Emotional Labor Misconceptions

In the face of involuntary childlessness, grief and recovery

How am I going to live THIS life in THIS world?

It’s one of the questions that has adhered itself to every aspect of my being since stopping fertility treatments three years ago. It’s a question that has become only more throbbing as I make my way back out into the world and initiate my life rebuilding process. It’s a question that is unavoidable. And how could it not be? My experiences trying to conceive, the physical absence of my children and our loss of parenthood colors everything.

I’m not alone in this. When one has come through and out of the wanting of parenthood in any way shape or form, finding themselves on the other side of their dream or pursuit or hard work without the desired children in tow, we are all in some version of a related boat.

Thoughts, feelings and instincts on this question percolate in our systems. We organically, if not subconsciously, become silent, unseen coping skill factories, working overtime to generate a new life that makes sense to us, a new social normal and perhaps most of all, self-preservation.

I was recently made more consciously aware of part of my process when I read Cathy’s latest post, Are You Doing More Than Your Fair Share of Emotional Labor? over at Slow Swimmers and Fried Eggs (Thanks, Cathy!). Realizations rising to the surface were of course prompted by the writing and investigating of fellow infertility survivors because where else would they come from? There’s no context out in the wider world acknowledging the plight forward for those of us who wanted children but couldn’t have them, even most if not all infertility support groups are tone-deaf towards this journey.

Loribeth over at The Road Less Traveled answered with another wonderful post on the subject of emotional labor, complete with a spot on list of unreciprocated ways childless people are expected to participate in the lives of parents.

Emotional labor has a few angles to its definition, however Marguerite Deslauriers, professor of philosophy at McGill University, describes it as “being attentive to the small things and the inner lives of others”. (Find the full article and radio interview here). It also includes the things we do to support people emotionally, the willingness and effort to enter into another’s world view, the ability to acknowledge another person’s pain and attentiveness shown to another person’s experience. These things can be conveyed in language, gesture or action.

Well. My, my, my. Kindling for my neurotransmitters, in spite of the current limited blood flow to my head (stupid dysautonomia). I started to think back, back over that silent process of cultivated survival I’ve been going through. But oh where to begin??? Especially on a topic that alone could fill a book.

As the months and then years unfolded after our tenth and final fertility treatment, I noticed, often on a daily basis, the abyss of, shall I politely say, social inequities, that exist when one is involuntarily childless.

There was the unabashed lack of empathy and acknowledgement from many of my fellow humans that I had lost anything at all, and comments of all sorts from presumptions about all of my “free time” to the high-flying fun lives of those without children to the staple choir that never fails to chime in on adoption. But the missing awareness that losing one’s children upon coming out of four years of fertility treatments is hardly a game of Candy Land was only the beginning.

As I slowly, gingerly made my way back into the world again it was clear that while my losses would be dismissed at worst, and utterly unwoven into the fabric of general conversation at best, I was expected to participate emotionally in the experience of parenthood. The general social expectation of me as a woman is that I will acknowledge and empathize with other people’s pregnancies, and their parenting stresses and “problems” (“problems” I’d l mostly love to have by the way) as well as openly adoring babies and taking an interest in children and grandchildren I don’t even know. Talk about a land mine of PTSD triggers.

And the social expectations placed on society in terms of caregiving and companioning those grieving the loss of their children, parenthood and grandparenthood while trying to re-acclimate to a life they didn’t chose? Essentially nothing.

In my closer relationships I began to experience disconnect. I often felt half there, half not there in conversations that were full of things that had nothing to do with my current life and my process and what I needed to talk with people about. I found there just wasn’t room for me in most conversations, it was either remain silent or force my way in at the risk of being shut down. It seemed few people were aware that the grief process I was in required a whole other level of personhood than the survival of the fertility treatments I had just come out of. Though people are justified in talking about their physical children from now until eternity, I often felt there had been a silent and judgmental time stamp placed on my experiences, my experiences that are no less valid than parenthood and will affect me for the rest of my life.

