The incredible vanishing woman

NS August 22nd, 2009

Last night I watched a film called ‘Marley and Me,’ starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. On the surface it is a slightly sacchrine family` film about a couple’s relationship with their poorly-behaved but beloved dog and how that relationship changes as their family grows. However, as I watched the onscreen couple (who were previously in an equitable relationship and both with successful careers) argue and struggle to come to terms with their newfound gender-divided roles, as is extremely common in people with young children, the dialogue seemed achingly familiar.

Amidst chaos of barking dog, demanding toddler and crying baby

Him: It’s just colick, Jen, he’ll grow out of it.

Her: Here’s an idea. I’ll go to work and YOU stay home while he “grows out of it.” (Pause) I’m sorry, I’m tired, just go. Go.

Another day, when he arrives home from work and she’s super stressed and they’re arguing again

Him: I know it’s been a rough couple of months with the new baby and all but I was talking to a friend and he said that postpartum depression…

Her (interrupting, in disbelief): Postpartum…I am not depressed. I am exhausted. I’m not angry because of some condition. I can’t even go out for an hour without the kids.

Him: I know, but you were the one that said you didn’t want to work anymore. We can get help if you need it…”

Her:  I don’t need any help!

He complains about something

Her: What do YOU have to complain about?!

Him: What do I have to complain about? Oh yes, because you’re such a joy to be around. It’s so nice to walk in the door and feel like you’re joining a chain gang.

Her: You’re just a jerk. A JERK! (slams door)

Been there, done that, almost word for word. And I know many, many other couples have too.

I found myself still thinking about those scenes this morning and wondering how so many women find themselves in such similar situations, even when partnered with caring, well-intentioned men. Getting to the root of the problem is not so easy as just blaming men. They’re not, by and large, intentionally setting out to hurt and disrespect the mothers of their children, the women they love. So are they simply victims too, of social conditioning that dictates falling back on traditional gender roles when entering parenthood? In what ways do they suffer under those roles? Do we feel more oppressed merely because we are more aware of the historical implications of what that means for us as women? Are we complicit in our own oppression, aware that it exists and hating the effects but participatory just the same? If so, why?

As I was thinking about these things and browsing my RSS reader, I came across “Taking Responsibility for Equality” on the Equally Shared Parenting blog, in which a woman contemplating the same isues is quoted. She says:

“Somewhere between dropping my wedding dress off at the drycleaners and extracting myself from the cocoon of my warm bed to nurse [my son], I lost a piece of myself. I stopped listening to Ani DiFranco and my dreams of taking down the system were exchanged for conversations about sleep and aspirations to find time for myself. I became wife and mother. Like stepping into a pair of yoga pants, I fell into the comfort of my roles. I took motherhood seriously and appointed myself chief caretaker queen without stopping to assess how this would all play out.

Now, two children under four later, I sit uncomfortably on my throne and I feel the hot orange wave of resentment as I drag my knackered spirit out of bed to get up with the kids by myself for the 250th day in a row since [my son's] birth. I’ve talked to friends who report that whoever hears the kids first gets up with them or that they simply take turns. I muse over what kind of miracle needs to take place in order for me to be able to sleep in. I sit silently and wonder where it all went wrong and how I ended up being the one who is constantly giving to everyone else around her at the expense of her own sanity. When did I become this person who can’t negotiate her own needs? When did I become the kind of wife that lapses into the role of mother to her husband? I can’t count the number of times I have said, “shh, Daddy’s still sleeping.” Somewhere between loads of laundry and wiping noses, I embarked on a journey to take care of everyone else’s needs leaving my own almost unfulfilled. Should I be surprised that nobody has magically appeared to take care of them for me?

What is probably the most baffling part of all this is that I’m not married to some kind of uncaring lout who is unconcerned with my happiness and well being. Far from it. I’m married to someone who loves me deeply, someone who is happier when I am happy. And yet, somehow we have been delivered to a place that serves neither one of us. When we play the game of kid swap on weekends, we come together beautifully as a parenting couple. But recently when I listened to Ani DiFranco, I had my own mini Aha moment. She sang “and you will take the heavy stuff. And you will drive the car. And I’ll look out the window and make jokes about the way things are.” If I have misplaced small parts of myself then it is up to me to find them. If I want a tag team approach [meaning ESP approach, in this context] to parenting 100% of the time then I need to take the wheel and stop making jokes about the way things are.”

The blog’s co-author, Amy Vachon, follows this up by saying:

We are not just victims – of our husbands, of men in general, of even our culture. We’re part of why things are not equal. No need to blame women, of course. But we do need to be at least half of the solution. We need to take responsibility, take action, take the wheel – and stop passively accepting the standard path for couples…it will lead to inequality, of that we can be sure. It is up to us, together with our partners, to turn that wheel toward ESP.

And I think this is key. So many women I know (myself included) complain and complain and complain about the situation but don’t do much to change it. Whether that’s because we don’t have the tools to do so, or are too frightened or unsure how to go about it, I don’t know. But I do know that it’s got to stop. And so, a couple months ago, I started making changes.

Instead of ‘asking’ for time to myself and brimming with resentment when I didn’t get it (or enough of it), or seething with rage when I’d been up at sunrise for the sixth day in a row and The Noble Husband was still sawing logs at 9am on a Saturday, arguing that it was his first ‘day off’ all week, I started calmly but firmly insisting on a more equitable division. The first thing to sort out, in my mind, was the sleep issue.

