Set Emotional Boundaries, And Take Them Seriously. I only heard the term “emotional boundary” a few years ago, but I wish someone taught me this term when I was a kid. People with a great amount of power get to set all the emotional boundaries they want, and people respect them.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Mangino.
Kate Mangino, PhD is a gender expert and professional facilitator who works with international non-profit organizations to promote positive social change. She has written and delivered curricula in over 20 countries about issues such as: gender equality, women’s empowerment, healthy masculinity, HIV prevention, and early and forced childhood marriage. She brings her lens of gender and social change to her debut book, Equal Partners, which addresses household gender inequality in the United States and offers practical advice as to what each of us can do to rewrite gender norms.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I am a proud buckeye — born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. My childhood home consisted of my mom, dad, younger brother, and cat. My father did far more than most men of his generation; more than most men from even my generation. He was not my mother’s helper. He did lots of caregiving for me and my brother, and he was the “softie” in the family — a natural nurturer. He did the meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooked dinner every night of the week. My parents role-modeled a home very close to parity, and it was only after I moved out and went to college that I learned that my experience was atypical.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I would actually like to mention a book that had an impact more recently — Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein literally changed the way I thought about how we should talk to women and girls about consensual sex. It changed the way I parent my kids, and the way I talk to other parent-friends about their kids. Girls and Sex demonstrated how powerful nonfiction can be. It gave me the confidence that maybe I could produce something that will help others in a similar way.”
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am a professional facilitator/trainer — that’s my “day job” apart from writing. I’ve learned to be myself when I am facilitating, and I have learned to be honest about what I do not know. But I had to learn the hard way.
Years ago, one of my first facilitating jobs was to work for a women’s empowerment program in Nairobi, Kenya. At 31, I was the youngest on the team. I don’t think I was particularly difficult or egotistical, but I was eager to prove my worth to my colleagues. And I certainly didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know something. So, when I was assigned a session on advocacy, even though I had no idea what I was doing, I did not ask for help — I just worked in isolation and put together what I thought was a good session.
I was wrong. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do know that the participants were not impressed. I was trying to explain a concept I myself didn’t fully understand. And instead of being honest and saying, “I don’t know,” when a tough question was asked, I tried to cobble together an answer. The participants could see right through me, and I had lost all credibility with those women. Finally, lunch break came — and one by one they filtered out of the room, making comments under their breath about how bad the morning had gone.
I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do, or how to react. I wanted to run, but I knew that in one short hour they’d be back in the room, and I had to continue.
I looked up, and while everyone else had deserted the sinking ship, my Ghanaian colleague Lucy was still standing at the back of the room. She gave me an empathetic smile and said, “Oh that was very bad. Come here.” I sort of zombie-walked into her arms, and she gave me a giant hug. Then she said quite sternly, “we have one hour to clean up this mess. Let us get started.”
In that hour she reviewed my afternoon agenda with me, volunteered to explain the sessions that I was unsure of, and explained that it is always better to say, “I don’t know,” than to make something up in front of the group. She told me to relax and just be myself. “They don’t like you, because they don’t know who you are. But I know who you are, and I like you. So just — relax. Be yourself. Stop pretending to be the expert.”
I followed her advice. And the afternoon wasn’t perfect, but it was better. And the next day was better than that. And by the end of the week, I had earned back the participants’ trust and could even laugh about my worst day of facilitating ever. Never again have I ever tried to speak about something of which I know nothing about, or make up an answer in front of a group. To this day I am still 100% comfortable saying, “that is a great question — and I don’t have the answer right now. But give me some time to do some research, and I’ll get back to you later.”
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
Sustainable social change happens when two things occur at once. You need structural change from the top-down (e.g., laws, policies and regulations) and you need social change from the bottom-up. Policies are great, but without a culture of change to implement those policies, you won’t have sustainable change.
I’ll give you an example. Congress is working on paid caregiving for all, so that any American, regardless of their job, could take paid time-off to doing caregiving work: the birth or adoption of a child, to care for the sick, to care for an aging parent. But to accompany that policy, we also require a cultural shift that encourages men to actually take advantage of that policy. We can’t label men who take caregiving leave as “lazy” or “not dedicated.” We need leaders and colleagues to value men in caregiving roles enough to ensure men feel confident taking that leave.