This next part throws me, to be quite honest. I also began to consistently experience along the way people really enjoying conversations with me – conversations where I felt unseen, unheard and got absolutely nothing out of. Conversations where I would get into my car after and breathe a sigh of relief for the presence of my solitude. It occurred so often I wondered what it was. The whole thing feels lousy, finding conversations excruciating that the other person enjoys, or claims to enjoy on some level. It makes me feel mean. It made me question my sincerity. But I know there’s not much awry with me on either of these levels. Fortunately I bounced this off a wise friend and I paraphrase her sound perspective: ‘You’re meeting them where they are at, but they aren’t meeting you where you are at. Our (child free not by choice) experiences have thrust us to some pretty intense and far-reaching internal places. A lot of people haven’t been where we’ve been. So when you have conversations like that, it’s that you’ve been where the other person has been so you can connect with them. They haven’t been where you’ve been, and when people haven’t been where you’ve been, they can’t see you. They are getting something from you, but they just can’t see you.’  I also think that the fact I’ve connected deeply with my own pain has something to do with it. This experience has brought me closer to myself and my own humanity, which, like it or not, facilitates an easeful connection to others.

It didn’t take long to notice that with people on all levels I wasn’t getting what I needed. Many just didn’t want to hear me, those who were willing could typically handle only small, childish doses of my reality. Very few people could or would connect with me and meet me where I was at. I felt lucky and grateful for those in my life who did. But I had to face the following realities: 1) All of the above constantly runs the risk of culminating into a bastion of exhaustion and dissatisfaction with human interaction 2) All of the above are impediments to the healing process on some level and 3) There will be little to no effort from the other side to level the playing field. Some just don’t want to, many lack the experience, context and empathy to be able to. What am I going to do? Or back to my original question, given the lack of socially expected emotional labor for the involuntarily childless, How am I going to live this life in this world?

Or, as Cathy put it in her post “If the expectation is women need to be excessively nurturing as well as we need to support and look after their children and their tired parents, what happens when one needs to look after themselves in the form of radical self-care?”

So glad we both asked! In thinking about it, these are my silently acquired coping mechanisms to deal with the lack of emotional labor from others on all levels, the necessary boundaries set in place to allow healing, my honest answers to how I currently live this life in this world.

  1. In spite of the lack of support systems available for involuntarily childless infertility survivors, I make concerted efforts to form associations and friendships with those who have similar experiences.
  2. When I have to spend extended amounts of time around people who, though they may be nice, don’t “get it” and can’t fully imbibe or entertain my reality, I make sure to schedule a Skype session with a member of my like-minded tribe at some point in the near future.
  3. If all aspects of my life and self can’t flow naturally in and out of conversation, I limit the amount of time and energy I spend on these situations.
  4. If I find myself frequently in the position of having to explain and justify myself, my life, my feelings, in the presence of people who do not intuit and therefore need every last thing explained to them, I know I’m in the presence of people who are not connecting and accepting. I limit the amount of time and energy I spend in these situations.
  5. I do not ask about other people’s children or grandchildren unless that person has consistently earned my trust and taken an interest in my life and plight. I don’t ask about other people’s children or grandchildren until I am sure they respect the pain of my losses. Not even when people friend me on FB – I know the expectation in reconnecting with people from my past lives is that I will ask how their kids are, or acknowledge that they had a baby. I don’t. They need to acknowledge my losses (which are pretty obvious from my FB feed) first.
  6. I rarely acknowledge people’s pregnancies, online or in person.
  7. I don’t coddle the average and expected experiences of parenthood – forseen typical expenses, fussy toddlers, adolescence, teaching a kid how to drive, empty nests, etc. If someone can’t see these are problems I’ve given everything to have, and that I’m clearly the wrong audience for such things, they haven’t done the minimal emotional labor necessary to meet experiences like mine. Comments about it “being nice to get away from the kids” are always met with an eye roll and silence from me. Those of us who have to be away from our kids for our whole lives deserve consideration in the human conversation too.
  8. Since my needs are often not met in the outside world, I try to give myself as much I can – love, respect, acknowledgement of my grieving and healing milestones and rites of passage. Patience, compassion, understanding. Allowance for flaws and set backs, space for everything. Especially self-expression. My actions in these departments are clumsy and imperfect, but so important.
  9. I prioritize my participation in life affirming, healing things that don’t have to involve humans – gardening, music, yoga, writing.

This is what works for me now.  Some of these things will shift as my healing process allows. A healing process which, due to the lack of emotional labor from others takes longer than it has to. And of course common sense dictates there are plenty of exceptions to the above list. It’s the mindless, presumptuous and often inconsiderate social interactions that take place around parenthood as well as expectations of silence and conformity for those who couldn’t have children that I renounce.

