If I had readers, they might have noticed that last night I got really into a series of links educating me on the concept of “emotional labor” and ways it typifies the nuances of feminism. In the briefest terms I can imagine, “emotional labor” refers to any kind of effort given to take care of another person’s emotional well-being. Its significance to feminism is that the U.S. and most human societies socialize emotional labor as “feminine” and/or women’s work, therefor not “real” work and, coincidentally or not (ha!), un/under-paid. (Really, the articles I’ve been linking to do a much better job of explaining and you should go read them; I’m just trying to define my terms before I proceed.) The concept itself is not exactly new to me, but this succinct summation and eloquent framing go a long way toward filling some gaps in my ongoing healing; I am beginning to see the last several years as a single stream of emotional labor that wasn’t always conscious, contained, or consensual, and feel inclined to map and confront the whole mess if I’m to reinvigorate what’s left of my support system and be a more considerate human being moving forward.
The more I learn about gender roles, the more I see myself fit the pattern of female socialization, especially the aptitude and availability to provide emotional labor. Conversely, long before I started to question — and eventually denounce — masculinity whole, I only felt cursorily like a man or male. I didn’t feel like anything other than male (i.e., trans), I just wasn’t enthusiastic about what my assigned gender was supposed to say about me. To the extent that I have been able (and thanks to a long list of privileges I can name in a future post, I have had more ability than most), I just kind of wade on the banks of male-ness without ever getting out of the water.
I’ve almost always lived between worlds, able to see the subtleties of both sides (and eventually, more than two sides), granting me perspective as a superpower. But it also creates a weakness — a person who can see many things is going to be especially vulnerable to that which ze does not see; my blindspots have been few, but devastating. The more I could see myself within the greater scope of humanity, the easier it became to eschew entitlement (which I define as the active embracing or promotion of privilege as earned/deserved/appropriate), but any time I could plausibly frame my privilege as equality- or merit-based, I would do so. What was missing, even in my antipathy toward masculine, was a more-than-superficial understanding of the ways other people might defer to me in a way that is so subtly consistent that I don’t even know to question it. It takes a patient, yet vocal, friend or ally to call me on my shit (emotional skilled labor?), and yet I assumed every friend was fully aware, capable, and empowered to do so.
From November 2011-November 2015, I was a 24/7 caregiver to an elder from my life who had entered the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It felt like both an appropriate use of my skills (such as compassionate attentiveness, adaptability, generous communication) and a fitting tribute to all the ways he and his deceased wife had changed my life. I had woefully inadequate help during those years. The rest of my family, who had never bonded quite the same as I had (although there are reasons that account for certain chickens coming before certain eggs), was unwilling and/or unable to participate, and his extended family were older and strewn across the country. I leaned heavily on my Internet friends, but none of them really knew what I was going through or how to help, and most of them faded into Facebook’s arbitrary feed algorithms.
That left only my loves (and thank goodness for polyamory; if I’d only had one partner during this time, she’d have run away screaming). And let me just say that being there for a caregiver is its own special meta-caregiving Hell. It was nearly impossible for anyone (or any aggregate of someones) to give me what I needed because I was giving too much. I felt I had no choice; in turn, I gave them no choice.
So back to the flow of emotional labor: I was taking care of a sick old man who missed his wife, who developed all kinds of uncomfortable afflictions that compromised his quality of life, whose medical care was erratic due to abrupt changes in his doctor’s practice, whose family was far away and whose friends had mostly already passed, and whose mind was every day becoming more foreign and unreliable to him. I held space for him every day and let him think his thoughts and feel his feelings, setting aside my own. I held space for his siblings, who would call to check on him and write letters as they gradually lost the ability to hold any sort of dialogue with him over the phone (sometimes they’d visit; that was invariably exhausting). For a while, I tried to hold space for his old friends and associates, certain they’d miss him and call to check on him, but few did. I managed his finances and his lifestyle as he would have, including lunching out at least once a week, even as I knew he would have been embarrassed to be seen in public like that only a few years ago. I tried to maintain our shared house, willed to me since I was four but now over fifty years old, but there are no classes for pseudo-homeowners and he was in no shape to tell me all the maintenance tasks he was forgetting to do. I lived both of our lives for us.
I tried to hold space for myself, but my efforts were pretty misguided. I missed travel the most and tried to get people to come visit me (living in Texas is exhausting if you don’t get recharged by people with fresher perspectives once in a while), but visitors flaked out and the rest became high-pressure stressors/stressees due to my overwhelming expectations. I tried to maintain a link with activism, but without an active role it mostly reduced me to crying over losses and watching others celebrate the victories.
My loves held space for me. Tremulous, loving space.
Then their lives went to hell in their own right. Between the three people who stuck around until the end, there were sudden job losses, loved ones with cancer, intimate betrayal and the end of a partnership, offspring with suicidal ideations, moving to new (less than ideal) places, death of a parent, and the usual heartbreaks of politics and friendship and living in Texas. I tried to be there for them. All of them. Often at the same time. While still caregiving 24/7. And dealing with my own heartbreaks and emerging medical issues. I’d like to say we were able to hold space for one another, but that feels too clean, too simple. They held space for me, as best they could. I told them they had to let me hold space for them. I told them they should find ways to hold space for one another. I called it “survival mode”. They called me out for talking down to them with “dad voice”. I asked, “What’s that?”
Because I’d never had anyone who talked to me with that voice. I just thought I was stating the obvious.
Let me tell you, survival mode will see even the wisest and most cautious person wielding privilege like a male billionaire running for office. And if he has the superpower of perspective, he’ll see around just enough corners to have an excuse for every encroachment and never, ever see the flow of emotional labor for what it is:
And because I am attracted to caring, generous, and thoughtful people, the flow ended there. All because I failed to realize that caring, generous, thoughtful people might be that way because they were socialized feminine, and that although I behave in many of the same manners, the dynamic is rooted in women donating emotional labor to men, one of which I ultimately am, making an unchecked power dynamic — however egalitarian in mind and practice — anything but equal.
Now that my caregivee is in a home and I only caregive part-time, what we have left is a downhill flood, wherein I have to find a way to siphon off the emotional radiation I’ve fed upon my loves.
And now, thanks to these posts about emotional labor, I at least have some idea how it got this way.
This piece had major, scissor-breaking cuts of tangential information and probably didn’t come to a very satisfying conclusion; I’m going to go ahead and post it in accordance with my tenet of Imperfectionism (that saying it at all is more urgent than saying it in the best way). There may or may not be a follow-up or extended version at a later date.