I have huge regard for policy makers and advocates, who focus their efforts on the top-down piece. But my work is focused on the bottom-up part. Yes — structural change is important. But so is social change. And the beauty of social change is that we can start today. While we might have to wait for Congress or our state legislatures to change policies, we can begin to change our culture immediately.
That is what Equal Partners is about. I want people to understand that social change is up to us — each one of us. I want to give readers the information (stories, statistics, data) to better understand gender inequality and the negative ramifications it has for all people — not just women. And I want to give readers ideas about what they can do to make a change in their own life. That is why the book is full of discussion questions and reflection boxes. I want readers to not only understand inequality academically; I want us to translate understanding into action.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are so many that I don’t know if I could say this is the most interesting, but I will tell you one of my favorites. And let me preface this by explaining that the middle section of my book is filled with stories from a group of men whom I refer to as the “EP40” — forty men who already live as equal partners in their homes. In other words, the EP40 share equally in the physical and cognitive labor with their spouse/partner. I chose to identify and interview these men to answer several questions: Where do they come from? What motivates them? How do they make equal partnerships work? And what lessons do they have for raising the next generation of boys?
(Cognitive labor is the “unseen,” non-physical work required in the home: anticipating needs, managing calendars, making decisions, planning activities, etc. Cognitive labor is similar to project management work professionally, and anyone who is their home’s cognitive laborer knows it.)
I am going to tell you about Chase*, because I think his story helps me demonstrate a key finding — that the EP40 don’t think they’re giving anything up. They’re not making a sacrifice. They are living as equal partners in their homes, because they want to and because doing so makes their lives better.
Chase is white and grew up in New England, where he lives today. Chase’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother had primary custody, but he spent every other weekend with his father, who struggled with an addiction problem. Chase didn’t like these weekends. His father was often drunk, verbally abusive, and — frankly — embarrassing. Chase grew up knowing he did not want to be anything like his father.
Chase was a sophomore in college when he and his girlfriend accidentally got pregnant. But he wasn’t upset — he had always wanted a family, and he was willing to drop out of school and get a construction job. They married, and he worked the hours necessary — often overtime — to materially provide for his family. Soon after, another baby came along, and Chase was proud of his young family.
But Chase’s wife and her family believed in more traditional gender norms, which (for them) meant that his wife was the expert in everything child-related and that Chase was expected to earn money and only earn money. The more time he spent at work, the more distant he felt from his family. He missed milestones: first steps, first words. He didn’t feel fulfillment from his work — he felt fulfillment from his family. But as he worked longer hours to make ends meet, he was feeling farther and farther away from his family. He became depressed. Eventually, he and his wife divorced.
I think this story is important because it gives a clear example of how gender norms can harm men. Gender norms may limit women’s participation professionally, but they can also limit men’s participation emotionally. And that limitation can have very real consequences.
When I talk about inequality, I am not criticizing men. I am criticizing our cultural gender norms that dictate the way we should each behave based on our gender identity.
But I won’t leave you there, because thankfully there is a happy ending for Chase. Yes, the divorce was hard, and Chase still does not have the relationship he wants with his first two girls. But he did eventually meet someone new, and got married again. And this time, he and his new wife both wanted to be equal partners. They both wanted to provide for their family financially, and they both wanted to provide for their family emotionally. Chase has a third child now, another girl, and Chase loves the close relationship that they share. He is currently going to night school to earn his college degree with the hopes of finding a job that allows him to work from home, so he can have more time with her in the future. He told me that he loves picking her up from school, taking her to activities. He loves days off with his wife and daughter.
Work is work — it is a means to earn money for rent and food. But the hours in his week that bring him joy are the hours with his family. By being a caregiver to his daughter, by splitting the cognitive labor with his wife, he is able to fully contribute to his household. And that is a feeling that no amount of work could ever replace.
*I used pseudonyms for all non-experts in my book.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I remember my “aha” moment very clearly. Although I will admit I had been toying with a book for some time, I was having a hard time landing on a specific idea. For a while, I had wanted to reconcile my two lives — bringing my professional experience into my personal life. But there was a night I refer to as the “dirty kitchen floor night” when it all became clear in my head.
This was late October 2016; I was finishing my dissertation — which happened to be on the intersection of women’s empowerment and masculinities studies. (A key factor in the development of my book idea.) I was teaching two undergraduate classes, and I was the “alpha parent” to our kids, who were then ages two and five. My dissertation was supposed to be due before Christmas, but my advisor called me into her office and asked me to finish up by Thanksgiving. She needed more time to review it, she explained without apology. And like that — my timeline was cut down from two months to one.
