Emotional Labor and the Executive-Dysfunctional Mom

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Two years ago, fairly early in my run here on GeekMom, I posted a story called “House of Chaos: Surviving Family ADHD.” It’s still all true, except that, a year later, I did get officially diagnosed with ADHD. It is a funny thing about labels, the way they can legitimize an experience. Suddenly past experiences make sense in a new light. And suddenly you start reading up on things you thought you knew about, discovering things you already, subconsciously, knew.

One thing I read was a book by one of those “medical gurus,” Dr. Daniel G. Amen, whose “revolutionary programs” can be taken with a grain of salt; but what I found most interesting were the brain scans that led him to develop his theories in the first place. Most enlightening: that the parts of the brain that control concentration obviously light up with activity when neurotypical people, well, concentrate. But when people with ADHD try to focus, the brain concentration center suddenly shuts down. The very act of trying to concentrate makes it impossible to concentrate.

This sounds logically ridiculous, but I recognized the truth in this immediately, as a relatively intelligent person with a history of concentration issues. I remembered being in school, bewildered by the concept of “studying.” What? I just learned things, by listening or reading. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t have to think about it. I said, “oh, that’s interesting,” and into my brain it went. But as soon as I was asked to focus on learning, to read a passage over and over without any specific goal, my brain couldn’t stand for it and out the window it went.

At some point in high school I realized that, although I usually got straight “A”s, I wasn’t, actually, a “good student.” I was just coasting through on my ability to regurgitate facts (in “easy” classes) and my love of writing (in the advanced, report/project-heavy classes). If I didn’t get an A it was usually, ironically, in the easy classes, because they relied more heavily on busywork homework, which I tended to forget about. I breezed through every academic subject until I hit 10th grade geometry. The procedures refused to simply root themselves in my head the way everything else in school had done. I wasn’t interested in it. My teacher wasn’t interesting. I complained that she spoke in a “monoclip,” which is like a monotone but faster and more high-pitched, and I absolutely could not pay attention to her. My math grade dropped like a rock, and as soon as I had enough math credits to graduate, I dropped math class.

Dr. Amen’s brain scans? They simply showed me that I hadn’t been being hyperbolic (HAHAH geometry pun) about my geometry teacher. I very literally COULD NOT pay attention in that class. No matter how hard I tried—especially not the harder I tried—my brain would not let me pay attention. I’d just never really had to try before, so no one knew I couldn’t.

My husband was diagnosed with ADHD as a child because he was too hyperactive to sit still in class. Our son was diagnosed with ADHD at age 6 after being referred to counseling for emotional regulation issues. Our daughter is a clear case of classic ADHD, and we knew it from birth—noisy, bouncy, scatterbrained, with a photographic memory of useless things and a faulty working memory of immediate concerns. But she’s now the only one of us who hasn’t been officially diagnosed. She’s well-behaved at school. She likes learning, so it comes easily to her. Every so often she makes stupid mistakes—skipping questions on tests, repeatedly spelling a corrected word wrong. Her teacher points out that the inside of her desk is a disaster area and her work is messy and disorganized. But since her work is still above average, none of these things raise any concerns among her teachers. You only really notice the problem if she misses a day of school, and has to make up her schoolwork as homework. A couple pages of homework? No problem. A full day’s work plus homework for homework? She shuts down. She forgets everything she’s learned. She needs to be talked through each step of each question, and even still she’ll merely guess until she hits the right answer.

Again, it’s a case of the very act of trying to concentrate making her unable to concentrate. But will her teachers call for an IEP meeting? Not likely. Not any time soon. Most of the time she’s just fine.

Just like I was as a child.

I’m not okay
though if you ask
I’ll say
I am
because I pull myself together
I smile, I laugh, I sing
I cook, I eat
I hug and say I love you
I go through the backpacks and take-home folders and
remember to sign things
I pay the bills
I get where I need to go
But then you notice the cracks and say
Why don’t you pick up after yourself?
Why have you let yourself go?
If you would
Try to
lose some weight
exercise a little more
make the kids behave
(no, MAKE them)
get her hair brushed
get YOUR hair brushed
make them make their beds
make YOUR bed
watch what you’re wearing
watch what they’re wearing
do the dishes from the start
organize your time better
leave a little earlier
make those phone calls
communicate better
pay attention to your surroundings
don’t leave things lying around
go to bed on time
tell us what you need
If you would
put in a
Good to know
that’s all I need to do
put in
If only I hadn’t used up all my Effort

I wrote this poem just before my official diagnosis, and when my psychologist read it, she said, “You’ve been struggling with this all your life without even knowing why.”

