Thoughts, re: emotional labor and women, and how we can proactively affirm each other’s right to take up space through our own proactive self-love.
(If you’re clear on this concept already, this post will likely seem remedial to you. Per always, I don’t see my hot take here as definitive, and welcome comment and critique, primarily from fellow femmes.)
So, rewind 10-13 years, to an earlier version of me.
I’d just chewed my way out of the patriarchal cocoon I was raised in, and was trying to wrap my brain around the concept of personal sovereignty while pushing through a blistering sense of guilt for wanting things for myself. Meanwhile, I was up to my brand-new-nose-ring in diapers, toddlers with developmental issues, and trying (with mixed success) to start a birth support business that demanded a good deal of time and physical energy.
That period of my life is hazy, to be honest. I mostly remember debilitating exhaustion, and doing nonstop heavy lifting for the emotional issues of the people around me. I’d been conditioned by culture to quietly believe that women who weren’t “helpful” or “nice” or “nurturing” in a self-sacrificial (often self-destructive) way were secretly selfish, shallow whores.
(If you’re rolling your eyes like you don’t have that problem, tell me how easy it is to step away carve out time for JUST you during the week, during which you field no calls and do nothing for anyone else while you only rest. I’ll wait.)
And I remember this: whenever I reached a snapping point, I’ll reach out to my community, giving pertinent details of my struggles, desperately trying to unsnarl the whole mess and make a plan for health. Ironically, even in this, I’d often prioritize the needs and problems of my family members, instead of my own.
In tears. Saying, “I’m about to have a breakdown” in a very non-hyperbolic way.
And then, WHOOOOOOOOSH! Fellow femmes would latch onto relatable details of my crisis, then barrage me with demands/questions (“Oh, you have bloody nipples, too?” “Can you walk me through this insurance issue?” “Could you recommend a good resource for coping with trauma?”). Almost invariably, they’d start their own emotional processing of a tangentially related situation in their own lives, and use up the paltry space I’d attempted to carve out for myself to tend to their own pressing needs. It was like one person’s honesty pried the lid off a Pandora’s box of communal anxiety, and I’d end up shouldering even more emotional labor on their behalf.
Thing is, I’m certain I’ve done the same. Also, I recognize the power of group catharsis and support as a way of healing; that’s not what I’m talking about.
This became apparent to me: these women had been every bit as unsuccessful at setting emotional boundaries in their own lives as I had been. As soon as someone was brave enough to say, “This woman-carries-everything dynamic is killing me!”, it caused an explosive chain reaction in which every overloaded woman turned out the pockets of their soul at once in desperation.
And I started to realize it’s a cultural wound.
Often, emotional heavy lifters are doing five other people’s work for them, sometimes with little or no boundaries, and then, when the time comes to cash in their community chips, we’ve been conditioned to go to other bankrupt people. (read: women) ::wince::
I realized: no one was listening well or holding real space for women, because women were at capacity. And I realized my anger wasn’t really at fellow femmes, but the fact that we’re forced to both cave to AND exploit the patriarchal social rule that says, “You can ask any woman any emotional favor at any point, and she has to be nice and do it for you. Even if she’s bleeding, literally or from the soul.”
Cringe moment: this concept crystallized for me when, around my 30th birthday, I ran crying to a black dear one when I realized I’d been a Very Lazy White Lady (re: social justice), and asked her to plz halp, OMG. Her response was, “Ash, I’m going to be honest; this is much harder for me than it is for you. You have to handle that on your own time.” Initially, scorching guilt took the front seat for a bit, and rightly so. I’d run to an exhausted, hurting person with my own fixable problems, and I was predictably mortified.
After I got over myself a little (this is a work in progress), I realized she was worlds ahead of me in the emotional responsibility game. If I was going to contribute meaningfully to my relationships, I needed to take responsibility for tending to my own needs and boundaries more; honoring my own need for processing space so I could show up whole for others.
It also meant stopping myself from hemorrhaging resource in the direction of people who aren’t building their own emotional skill through mindfulness. (I don’t want to say men :cough: But it was often men.)
Today, I’m purposing this in my own life: to tend to my own needs proactively, and to be careful who I give the emotional floor to. AND, if a fellow woman has the floor, she has the FLOOR. I will hold *space* for her when she’s having a true crisis moment, for as long as she seem to need me to. I will not ask a favor. I will not make it about me in any way, unless it’s to enrich my being there for her. I will not center my children or my spouse. I won’t exploit her vulnerability.
I will be sovereign in my own life, and try to rule it like a goddamned queen. I will set boundaries, demand that capable folks carry their own damned emotional load, be willing to watch them flounder a bit, and nurture those who can’t to the end of getting them there.
I’m evoking some heavy, ancient femme code shit here, in a deliberate, re-claiming act of saying, “Fuck that terrible, woman-exploiting rule.”
Because I love myself. And because I love women, too.