I kept it together on the way home, but when I got back to our apartment, I lost it. The kids were in bed, so it was just Evan and me. I remember sitting on our kitchen floor and sobbing — SOBBING. I just felt so completely overwhelmed I couldn’t imagine how I was going to balance everything happening in my life. And on top of everything else, I noticed that my kitchen floor was filthy, which somehow made it all worse. Because as I sobbed, I kept thinking, “and I have to clean this floor too!”
Evan, being the good guy that he is, sat next to me. He put his arms around me and kept saying, “tell me what I can do to help.”
And that is when this rush of anger and literature review poured out from me. I explained that in different sex households, when both partners worked, women still did twice as much in the home as men. I explained that chore diaries didn’t even capture the “cognitive” labor that haunted my every waking moment. I explained that our gendered upbringing prepared us for these roles — and that they’re harmful to both of us. I could feel myself already backing away from career opportunities, because of the household burden I carried, and I could feel him emotionally distancing himself from our kids as he leaned into professional responsibilities. “This is happening to couples across North America, and to us, and it scares me. This isn’t good for you, it isn’t good for me, and it is terrible for our kids.”
To his credit, Evan listened. He made a pot of coffee and we sat up late talking. And that night helped set us on the right track — it started the conversation, and we both made commitments to change our behavior to create more parity in our home.
After that night, I realized the reason why I was able to articulate the situation and my opinions to Evan was because I happened to be doing research in this specific field at the time. But I wondered what other people did when they cried on their dirty kitchen floors. Did they have the statistics and the words? Did they know how to articulate their frustration? Could they explain how inequality is bad for everyone? And that is why I decided to write the book. To help other couples navigate their kitchen floor meltdowns, and — ideally — for new couples to read in order to prevent those kitchen floor meltdowns from happening in the first place.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Several weeks ago, I received an email from a reader — a young woman living with her boyfriend. She had just finished Equal Partners and took the time to reach out and tell me how the book impacted her. She explained that since moving in with her boyfriend, small things would “needle” her, but in a way she couldn’t fully understand or explain — not even to herself let alone to another person. But when she read my book, she realized what she was feeling was inequality — that she and her boyfriend had made some assumptions about roles and behaviors, because of their genders. She had taken on the “inside” work and he had taken the “outside” work, and she couldn’t put her finger on why that bothered her — until she read Chapter 3.
Armed with information and some new language, she talked to her boyfriend. He agreed that he wanted to be an equal partner, but honestly wasn’t sure how, because that behavior had never been role modeled to him. After they both finished the book, they discussed the chapters together, and felt that they now have the tools they need to set healthy patterns. She told me that reading the book was like receiving decades worth of life experience — that instead of having to slog through the years on her own and, “reinvent the wheel,” like so many before her, she could use lessons from others to get a head-start on parity in her new home.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are more than three of course, but doing these would be a great start.
- Change our Attitude. There is no reason why men can’t do an equal amount of work in the home. All the old excuses (e.g., it isn’t how I was raised, I’m no good at multitasking, it’s just her personality) are all debunked in my book. There is absolutely zero biological reason why men can’t apply the skills they have long applied to paid work to household management. And every time we forgive men, make an excuse for them, or pick up their slack — we perpetuate inequality at home. We need a new mindset — all of us — that all humans have equal capacity to participate in professional work, and all humans have equal capacity to participate in domestic work and caregiving.
- Change the Way we Raise Boys. Why do men prioritize work and deprioritize the home? Because they are socialized to do so. We condition men, from the time they are small, to provide for their family by focusing on work and income generation. But earning money is really only have of it — truly providing for one’s family means so much more. And it is that second half that we need to work on, and raise boys to also be caregivers and nurturers. We need to give boys dolls and baby strollers, play kitchens and pretend food. We need to create caregiving opportunities for boys — like babysitting, pet sitting, or caring for senior in the communities. We need to tell boys that we expect them to participate in caregiving, and that we appreciate that work. That caregiving work is just as important to our community as income generation.