When I was a kid, I could daydream without consequence. My parents, my teachers, made my schedules, and I just popped out of my fog in reaction to whatever they asked. Sure, learning multiplication facts was torture (but isn’t it for everybody?) and I froze up on timed quizzes (but I knew the answers as anyone could see when I wasn’t rushed) and I couldn’t remember homework for anything, but nobody’s perfect. In college, I had to start watching out for my own feeding and cleaning, but life was still fairly scheduled, and I was surrounded by friends, whose own schedules helped shape my own. Sure, I still had no idea how to study and occasionally classes required me to do so (but they weren’t necessary for my major so I didn’t care so much), and it should be noted that the one semester I spent roommate-less was the semester one had to wade through the accumulation of Stuff on my floor (okay, I’m a slob). As a working adult, I lived just fine in my own disorganized way, though my attempts at teaching met with failure, as I noted in the “House of Chaos” article.

Time and again my executive functions would ram me into little walls, but eventually I’d climb them or change directions, and I’d get by, though always sensing there was something wrong with me. Must just be lazy, I told myself.

When I got married, I had to make a household with someone with his own executive function issues. He’s bad at keeping neat, also, but he comes from a household that put a high priority on cleanliness, so he’ll get frustrated, even angry, about mess. Suddenly not-being-my-completely-slobby-self is added to the things-I-need-to-think-about list. We both went through a lot of painful job changes in our early marriage, which added to the list. Plus, he has a common co-morbid disorder of ADHD that I don’t: dysgraphia (the output-related branch of dyslexia), so I take over his resumes and job applications, as well as the household accounting, because I’m the only one who can do it.

Then kids. One more person whose needs must be kept track of, a Highly Sensitive Person with quite picky needs at that. And he was just two years old when we added yet another person with her own individual needs, one of them in direct opposition to my own introverted needs for quiet time: she’s attention craving.

On top of that, I’m super-empathic and have serious boundary issues. So look, once upon a time I had only me to attempt to wrestle into order. Now I have four people’s needs and schedules to balance. I’ve hit the proverbial wall and I’m a mess.

“But you didn’t use to be like this,” my husband said. “Not when I met you. Not when we were first married.”

“Aye, there’s the rub,” I said. “I was. I could just handle it back then.”

A few months ago I found a Facebook group for Moms with ADHD, which is a very dangerous thing, because if you give a bunch of attention deficient people a way to waste time, they will waste an awful lot of it. But it’s also a good thing, because finally, we think to ourselves and say to each other, finally somebody understands, somebody knows, somebody admits they do the exact same ridiculous blunders and struggle with the exact same ridiculous things. “How many of you were first diagnosed with ADHD only when your child was diagnosed?” someone asked once. The response was overwhelmingly most of us. We all had similar stories. We were well-behaved kids who did well enough in school that no one cared about our occasional stupid mistakes or bad habits, adulthood totally threw us off and we made a mess of one thing after another, we developed depression or anxiety problems sooner or later and we dealt with neverending “why don’t you just…?” suggestions from friends and relations and women’s magazines and society, and then in our reading and discussions with psychologists in effort to help our children it all suddenly clicked. This is what has been happening in my own head all along. Someone posted a link to this article, which offered actual evidence of everything we’d already discovered among ourselves.

It’s just like my daughter and her homework. The more we have to tackle, the less likely we are to accomplish any of it. When motherhood hit, we couldn’t fake it anymore.

It’s this thing called “emotional labor.” You’ve probably heard people talk about it, about how, even in an age where dads increasingly “help out” (note the connotation there) with household chores and child rearing, moms are still the ones holding the household together. I love the skits and comics, like this one, that attempt to illustrate this. They make me want to say, “YES! This is the thing! This is why I am struggling!” Except… the women in these examples accomplish it. Their emotional labor is invisible, because they succeed in cleaning up after everyone, getting everyone to their destinations on time, paying the bills before the collection calls start pouring in. I don’t do those things, so how can I talk?