And I know, I know to those who are not informed about the experience of walking through life post trauma with a societally unacknowledged loss, these lines may be judged as harsh, controlling, petty and cold. They are not. They fall under the realms of vigilant self-care and self-respect. The fact is if I meet social expectations as they currently stand today, I will violate my emotional and spiritual well-being, impede my healing process and drain my energy. The current prejudicial social expectations, from the view of someone who went through repeated failed fertility treatments and wanted children but couldn’t have them, are both harmful and unreasonable. They require, demand even, that survivors of human reproductive traumas in the face of very real pain involve themselves in that which they worked so hard for but can’t have, expose themselves to triggers and immerse themselves in those things that resemble the very losses they are grieving.

In addition to the obviously necessary self-preservation, I’m also one who is for putting yourself where you are needed. And the fact of the matter is, we collectively don’t need more people giggling, drooling and cooing over pregnancies, fawning over babies and providing exaggerated laments to those predictable challenges of parenthood. The world has got plenty of people who can participate in such things without putting themselves in harm’s way. So yeah, we’ve already got her. We’ve got that one. At least a billion times over.

Though much has yet to take shape, I’ve been visited by the strong sense for a while now that because of my experiences I will have my own brand of things to offer people. Recently one of my old flute students got in touch with me via Facebook. In her mid twenties now, she acknowledged our infertility, said she was sorry for my losses and wished me the best (Yes Virginia, it CAN be done!!). Music to my eyes. She also let me know that her Mom had passed from cancer a few years back. And it hit me, since I aspire to become a grief counselor anyway, what a great support I’d be to adolescents and young adults who have lost a parent. Having lost something irreplaceable myself, I’d be able to get them in way that someone with a couple of easily conceived children couldn’t (unless the person had lost a parent young themselves). If I put my energy into feeding the social expectations that currently exist, I won’t grow into the person I’m capable of becoming. Social expectation doesn’t know my potential. Social expectation is oblivious to what the world and people really need. So people can keep connecting over pregnancies and babies and parenthood stuff, that’s fine but it doesn’t mean I have to. Especially in a world that is in no way shape or form expected to companion MY grieving process, facilitate my healing process, nurture my rebuilding process and honor my physical, emotional and spiritual needs. I may not be able to swoon over people’s pregnancies in the way I’m expected to (after all, I’ve taken over 1,000 needles and have had 15 catheters rammed into my uterus and nobody kisses my ass), but I was recently able to be there for another mid twenty something. She had surprisingly gotten pregnant on the pill, and miscarried just days after she found out. I gladly gave her my ear, my heart and platitude free speech one night at a party for as long as she needed. I want young people to know that talking about these things heals and that they have every right to expect care and compassion from their fellow humans during such a time. And that the seemingly maniacal emotions they feel during such a time are normal and valid.  Most importantly, I want them to know the occurrence of reproductive trauma in one’s life in no way relates to their worthiness as human. My compass pulls me to where I’m needed.

And funny enough, the three questions Ms. Deslauries suggests for evaluating emotional labor that comes from social expectations are below. So for me, in terms of tending to the needs of the reproductively privileged and parenthood in general –

  1. Does it need to be done? Uh, no.
  2. Is this work that I really need to be doing? Hell no.
  3. Are there not other people who can contribute? There are masses of them. Masses, I tell you!

Well then, there it is.

Ms. Deslauriers explains that when we’re traumatized, “we need people around us who are attentive emotionally.”

And there it is again. We all have the right to place ourselves around that which we need to heal, and limit our expenditures of time and energy with that which clearly truncates the process.

It is now I need to drop another hard truth (no quittin’ while I’m behind!). Reciprocity from people with children to those who wanted them is necessary. And it’s a step in the right direction. But in it isn’t enough. Especially in the early years of the loss. Truth is, one person talking about their living children in the face of another sharing the loss of theirs is not a reasonable exchange. So not only are the inequities of the current aforementioned social expectations unreasonable and potentially harmful, it is actually the opposite that is sometimes needed.

I also need to point out here that people without children – people who didn’t want them or were ambivalent about parenthood – fall short in the emotional labor department too. I’ve been in plenty of conversations where the unwillingness to entertain my full reality is all too awkward. Receiving specific re-direction, as I often have, when I mention my grieving process – “No, I mean how is the REST of your life….”, leaves threads of snottiness hanging in the air, as if I’m a Stop and Shop where you just get to pick what you like off the shelves and leave the rest. Often conversations where people take a pointed interest in my other activities and non grief aspects of my life are in fact ensconced in the vapor of aversion.

