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I’m a mother. But my emotional labor isn’t free for the taking.


Last summer, I finalized my divorce from the father of my three children. I write about parenting and relationships, so my new marital status became public right away. Within weeks, I began receiving text messages from married men. Some of them were old friends, and others were my friends’ husbands.

“Just checking in,” they’d say, for starters.

That was innocent enough. Maybe their marriages were falling apart and they were looking to talk to someone real, like me, I thought. I knew how lonely divorce could be. If sharing my experience with someone I already considered a friend was helpful, why not?

The trouble was that the kind of conversational support I ended up doling out virtually via these casual connections — I never met any of these men in person — was actual work and better suited to a therapist’s office. Furthermore, since I had already started dating single men, I knew how easily emotional connection could turn into foreplay.

Even so, after the third or fourth married man reached out to me, I began to wonder if this was my fault. Had I given that guy the wrong impression, and the other guy, and the one over there, too?

“Divorced Woman Seduces Married Man, Ruins Everything,” I imagined the local headlines might read if I were to get involved with one of these men. But I’d done enough of my own post-divorce healing to know better than to become romantically entangled in someone else’s mess.

One afternoon, a friend who was going through divorce herself was sitting in my passenger seat when her phone rang. It was the husband of one of her friends, who was actually calling, he claimed, to talk about the weather.

“Watch out,” I warned her after she hung up, “it’s happening already.”

“What?” she asked, incredulous.

I explained: By that time, I’d heard from a deluge of married men who wanted their own needs met and assumed that I was available for the task, regardless of the cost to me, emotional or otherwise. These men didn’t need my emotional support — they were looking for an affair, and each of them had used as their entry point my willingness to listen, to be compassionate, to care for others.

One guy in particular wrote to me several times about the mundane until I finally confronted him. Was his marriage ending? I asked. If so, I told him, he needed to stop writing to me and go figure that out. This was not the sexy, ripening connection he had probably hoped for. Instead, it was more sobering, a kind of cut-the-crud parenting mandate that I might impart to one of my children if they were trying to convince me they’d emptied the dishwasher by putting away a single spoon.

“Don’t lie — go do the right thing,” I found myself saying in various ways, again and again. It was sickening to realize that I had been mothering these men, at first compassionately, and later, when it became obvious they wanted something I didn’t want, with tough love.

As the mother of three children, I’ll admit that initially, it feels natural to offer invisible, uncompensated labor as though I were handing out snack packs of empty carbs from my pantry shelves to a whole neighborhood of hungry men.

Let me be clear: this does not make me glad.

I am good at the work of being a mother, but it’s exhausting. I give my children a long emotional lead — they’re still learning, after all — but I also set boundaries with them, and I hold high expectations for the way I want them to behave. They have good manners, for one thing, and they participate in the family by completing chores around the house. I give a lot of my time and energy to my children, and I expect something from them in return. My kids aren’t taking advantage of me: they’re my children. Men, however, are not.

I don’t want to take full responsibility for this dynamic because it’s not mine alone. Still, if I accept some of the onus, it gives me the power to do something about it.

It’s one thing for people to reach out, connect and be up front and honest about what they’re looking for. Sex, free emotional labor, someone to listen. It’s quite another thing to pretend, and expect that I will pretend along with you, that giving my time and myself is just part of what I do.

I know that many men do not take advantage of women intentionally, although I have worked with many survivors of abuse who would dispute that statement. Even so, I believe most men were raised in the same culture in which I learned to take responsibility for everyone else’s well-being at the expense of my own.

If I were to strive toward valuing myself and my own time, I would protect myself by saying no immediately to situations that don’t bring me any benefit. This is a similar balance to the one I am still trying to perfect in motherhood: being available to my kids, emotionally and otherwise, without letting my own needs flail off into the ether as I trip over cat toys and carry a basket of clean laundry up the stairs.

I know that motherhood caused me to set aside much of who I was as a person when I started putting so much energy into thinking and worrying about whether I was getting things right for my kids. It’s been 12 years, and I’m still gaining back that sense of self-worth.

I noticed recently, for example, that my ex-husband has started referring to me in the third person when he’s talking to our children.

“Give your mother your backpack.”

“Ask your mother about that.”

I understand that he’s distancing himself from me, employing this impersonal term as a tonic in the wake of our painful divorce. Part of me even giggles every time he says it, because it sounds like he could be lobbing an insult or an empty, ridiculous comeback from our youth. “Oh yeah? Your mother has your soccer cleats!”

The other part of me, however, has started to recognize that this is just one more way in which I become an easily used object, rather than a proper noun. I need to remember to ask him, therefore, to revert to simply calling me “Mom,” like our children do.

When people ask me what I studied in college as a young woman, I usually mention ecofeminism, which is the study of how the exploitation of both women and nature are linked, as well as my research into the role of Tantric goddesses in Buddhism. That was a long time ago, but I hold onto a sense of pride that my younger self was pickled in bathwater with a feminist, intellectual tilt. This helps me nurture one kernel of self amid the bustle of my suburban life.

The other way I do this is to set a new mantra. I am a mother, yes. But if you are not my children, then I am not your mother, and I won’t be lured into acting like it anymore.


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