The difference between me and the woman clearing the table in the comic linked above is that I’ll start clearing the table, pick up the towel and head to the laundry, notice the laundry needs done, say, “Well, there’s something else to do,” then feel sad, then look around and see the vegetables and put as many of those away as I can, then I’ll sit down and check Twitter, feeling like I’ve really accomplished something, and I will have completely forgotten about the table. As we speak, I have been writing this, getting distracted, deciding to get up and fold laundry, thinking of something else to type, coming back to type it, and then forgetting that I’d been folding laundry. Now I’m sitting wondering if I should get back to the laundry. Meanwhile, neither the writing nor the laundry is actually getting done, because I can’t decide which I should be doing.

When I wake up in the morning, I might be thinking about one thing I have to accomplish when I get out of bed—say, what I’ll wear. But before I get up, I’ll remember something else—a note I have to write for a teacher, something about school lunches, something about work. And suddenly I find myself still lying in bed ten minutes later, watching these thoughts tumble over each other, unable to move because I’ve forgotten what I originally meant to be doing.

Prioritizing all these tasks and issues is the real bane of my executive functions. Instead of doing them all as they come up, I freeze up, instead, just like my daughter facing a pile of make-up homework. The more I have to keep up with, the more my brain shuts down.

I did my best writing on this article sitting at my parents’ house during some downtime on Easter, and I’m pretty sure it’s because, at that moment, I didn’t have anything else I ought to have been doing. I didn’t have a kitchen to clean or appointments to make or other projects to tackle. I didn’t have anything else haunting the edges of my brain, drawing away my focus.

I’m starting to understand exactly why it’s been so hard for me to pursue my own writing career since I’ve had children. I shouldn’t compare myself to other people who manage to write novels while raising children while cooking and homeschooling and working outside the house. My brain is different from theirs. I spend my life perpetually overwhelmed right now because their brains are wired to handle it, and mine is wired to, well, not.

It would have been nice to have known this about my brain sooner, as a child, so I could have built up habits and strategies to help me stay organized instead of writing myself off as a failure of an adult. I wonder, now, what I can do to help my daughter learn to really handle her neurodivergent brain, even if the school doesn’t yet think she has a “problem,” so that when life doesn’t let her simply bumble through anymore, she’ll be equipped to deal with it.

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4 thoughts on “Emotional Labor and the Executive-Dysfunctional Mom

  1. I wonder sometimes if I’m on the spectrum or ADHD undiagnosed. I often joke that Laura Numeroff could write a book about me like her mouse getting the cookie. If I go to fold the laundry, I notice there are papers on the couch. When I go to file the papers, I notice that some are bills that need to be paid. When I go to find the checkbook, I realize the drawer is a mess. While cleaning out the drawer, I find a bottle opener that goes in the kitchen. When I get into the kitchen, I realize the dishes need washed. While washing the dishes, the hot water reminds me that I need to shower. When I get to the shower, I see that the bathroom is filthy. While cleaning the bathroom, I put a towel in the dirty laundry. When I see the overflowing hamper, I realize I need an empty basket to carry the dirty laundry to the basement. When I look for an empty basket…I realize I need to fold the laundry.

    I also skated by in school. I was classified as “gifted” because I spontaneously started reading at age three and was a bookworm by age 4. So additional expectations were placed on me in school. I managed to handle it – and like you, when I got to 10th grade geometry, I suddenly couldn’t. Research papers in Accelerated English were also a problem. I would ace mainstream “regular” English, but I would bounce back and forth between the two, unable to work with the index cards and systems that the well-meaning teachers would force us into to write research papers in Accelerated. I was called lazy, disorganized, and accused of just not trying.

    I don’t know if I have a diagnosis yet. When my daughter was diagnosed with sensory issues, her OT looked straight at me and said, “I’m pretty sure you have it too. I see it in you as well.” But nothing official. I still wonder though. Not sure that at this point (I’m 41 after all) it would do any good other than validate why life is so hard, why I’m not successful, why the bills and laundry tend to pile up. But I’m curious, anyway.

  2. HI Amy – thanks for a great article. I’m doing research for a 1-hour tele-class I’m teaching next April on ADHD and Emotional Labor. I’d like an opportunity to speak with you, if you’re up for it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the relatiopnship between EL and ADHD and really appreciated what you wrote, “Their emotional labor is invisible, because they succeed in cleaning up after everyone, getting everyone to their destinations on time, paying the bills before the collection calls start pouring in. I don’t do those things, so how can I talk?” I think you CAN talk, and I’d love to listen.

    Thanks for your consideration – call anytime!
    Regina Lark
    Los Angeles, CA

  3. Crap. It really DOES run in the family! But I feel like mine has gotten worse over the last year or so. Is that possible? Also, pretty sure Maddie is me.

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