All life altering traumatic losses need and deserve space. And respect. They need the unconditional hearts of people who are not concerned with what they are getting back. Some people are in a place in their lives and with themselves where they can give this, others are not (and that’s ok). I never took my friend’s sharing of every part of her shattered life and process through it over the untimely death of her husband as an open invitation to mindlessly and incessantly yip yap about my living one. In order to keep breathing, let alone heal, people need a space that is as full of honor and free from triggers as possible. I try to provide this to people whenever I can. It is an imperfect humble offering, but I consider it to be the most important thing I attempt as a human.

When in the possession of something the person sitting across from us lost, be it children or anything else, listen to them. Accept their pain and their process, knowing that yours, if you were in that situation, would be similar. There is of course extra emotional labor involved, but the dividends received from their wisdom, the wisdom of a person who has been pushed to places you haven’t, are so enriching.

I’ve been fortunate to have such people in my life, people who go above and beyond in the emotional labor department. They have been instrumental in my healing. My next post will be one of emotional labor and social expectation vignettes of all kinds and I look forward to highlighting their sweet deeds there. People who take a consistent interest in my process, who regularly include it in the conversation and who are able to perceive that experiences such as mine innately have an affect on a person’s being that is both profound and far reaching. People who accept both the limitations and and areas of richness my experiences render, people who take my “package deal” as it is. People who know what I need, even sometimes, and who don’t need every little thing explained to them because they feel and sense and intuit and empathize. People who are willing to put their parenthood aside to some extent, ready to follow my healing and my lead as to what I’m ready and not ready for, wherever it may go. People who know that some experiences fundamentally change us, alter our cores, people who meet me where I’m at anyway.

Emotional labor is a way of signaling to someone else that they are important. Ms. Deslauriers points out that social expectations are learned young, and she does not believe they are biological. She says it all boils down to expectation – people in certain situations don’t do acts of emotional labor because they are not trained to do them, it is not expected of them and therefore they don’t notice they aren’t doing it. Not only are there no social expectations in caring for childless people, our social expectations placed on people in modern society to respect, honor and abide with another’s pain and grieving process are also abysmally low.

Her suggestion to the person in “power” – in this case it would be the person who is currently not grieving an untimely life altering traumatic loss, or the person who has what the other lost – is to ask oneself these questions:

What’s it like to be the other person?
What would it require for me to do what they are asking?

Grand Designs/RUSH//A to B, Different degrees/So much style without substance/So much stuff without style/It’s hard to recognize the real thing/It comes along once in awhile/Like a rare and precious metal/Beneath a ton of rock/It takes some time and trouble to separate from the stalk/You sometimes have to listen to a lot of useless talk/Shapes and forms//Against the norm/Against the run of the mill/Swimming against the stream/Life in two dimensions is a mass production scheme//So much poison in power/The principles get left out/So much mind on the matter/The spirit gets forgotten about/Like a righteous inspiration/Overlooked in haste/Like a teardrop in the ocean/A diamond in the waste/Some world-views are spacious/And some are merely spaced//Against the run of the mill/Static as it seems/We break the surface tension with our wild kinetic dreams//Curves and lines/Of grand designs



17 thoughts on “Emotional Labor Misconceptions

  • I will keep sharing your posts because they are spot on. Thank you so much for your insight! You are helping to educate the fertile population and empower the infertile population.

  • I am so grateful to have found your blog. I have really been wrestling with finding a new identity outside of being a mother, and also struggling with ’emotional labor’, which I didn’t have a word for until I read this post. THANK YOU for speaking truth, and for emboldening those of us who have lost our children and the family we thought we’d always have forever. If you ever write a book someday I will be the first to purchase it!

    • Cool, I’ll be starting the book soon:-). I was going to start it this winter but I got sick so yeah, more obstacles….just what every infertility survivor needs!

      It is a struggle – both identity issues and emotional labor. I’ve found putting my new capacities to use while owning and not apologizing for my limits to be quite the challenge. Our situation turns the intention to be authentic into an Olympic sport.

  • Great post – from a learning to survive perspective but also from a sociological perspective. I’m studying sociology at the moment & it is interesting applying what I’m learning to living through infertility. 😊

    • Thanks for your comment. I can only imagine and am interested to know more about your sociology/living through infertility observations.

      I didn’t realize I was even interested in sociology until experiencing infertility and involuntary childlessness. The subject matter and experiences majorly intersect, that’s for sure!

