It’s been a busy summer and my extended family, as well as my nuclear family, have had a lot going on. Two of my sisters, my niece, and my great-nephew have moved to Michigan. It’s really fun having more family in the state, but it was also really stressful getting everyone here and settled. Because of the way we were raised—alcoholic father, prescription drug addict mother, never any money—my siblings and I learned to depend on each other and help each other out.
Culturally, the United States is unique in the world. It is seen as strange, or at least remarked upon, if you live with extended family members. In other countries of the world, it is completely expected that several generations, or siblings, cousins, etc. might live together. Because Americans culturally value independence so much, boundaries are discussed differently than they would be in another culture. And boundaries are something I’ve struggled with, first with my parents and their problems, and now with my family and close friends when they encounter challenges and I want to help.
I’ve read a lot of self-help books. Not so much recently, but very frequently throughout my life. My niece ordered a book about personal boundaries on amazon and it came and it was a teeny tiny book that fit in the palm of her hand. We both laughed so hard. Talk about a metaphor. These books, as well as a lot of literature, have been very helpful throughout my journey to be happier, healthier, and a better parent. But some of the way these books talk about boundaries are not nuanced, and in reality, sometimes make no sense. A situation I have heard about frequently is when an aging parent falls ill. And one or two siblings end up doing the bulk of the work. Even if they confront the other siblings who aren’t doing their part, does that mean that the others can stop physically care-taking for their ill parent? You can certain problem solve and negotiate boundaries and try to get relief in this situation, but boundaries are more tricky than just saying no. In some families, this is no-brainer. Of course you drop everything to take care of an ill parent. But what if that parent has been abusive to you? What if another sibling consistently was favored while you were growing up? What if that parent is not a particularly pleasant person to be around? (And I won’t even go down the rabbit hole of those family members who don’t want to do any of the work of caring for an elderly ill parent, but they want want to tell the people who are doing the work exactly what they are doing wrong.)
You have to think about the consequences of saying no to a “family obligation.” And also, perhaps even more importantly, the consequences of saying yes. We can’t just reflexively say yes or no. Instead, we have to think about this use of our time, the impact on our finances (if applicable), the impact on relationships, and the emotional work that will be involved in saying yes or no to the “obligation.”
I am starting to read more and more mainstream articles about emotional work (a concept that was labeled in the late 70s) and emotional labor that people (primarily women) do in our society. It has been such relief to have all of this labor I have done throughout my life named. I don’t believe it is any way truly valued—our society values only things that contribute to the GDP and very rarely values things (education, art, family events) that make life more pleasant to live, or people’s minds a more pleasant to be. I believe families value emotional work, but because this is somewhat new to everyone’s vernacular, people don’t always recognize the emotional work that’s being done in families, and its importance. (I am focusing on emotional work in families, but most assuredly, emotional work and emotional labor are done and needed in the workplace as well.) Emotional work in families can include:
- Showing affection
- Making sure the home and the family runs smoothly
- “Family making”—planning birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversary parties
- Offering supporting to family members (taking them to doctors’ appointments, cooking meals, listening, helping with chores, financial support)
- Addressing and communicating challenges or problems in intimate relationships
- Communication surrounding family events
If you ask any person who has ever done this kind of labor in a family, they will tell you how difficult and draining it is. How exactly to word the email, or steer the conversation. Which two people cannot be invited to the same family event. Everyone’s food allergies and preferences. Making work phone calls and sending work emails while in the waiting room of hospitals or hospices. Cooking dinner while sending emails to the kid’s school. This work is brutal and relentless even when it is rewarding. This is just a blog post, so I don’t have room to go into the general bias that women are programmed to do this work, and they see their mothers doing it, and how unfair it is that things aren’t more balanced between some spouses.
Emotional work and boundaries are entwined concepts. And I don’t have a perfect answer for anyone dealing with the challenges of boundaries. I think it is something that many parents and family members need to think about more. And I’m offering kudos to all the parents and family members doing emotional work right now. It is important, and it helps make the world a brighter and softer place, even if it isn’t always appreciated or recognized.