How is this for a cliché? Working mother of children perpetually teetering on the verge of total overwhelm, with the equivalent of 3789 ‘tabs’ open in her mind at any given point, desperately trying to keep the myriad balls in the air. It’s me.
As a married, working mum in Australia I am a walking cliché and countless studies confirm I’m not alone. The mental load is real. The paid work load is real. The home load is real too.
The question I have posed often in the confines of my cluttered mind is how to prevent myself from buckling under the weight of the physical, emotional, logistical and financial needs of three children, a household and a few days jobs?
Earlier this year I wrote about how listening to a podcast chat between Clementine Ford and Wil Anderson made me realise I had internalised the ‘invisibility’ of parenting and domestic labour. Because so much of that work isn’t seen I had inadvertently absorbed the idea that it isn’t really work and therefore it shouldn’t really be hard. Au contraire!
Recognising this was useful in itself in that it eased the guilt I experienced upon not finding parenting a cinch. Obviously though, albeit sadly, this realisation didn’t render any of the actual tasks themselves obsolete.
Funnily enough, it was listening to another podcast interview that generated my next ‘aha’ moment. Author, performer, comedian and mum of three, Em Rusciano, was talking to the hosts of Shameless, Zara MacDonald and Michelle Andrews, about juggling the various balls she does.
When discussing the resentment she has felt at different points about being and doing everything for her family she made a point that stopped me in my tracks. Em explained that when she was close to breaking point, hovering between rage and despair at the seemingly endless demands on her, she had to recognise her role in shaping the expectations her kids and partner had of her.
If she always makes their lunches, they will always expect that. Her hoping they might change that expectation without some kind of intervention – like her saying that from now on they would make their own lunch – was the classic definition insanity. Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.
She said pulling back will inevitably trigger some resentment – from them – but unless Em drew a line in the sand nothing would change. And with no change? Rage and despair would prosper.
It was a simple but powerful reminder that what we permit we promote.
For a variety of different reasons, and certainly social conditioning is a big one, lots of women happily fulfil the role of nurturer. We are inclined to make other peoples’ lives easier: particularly the lives of the people we live with, whom we love.
But it isn’t without cost.
In practical terms how families and households run and split the load in 2019 isn’t small fry. It’s hugely influential but most of us are walking around in the dark. As Brigid Schulte observed in her book Overwhelmed the sad fact is when it comes to the division of labour we are (still!) literally stuck between two worlds: the world where men worked outside the home and women inside, and the world now, where most often both men and women work out of the home.
There is no blueprint for how things should be done in a perfectly equitable fashion but it’s clear that as it stands women are doing more than their fair share, and it’s more than they can happily sustain. And as obvious as it sounds I needed it spelt out: if something doesn’t change, nothing will change.
After hearing Em Rusciano speak I was inspired to take matters into my own hands to ease some of the burden I have been carrying, in the hope of also offloading some of the rage and despair that seems to descend.
Rather than pursuing the martyrdom of stomping around the house angrily putting washing, toys, homework, shoes and instruments away I sat our older two kids down and explained it’s on them now. But, actually on them.
Because even if I angrily tell them to pack their stuff away and be responsible for their belongings while I proceeded to put it all away myself, I was simply facilitating their expectation that someone else (me) will always do it. I won’t.
Often times it’s easier to do things myself. I am quicker and more efficient at putting their things away and clearing up after breakfast but I have finally realised that doing that will only perpetuate a cycle I’m no longer willing to entertain.
I am happy to report that unpacking the dishwasher each morning is no longer another opportunity for me to resentfully stack plates and cutlery, while muttering about how lucky everyone else is to have me to help.
The girls do it. It takes longer but it’s not my time.
As Emma Willamson points out in her piece today it is easy to fall into gender traps in the home. For wholesale change to occur in terms of parity for men and women there is no doubt that there are structures to dismantle and policies to implement. But in the meantime being forensic about who is doing what in your house – and whether it needs to be like that – is a worthwhile exercise.