      • They really do intersect. I’m doing a Sociology of Health paper this year which I think will be interesting. In one of my papers last year I wrote an essay on perinatal grief, was interesting to see not many feminist studies have been done around it.
        I think it would be interesting to research the gender inequalities in infertility treatment and infertility research (medical research).

  • Once again you have put words to my thoughts and feelings that I was unable to articulate. Thank you!! These two sentences in particular stood out to me:

    1) “There was the unabashed lack of empathy and acknowledgement from many of my fellow humans that I had lost anything at all, and comments of all sorts from presumptions about all of my “free time” to the high-flying fun lives of those without children to the staple choir that never fails to chime in on adoption.”


    2) “I was expected to participate emotionally in the experience of parenthood.”

    Yes yes yes, so much yes.

    I feel like my life has completely changed over the last couple of years. I just got tired of so many people’s crap. I realized I didn’t have to keep putting myself in these uncomfortable, often painful, situations. So I stopped. And I am happier than I’ve been in 5 years. I had lunch with an old friend yesterday and she said she could really tell a difference in me. Thank you, Sarah, for being such an important part of my journey and part of the reason why I am who I am today. Life is good.

    • I’m honored:-)

      So glad you found a way to cope that is proving effective. I think most of us have a lot of false starts in this department. These social expectations are so ingrained, and so against the grain of what many of us need, that it takes awhile for it to occur that even though it may be hard and require some sacrifice, we don’t have to constantly sign up for social inequities that demand we be quiet and blend in to the wall paper.

  • Thank you for this post that really hits the nail on the head. I’ve printed it and will keep it handy for the people who struggle with the distance I need.

    I’ve found it therapeutic to dive into (low-budget) solo traveling as a way to literally get away from this crap.

    I use Couchsurfing to find other female solo travelers to hang out with in my destination. Since they’re also traveling solo, they are usually in a similar boat or else having children just isn’t on their radar and we can put that issue aside. (personally, I don’t use Couchsurfing to find a place to stay,but only to meet up with locals or fellow travelers)

    There are great resources online for anyone interested:

    • It’s so interesting to hear the different ways people have of moving forward in their lives and coping, or as you so perfectly put it “to literally get away from this crap”! Thanks for the resource list and wishing you many fulfilling future adventures.

      I quite enjoy the idea of you offering my material in print form to unsuspecting folks. Let me know how THAT goes:-)

  • This was so well written. I love the steps you take to better navigate the world. I also get the impression there is little place in the world for people with infertility not by choice. It is something so rarely spoken about. The really good friends are the ones who have empathy and let you talk about how you really feel and where you don’t have to just put on a brave face all the time but can take off the mask.

    • Yes! Being in the presence of those who don’t expect or demand a mask is the most healing thing.

      Glad you liked my world navigation points – I keep them open for revision and base them on the questions “What do I need? (and how can I get it!)” and “What best serves me now?”

  • Thank you so much for this post. I’ve got so used to thinking of my struggles and anger at dealing with the emotional labour expected of me in relation to other people’s children/pregnancies, while at the same time dealing with my own grief, as a horrible personal failing on my part, . It’s wonderful to be able to see it as my (unconscious!) way of noting that I need to be looking after myself, and perhaps asking for something back and some kind of equality in relationships. Thank you.

    • You. Are. Welcome! I see the failure as a societal one, a failure of the greater collective to include our experience as that which needs to be acknowledged, nurtured, cared for. The failure is definitely not yours. For us to go through our grief and forced upon us transformations alone while tending to the needs of people with children is not a humane, reasonable expectation.

  • Jody Day retweeted this article and, though I’d read many of your other posts, somehow I missed this one which was, for me, your all-time best (and that’s really saying something!) You put into words my dilemma on awakening every morning, “How do I co-exist all day with “mommy mania” at work, in the neighborhood, in the media and even at the supermarket checkout stand, without going stark raving mad?” I have a few good friends who are parents, and we legitimately care about each other as whole persons. But the rest of parented society that I encounter acts so badly (greedy for acknowledgement that’s super painful and draining for me to give while giving nothing but hurtful dismissal in return). Thank you so much for writing this.

    • Kathy, thank you (and it was nice of Jody to retweet as well:-). Comments like yours keep me writing, and, you’ve motivated me to revisit this post. “…greedy for acknowledgement that’s super painful and draining for me to give while giving nothing but hurtful dismissal in return” is a most perfect description of the situation. Thank goodness for those few friendships with parents where we all relate to each other as whole people.

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