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The Privilege Paradox

2017.April.19

Everyone says if you’re a caregiver, you’re supposed to take time for yourself. If you’re stressed, you’re supposed to ask for help. If you’re hurting, you’re supposed to make sure you get what you need.

But the implicit assumption about all of that advice is probably gendered, isn’t it? Or at least reflects that the person receiving the advice is not already doing those things, or not already privileged to do them? These are responses to emotional labor, and emotional labor is gendered feminine in this Western paradigm. It is aimed at people who are socialized to always put others first and themselves last.

So what happens when the party in question is not socialized feminine? Let’s say, through flukes of bastardy and empathy, the person is a sensitive, compassionate male, who develops great need for healing from caregiving in all of those ways, but who has already over-extended the available support because his gender socializatoin has privileged him to unconsciously TAKE WHAT WAS AVAILABLE ALREADY.

Gender paradigms hurts men, but this is a rather nuanced manifestation of that harm. What happens when someone — through miracle or luck or careful learning has reached status of adult male while yet valuing the ability to cry, expression and honesty, listening to the experiences of others, and considering fairness and equality as attainable ideals — reaches his breaking point without ever quite discerning how much silent support and lack of discouragement he was receiving from others along the way? Maybe he counts himself fortunate, but just doesn’t grok the magnitude — how could he? How could anyone who hasn’t been broken by trauma ever really understand the scope of human generosity?

There are situations so intense, so enduring, that it is nigh impossible NOT to exhaust every resource that is available. In such situations, most people, however they are gendered, will take on an adrenal stance by default. If you can’t predict what’s happening for months or years at a time, you stop trying. You focus on being READY. You don’t know what for, you just know you’re going to be surprised and you’re going to have to respond quickly and effectively. It’s a survival mode. But if you’re socialized masculine, you’re less likely to realize how much you’ve received. What seems obvious to everyone else is too big to even notice.

And what happens when you come out of that long, arduous trial, and despite some progress you’re still pretty much in survival mode, and you’re trying to listen to all that advice given to emotional laborers (who are covertly gendered feminine) and you, you’re still privileged male. You’ve taken more than you’ve known, asked more than you remember asking, worn down everyone who had your back by doing things you never realized were problematic. You still think speaking with authority means you are competent; you still think if you treat people as equals they can return the favor; you still think that recognizing societal patterns about concerns of safety, judgment, bodily autonomy, competency, sanity experienced every day by people more feminine than yourself means you are above participating in them (or having them volunteered on your behalf — who has the time to demonstrate to every stranger that you’re one of the “good ones”?).

If you’re like me (and this is all me that I’m feigning hypothetical here), you speak up MORE. You ask for help MORE. You speak your pain MORE. You center your needs MORE. And to you and to people who haven’t been watching the sausage being made up-close, it looks like you’re being brave and open and taking care of your shit. You’re following advice given to all caregivers.

But to those who’ve been making your sausage so you could fix someone else’s… It waxes selfish. It grows entitled. It gets unwieldy. It becomes unsafe.

And because men are socialized to see things in rigid, discrete terms, you start to think EVERYONE ELSE is the problem.

Or if you’re aware enough to resist that kind of nonsense, then you invert it all and YOU become the worst person in the world. And that’s downright exhausting to all parties involved, because the only thing that takes up more space than a man who thinks he deserves everything is a man who thinks he deserves NOTHING.

I don’t have a solution yet. I have notions of listening more and learning through graduate school and calling on a larger, more deliberate group of friends for support (so no one person has to take on too much… theoretically…). I’m already radically shifting my relationship with digital and in-person connections (to the extent I can while also going to graduate school). I’m trying to bring yoga and mindfulness back into my life. I started laughing again recently; that’s been nice.

But at the end of the day (or at the end of an accidental online fall-apart steeped with obsessive communication expectations and a dozen or so friends patiently taking turns telling me the ways I can be unreasonable), I still gotta learn to filter. I still gotta learn to get people’s consent before I start unloading my shit on them. I still gotta stop setting down and picking up my gender when it’s convenient for maximal sympathy (because the privilege is there always). I even gotta stop framing the problem like it started with caregiving; there’s a powerful difference between a catalyst and an amplifier!

And while it’s nice to be able to (occasionally, selectively, consensually) ask really nuanced questions about how my healing interacts with the newly-mysterious greater world, I gotta learn more shit on my own, without being prompted/told/shoved in the right direction by an exasperated party.

To do that, I gotta slow down.

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2 comments

  1. What’s an adrenal stance?


    • Oh, I’m sure I’m making up a term. There’s gotta be something real, but I can’t think of it at the moment…

      What I mean is having the body primed for a fight/flight response, like adrenaline isn’t flowing yet, but it’s ready to flow at any second and any little stimuli makes it flow. Toward the end of at-home caregiving, I was actually taking “adrenal drops” on a daily basis to combat suspected “adrenal fatigue”. This was when I finally started to perceive that my brain chemistry was being permanently altered by the constant state of stress.



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