Tag Archives: emotional labor

What Are You Up To?

Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.

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When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?

The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.

One thing I can say is that I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt that I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!

Another obstacle has to do with schedule shaming. When I was younger, my days were filled to the brim with emotional labor, earning a paycheck, and taking care of others. I was busy all the time. I raced from one need to the next, none of them mine.

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Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed for wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.

This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is that women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.

What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.

Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.

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The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.

I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.

I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.

Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.

When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.

But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.

I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.

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We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.

I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?

The most evil twist of all in this is that caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.

So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?

Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel that I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware that many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.

Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.

That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking. My daily crime.

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Visual Noise

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Visual noise is a term I’ve been looking for all my life. I’ve always hated shopping, even as a child. I’ve always been overstimulated and overwhelmed by too much auditory noise (is that redundant?). I’ve never liked crowds or being in crowded places. One of the most joyful experiences of my life was creating a home for just me. For five years I had complete control of visual (and other) noise in my living space.

Now, looking back through the lens of my practice of minimalism, even that home seems, in memory, crowded and visually noisy, and I’ve let go of much of what I had in that space.

For most of my life, though, I’ve lived with others, and done my best to negotiate a workable compromise between my stuff and their stuff. With adolescent boys, the problem was simple. I reminded myself it was not forever and closed their bedroom doors. Firmly. I could still hear the mutter and growl of what was behind the closed doors (and I’m not talking about the boys), but I could live with it. For a while.

With partners and husbands, my strategy has always been to take on complete responsibility for cleaning and homemaking, thereby retaining at least some control of our shared space and what was in it. Husbands got a private room of their own, like an office, that I stayed out of. I took care of the rest.

Living with someone is give and take, we all know that. I don’t mind cleaning and I love making a home, so I’m accustomed to taking responsibility for most of the housework, especially those tasks I know any given roommate cares nothing about. I’ve even come to terms with my efforts largely being ignored or invisible. I’m clear that I’m working for myself. (Thank you, self!)

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On the other hand, housework is easily dealt with and doesn’t take much time if our home is uncluttered and organized. Every single object we have requires energy, space and time for care. As the clutter builds up, so do dirt, dust, time wasted looking for things, and the burden of housework. Home becomes one more stressor to deal with rather than a haven of rest and peace.

Visual noise, like everything else, occurs on a sliding scale. My current home is much less cluttered than it was when I moved in, and I’ve pushed a camel through the eye of a needle for every bit of that improvement (improvement as defined by me, of course!). I’m still not where I want to be with it, but I’m closer. Still, I periodically feel exhausted by the struggle and apathy looms as my patience and sense of connection to what’s important in life are ground away by my constant battle with stuff.

It also means I’m chronically inhabiting a mindset I suspect many women are familiar with: Am I being ridiculous? Demanding? Controlling? Oversensitive? Unloving? Why can’t I just ignore the clutter? Why can’t I be different, or get over it? Why can’t I focus on the long list of what’s good and does work in my life?

It’s a miserable mindset, and the more I try to control myself and not feel what I feel the more resentful I get.

Ugh.

I’m well aware that not everyone struggles with this. On the other hand, I’m not making it up. Visual noise is A Thing for some people, and I’m one of them. I’d find life much easier if I wasn’t one of them, but there it is. Furthermore, we know that clutter causes stress and takes a mental toll, at least for some people.

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How do I explain my struggle to someone who doesn’t experience any problem at all with four filthy old remotes for vanished audiovisual equipment sitting on a cluttered, undusted living room shelf?

The worst thing about the whole issue is that I feel hopeless about finding a solution. Of course there are always choices. I don’t have to live in any particular place with any particular person, after all. The thing is, I don’t want to live anywhere else. I just want to have more power to control my space. Not all the power, but equal power.

Ever since I learned about needs I’ve come back to this point. If my needs conflict with the needs of someone I’m close to, whose needs get taken care of? How does that get negotiated? How do we manage power around sharing space, or raising children, or dealing with extended family over the holidays, or a depressingly long list of other life experiences when there’s a conflict of needs?

I confess I’m exhausted by the prospect of such negotiations. I already feel like I’m shouting as loudly as I can and can’t get heard. It’s a thousand times easier to suck it up, say nothing, and exercise my excellent self-control. In other words, I roll over. Yikes. I hate admitting that. In many ways I’m a stalwart warrior, and if someone demanded I roll over, I’d die before I did it. But when gentle remarks or pushes about clearing shared space gets no response, I just give up for the sake of peace. For the sake of relationship. For the sake of connection.

This is exactly like enabling. In the moment, the easiest thing to do is go with the flow. In the long term, though, I wind up resentful and burned out. The relationship suffers; I just delayed it a little. Visual noise builds and builds until it obstructs my feeling of connection with others and myself and distracts my focus and attention. I can’t hear or see anything else. I begin to feel as though I’m fighting for my life. Here’s what visual noise sounds like to me:

  • Manage me or don’t manage me. I’ll use you up either way.
  • We objects are more important than you and real life; you cannot possibly compete with us.
  • There’s no room for you; you don’t belong here.
  • You cannot escape us; you’ll be gone before we are.
  • You are powerless.

I have no answers. Perhaps the issue of visual noise is under the heading of Relationship Challenges that many of us experience and is not solvable. I wish with all my heart I could be different, and neither notice nor care about piles and shelves and cupboards of stuff.

Dealing (not very well) with visual noise. My daily crime.

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Efforts and Offerings

In 2018, I wrote about making offerings. This morning I looked at my list of possible topics for this week’s post, but realized none of them really grab me at the moment; I’ve been thinking again about making offerings.

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The reason offerings are in my mind is because I’m struggling, like so many of us, to find new routines and priorities without expiring from boredom, losing my mind, or allowing futility to paralyze me. It occurred to me, as I did my daily wipe down of our kitchen with bleach wipes while the bacon was cooking this morning, to think about what seems like endless disinfecting as an offering, or perhaps even a prayer, for my loved ones and for all of us on the planet.

As I go about my days, fear for my loved ones, near and far, dogs me. I know it’s not useful. I know watching what’s happening in Montana, Colorado and New York, as well as here in Maine, is not helping them. But what do we do with our love for others, near and far, during times like these?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who already feels that they never want to clean, wipe or disinfect anything ever again. I’m sure I’m not the only one marveling at how many thousands of things we touch a day (including ourselves) and feeling overwhelmed with trying to avoid this tiny, invisible, persistent, deadly virus.

While I cleaned the counters with the smell of bleach in my nose, while I rubbed away at the fridge, the freezer, the washing machine, the microwave, the toaster oven, the coffeepot and the teakettle, I imagined millions of people all over the world at home, at work, in hospitals, in businesses, doing the same thing, day after day. I imagined all of those people with fearful and heavy hearts for their loved ones, doing their best, taking whatever steps they can for themselves and those around them, day after day.

Later, after breakfast, I disinfected surfaces in the bathroom, another new daily chore. Then I came up to my attic aerie and here, too, I will wipe down every surface I can with bleach wipes before I go to work.

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At work, though only staff have used the pool for the last couple of weeks, I will don gloves and pitch in to do our daily disinfecting of chairs, benches, handles and knobs, light switches, soap and hand sanitizer dispensers, keyboards, telephones, counters, desks, chairs, fans, remote controls, pens, handicapped door buttons . . . We did that yesterday. We’ll do it today. It will be done tomorrow.

Is there any point? Is it helping? Will it keep us and those around us well?

So many questions, and no answers.

I know some people can shrug and say whatever will be will be. I recognize the truth in that, but I can’t not try. I must do what I can, even with no guarantee it’s useful, even without support from others (emotional labor, anyone?), even though I myself sometimes wonder why I’m working so hard. It’s simply what I can do.

And I’m not alone. There are people in Montana, New York and Colorado, people just like me, perhaps with loved ones in Maine (!), who are making their best effort, dogged, determined, and putting one foot in front of another. Or perhaps I should say disinfecting one thing after another, washing their hands, and social distancing. They undoubtedly are asking the same questions: Is there any point? Is it helping? Will it keep us and those around us well?

So, today, as my choice is to once again disinfect surfaces here at home and this afternoon at work, wash my hands over and over again, and social distance from my partner, my friends, my colleagues and strangers, I’m allowing myself to dwell on my loved ones as I disinfect and wash and distance, to remember their faces; to pray for their safety and health; to love them as hard as I want to; to cry, even.

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Perhaps even in the moment I’m washing my hands in Maine someone in Montana is washing hers, thereby sparing my asthmatic adult son. Perhaps in the moment I’m social distancing in the line in the grocery store, another person is staying six feet away from someone I love in Colorado.

Let my fear be an offering, and my tears. Let my work be an offering. Let my chapped hands and the smell of bleach and disinfectant be an offering. Let my love, my reverence for the cycles of life and death, my faith and my hope be an offering. Let my self-care be an offering. Let my willingness to do whatever it takes be an offering.

May you and your loved ones be well.

Disinfecting surfaces. Washing my hands. Social distancing. My daily crimes.

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