- Change the Workplace. My book specifically talks about couples who are both contributing to family income and what their homelife looks like. But remember, because both of those people work, the workplace is also crucial to what each person can do at home. I frequently hear incongruencies — for example, a female supervisor who wants her husband to be an equal partner at home, but then expects her male subordinates to be available on email during nights and weekends. If we want to work together to ensure equality at work and at home, then we need to help each other set boundaries both at work and at home. That way we can all have adequate time to earn and work towards professional goals, and we can all have adequate time to do domestic and care work.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I am a big believer in situational leadership. All of us are leaders in some areas of our life, and followers in others. We may be a leader at work, and a follower within a faith community. Or we may be a follower at work, but a community powerhouse. I think it is important to know when to embrace our leadership roles, and when to embrace our follower roles — making room for others to lead.
And of course, to shake up our traditional gender norms, I think it is important to intentionally look for ways to support people outside of their traditional gender lane. Yes, supporting female leadership in professional ways is a great start, or in industries traditionally not represented by women. But we also need to support men in caregiving roles and volunteer roles. I want to see men in PTA leadership just as much as I want to see women in C-Suite offices.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Five things about gender I wish someone told me when I first start are:
- Misogyny is Everywhere. Misogyny is deeply embedded in our culture. Girls and women experience misogyny regularly and are so used to it that half the time we don’t recognize it for what it is. But now, with the benefit of hindsight and perspective, I can recognize the misogynist behavior of teachers, professors, supervisors, and colleagues in my life. I can think of hundreds of experiences when someone condescended to me, because I am a woman — using words they never would have used if I was male. While ‘seeing’ that misogyny at a younger age would not have changed the world around me, understanding the inherent gender imbalance in our society from a younger age would have helped me realize that those condescending words were not really about me, or about who I was as a person. I think understanding that from my teen years would have brought me a great deal of peace.
- Women Don’t Have to Be Polite. We raise girls to be polite and submissive. To put others’ feelings before our own, and to prioritize other people’s comfort. Which means often, even when we feel uncomfortable, we don’t say anything, simply because we don’t want to be perceived as “pushy” or “rude.” But I do not think a girl or woman should ever compromise herself for anyone else’s comfort. It took me a long time to understand this, and I wish I would have learned this lesson decades ago. Today, I don’t go out of my way to push back; confrontation actually makes me nervous and I use it only as a last resort. But when it comes down to it, I’d rather be perceived as “impolite” and stand up for myself, than to compromise my values to keep the peace. I think this applies to work, community, and family.
- Women Can Be Sexist, Too. Some of the biggest misogynists I’ve met have been women. They’d never label themselves as such, because I honestly don’t think they can see it. But they do as much to support gender inequality as any man. Never assume that a woman is pro-equality, because she is a woman. Or that a man is anti-equality, because he is a man. Allies can be found in the most surprising places, as can enemies. Take each person for who they are. Don’t make assumptions about anyone.
- There’s No Incorrect Masculinity. The myth of the “ideal man” is harmful for all of us. There is no ideal man — the Hollywood persona that is a handsome, tall, strong, emotionally distant, problem-solving guy doesn’t really exist is our reality. We should not try to be him, or expect the men in our life to be him. There are so many ways to define masculinity that our boys and men shouldn’t have to perform some idealized form of masculinity for social approval or acceptance.
- Set Emotional Boundaries, And Take Them Seriously. I only heard the term “emotional boundary” a few years ago, but I wish someone taught me this term when I was a kid. People with a great amount of power get to set all the emotional boundaries they want, and people respect them. (I don’t work after 8:00pm. I prefer not to shake hands, just nod. I don’t take work calls on my personal cell.) However, people without power can try to set boundaries, but they’re often ignored. After all, who are YOU with little power to tell ME about your personal boundaries? But boundaries are essential to maintaining self-respect and emotional wellness. We all need to be careful in setting our own emotional boundaries and do our best to respect the boundaries of others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you think the race is over, you’re going to stop running.”
We have to be aware that we haven’t attained household gender equality. We have to be aware that we can be better, or else we’re not going to keep working. Yes, things are so much better than in the 1960 or even the 1980s. But there’s still so much to be done. Sometimes I think the most important message I can relay is, we need to keep running!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Without a doubt, I would choose Gloria Steinem. I have always admired Ms. Steinem as a Feminist, activist, thinker, and all-around shaker-upper. She was a role model for me and so many women of my Gen X generation. She taught us that it is it is OK to be angry with the status quo. OK to want more. OK to speak our minds. IOK to dismiss the rules of others, and OK to write our own rules.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I try to keep everything up to date on my website (katemangino.com) and I am active on Twitter @ManginoKate.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Kate Mangino Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.