I’ll lose part of myself.  I thought nothing could ever part us, or damage our respect and trust in one another.  In fact, we’re so close we don’t need boundaries.

(Naturally, he feels the same way about me.  He doesn’t say so, but one doesn’t expect pickles to emote like strawberry jam.)

Loving fully and unconditionally means no boundaries, right?  Isn’t that what we learned?  If we love unselfishly, completely, without reservation, then boundaries are unnecessary and we can count on getting that same kind of love in return.  Loving well equals being well loved.  Isn’t that the way it works?  Only a selfish bitch maintains boundaries, an unloving, cold woman, a ball breaker.  Only an indifferent, unfit mother maintains boundaries between herself and her children.  Only a judgmental, critical, power-hungry female protects herself with boundaries.  Generous, attractive, truly loving people have no need of boundaries.  They don’t count the cost.  They always say yes.  They give freely of their resources to whoever is in need without expectations or strings attached.  They never keep score.  They have no needs, these lucky, healthy, beautiful, abundant people.  They feed and nurture the world.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Boy, does this world need people like that.  That’s the kind of woman/friend/mate/mother/daughter/sister I want to be.  If I want to save Pickles, that’s the kind of person I have to be.

Here’s the thing.

I can’t be that.  I’m not sure anyone can be that.

I’m not talking about ideology here.  I’m not qualified for or interested in religious debate.  What I’m saying is that I can’t be a bottomless, endless nurturer and giver with no needs, and I’m not convinced anyone else can, either.  I know some who say they can, pretend they can and/or expect others to be, but I’ve never met anyone who really lives like that—at least not long term.  Not successfully and not happily, anyway.

But aren’t we supposed to?

Did I learn this wrong?  Did I misunderstand?  I can’t point to any one person who taught me this, after all.  Did I make it all up?  Or, alternatively, am I not the woman I think I am and aspire to be?  Am I small, mean, petty, hypocritical and selfish?  Am I unable to love the right way?  Am I a fraud?  Am I self-deluded?

Why am I in such chronic painful confusion about something my intellect sees so clearly?  Why does it seem that managing boundaries INTERpersonally carries such a negative connotation?  Why can’t I reconcile loving someone with all my heart with effective, appropriate boundaries between that person and me?  What is the source of this cognitive dissonance?

Which is more devastating—people who have no boundaries themselves and bitterly resent mine, or people who maintain boundaries between us when I have none?

In the first case I feel trapped, resentful and intruded upon, and in the second I feel hideously rejected, unappreciated and used.  Neither feel like healthy connection, but I call both love.

So here I am, side by side with Pickles on the shelf.  We look at each other through the glass sides of our boundaries.  I want to climb inside his container and take him in my arms, love him back into clear green juicy health, but if I do that I’ll start growing gray fur myself, and I know I can’t fix him at the same time I believe I should be able to.  I want to run away, turn away, not know what’s happening, but I can’t.

There’s nothing I can do.  My love is not enough.  Grey fur is creeping over Pickles and I can’t avoid it, flee it or stop it.  I can only wait and watch and sit here in my container, while Pickles sits in his.

RIP, Pickles.

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted