labor of love

Labor of Love: Work, Heinzelmännchen, Love

The first Monday in September is Labor Day here in the US. It was always the last blush of summer before school started when I was growing up. Now the kids go back to school in August, which is a crime against nature as far as I am concerned. Labor Day originated as a national holiday in 1894, designed to honor and appreciate the efforts and the contribution of the working class who, in the words of the founder of the American Federation of Labor, “from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” 

Although our family was not exactly working class, our dad had many sweaty jobs up until our adolescence, and I always felt an affinity and identification with work. When I started college in 1973, Cesar Chaves had just begun organizing the United Farm Workers. Picketing the local Safeway Store, marching and chanting the iceberg lettuce and grape boycotts was the weekly Saturday morning social event throughout my first year. I loved it.

I started washing the neighbors’ cars for $2.00 or babysitting for 50 cents an hour before I reached my teens, and by the time I was fourteen, I had my own little housecleaning business, where I amassed the small fortune that would eventually put me through school. In those days, the University of California tuition was $234.00 a quarter, so $1,000.00 would cover at least the tuition part of a year.

Like many a child of neglect, although the relationship was in most ways beyond me, I was a star in the sphere of work. I could out-effort pretty much anyone, and was just OCD enough to maintain an impeccable standard. Of course, those rich people whose mansions I cleaned loved me, and whatever the job, I took great pride in being the best I could be. Years later, I came across an antique-style framed sign in a little collectible shop that said in bold letters, Work Hard and Be Nice. I bought it, and some 25 years later, it is still prominently displayed in my bathroom. Words to live by.

labor of love

Like many a child of neglect, although the relationship was in most ways beyond me, I was a star in the sphere of work. I could out-effort pretty much anyone, and was just OCD enough to maintain an impeccable standard.


When we were quite young, we had a little book, a German folk tale called Die Heinzelmännchen. I don’t remember the story. The heinzelmännchen were little elf-life creatures who crept in stealthily and silently in the night, and the inhabitants of the house woke up to perfect and immaculate order. The männchen left no trace of themselves, only their exquisite handiwork. Like invisible angels, they created pleasure, joy, and calm. They became my role models.

I was already invisible. I barely existed in anyone’s eyes or minds. But to make spotless order my silent signature and find a way to please and help my mom gave me some sort of convoluted mission or identity. And our mom being calm was better for all of us. She seemed to get agitated and irritable when things were messy or in disarray. Modeling myself after die heinzelmännchen gave me some semblance of self, even if it could be humiliating and devaluing at times as well. 

Of course, as I got older, clearly it was not enough. Especially as I got with the times and gained some sort of a feminist sensibility. Time wears on, and the child of neglect may wonder or not even realize they are wondering or experimenting with the idea of being more. Or, at the very least, getting tired or angry. Invisibility is like an old shoe: comfortable, practical, lacking in any kind of aesthetic, but who cares anyway? That is ever the question. And when the ceaseless “efforting” becomes increasingly tinged with resentment, the old shoe may turn to tatters, and worn-out lost or discarded relationships become a growing trash pile of lonely failure. 

But how else to be in a relationship without earning a spot with ceaseless and often unsolicited service? It is probably too dangerous to attempt to find out. I remember bitterly believing that anger is the luxury of the popular girls. They did not have to worry about not being liked if they showed a snarky or even unintended unsavory tone. The rest of us had to be on our toes all the time unless we bowed out of the relationship world and disappeared into work altogether, which I sometimes did – at least after I could no longer rely on alcohol to blur the morass of complex feelings.

Long story short, the neglect experience teaches there is no attachment without it being earned, bought, coerced, or somehow bartered. Often the “deals” are unspoken; that is, the unwitting “other” does not know that they are assumed to be in a transaction by accepting the gift, whatever it may be. If the “deal” is in my head, but you never signed on for it, when the bill comes due – well, oy vey! 

Work is a place to hide, perhaps to excel, and feel a modicum of value, even if I am never “good enough.”

labor of love


At a certain point in recovery, being the tireless workhorse is no longer enough. The question may begin to arise: is there another way to be loved? There may even be a point where we become literally too tired or unable to keep up with it all. Then is it back full circle to the original desolate, helpless neglect we began with? The choices may seem bleak. 

I always say there is but one non-negotiable in mate selection, at whatever age, and even in our choice of friends: find people who are willing and committed to work on a relationship through the lifespan, and we will be OK. We will most likely need to! (Humiliating at times when we reach some of the riper ages like mine!) Perhaps, however, we can ultimately even relax the storm of productivity and over-productivity and enjoy the fruits of our labor and the blessings of regulated connection, which should be everyone’s birthright.

I love the old union songs. One of my faves is Pete Seeger singing “Who’s Side Are You On…” I would have chosen that as today’s song were it not for its dated exclusive language. The words are “whose side are you on boys?” I didn’t want that. 

Anyway, for those who live in a Labor Day observing country, I hope you can rest with a picnic, or a good book, whatever is your respite, and ultimately find love without working so hard, which may be the work of a lifetime. It seems to be for me, but that is OK. And Viva La Huelga!

Today’s Song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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