As we all know, sleep deprivation is incredibly difficult to live with day in and day out, especially when coping with the emotional and physical demands of children all day. No one likes to feel exhausted all the time, regardless of what kind of work or life situation they are in. So while I appreciated that my husband seems to need more sleep than I do to function (he needs 7-8 whereas I’m generally okay on 6 as long as I play catch up at some point in the week), I also needed him to appreciate the fact that not only was I getting up earlier than him most days, I was also getting up in the night to deal with our son’s nighttime wakings. Obviously, because I’m breastfeeding, he can’t really take over responsibility for that. So I started requesting that we take turns doing the early morning starts. Once The Noble Baby was on solids and could be fed some porridge or fruit first thing instead of needing to be nursed by me, this was much easier for TNH to handle. Before, I was getting up early with the children every single day during the week and only getting one lie-in per weekend. This was a habit leftover from when we only had TNC and it was possible for me to nap when she did during the day if I’d had a particularly bad night or early start. But now, with TNC no longer napping and TNB being a bit unpredictable in when and for how long he will sleep, that doesn’t apply anymore.

The consequence was that I was constantly tired and resentful, which made me feel crabby and emotionally detached from my husband.I don’t know why I hadn’t realised that I was unnecessarily shouldering the burden of this sooner, but when I did I didn’t make a big deal of it to TNH or insist on a big talk because I knew we’d likely get caught up in that point-scoring argument where you each point out the other’s flaws and shortcomings and try to justify why you’re the most hard done by. I don’t want to negotiate our relationship like that anymore.

Instead, I just started saying to him the night before I wanted to sleep in: “It’s your turn to do the early shift tomorrow, wake me 20 minutes before you need to be in the shower so I can have mine before you.” And it really worked. TNH appreciated having advance notice that he was going to be getting up early (instead of getting an elbow in the ribs and having a baby thrust angrily into his arms by a tired wife who’d been up all night), and I made my need for sleep and a more equitable division of early morning starts absolutely clear. So far, so good.

Next on the list of things to sort out was the cleaning. After who’s getting more sleep, this was our biggest bone of contention. While TNH didn’t necessarily feel that it was my “job” to do the bulk of the cleaning, he did think that it made more sense for me to do what I could during the day and then tackle the heavier stuff onthe weekends as and when we got time. He was always saying “Just tell me what needs done and I’ll do it” but it would inevitably end with him feeling nagged by my lists and reminders and me either doing it all myself to keep the peace or leaving the dirt to fester, which made me angry all over again come the work week when he could escape the dirty bathroom and unmopped floors but I had to sit, work and live amongst it nearly 24 hours a day.

Even though I knew he had a different “tolerance” for dirt than I did, I tried to explain my annoyance with uncleanliness and disorder in terms he could more easily understand and identify with. I said:  “Imagine if every Friday afternoon, as you were finishing up your work and getting things organised, ready to go home for the weekend and relax, someone came by your desk and pushed everything off it, making a huge mess,  moved files and icons around on your computer, then changed the height of your chair. Would you just shrug evey time and think ‘Eh, it doesn’t matter. I’ll sort it out on Monday.’ Or would it begin to really annoy you and affect your ability to relax at the weekend, knowing that come Monday, the first thing you’ll have to do is clean up a mess someone else made before you can get started on your actual job (in my case, taking care of our kids)?”

He looked at me and I knew he’s had a lightbulb moment. Finally, an analogy he could relate to! Not ever having been relegated to the house for long periods of time, he just couldn’t understand why a dirty bathroom or floors could affect my mood or ability to do my job well. To him, they were just minor annoyances. But to me, they were impediments to my ‘real’ job which is to raise our children.

He got it. He finally really, really GOT IT. So together, we tried to figure out a way to tackle it. Doing lots of cleaning late at night didn’t sound appealing to him, seeing as when he gets home he’s already responsible for getting at least one of the kids to bed, cooking, and doing the dishes afterwards. Just like me, he needs downtime. And doing it all at the weekends while we take turns passing the kids off on each other without spending any time together as a family didn’t sound ideal either.

I took the plunge and suggested we look into hiring a cleaner, something I’d been thinking about and looking into for awhile. I work from home part-time, doing a paid job, and am full-time carer for our two kids. Something had to give and I finally admitted that I needed help.

TNH was enthusiastic, saying he thought it was a great idea, one that would free both of us from some of our domestic burden and give us a bit more free time or, at the very least, less to argue about.

Initially, I was very hesitant to hire a cleaning service. My feminist and progressive sensibilities resisted it greatly. I did some research and a friend passed on this article, which did give me food for thought. It made me question the consequences of employing a woman (likely a non-English-speaking immigrant) to perform domestic duties for me and prompted me to make thorough enquiries and checks on which service was most ethical, fairly waged and legit. I decided to try it for a couple weeks and see how I felt. If the situation felt exploitative or just ‘wrong’, I would cease.

Despite my misgivings, it was the best decision I ever made. I’m paying my cleaner a good wage and she is employed by an independently-run service. It’s not a perfect situation but I’m at peace with it. I needed help and I’m getting it now. Instead of plopping my children in front of the tv while I scrub the bathroom, or being stressed and moody with them because of my growing to-do list and building dirt, I can spend time with them or doing my writing unfettered and know that as long as I keep on top of the laundry and the dishes, and do the general tidying up, organising and things like making the beds, emptying the cat’s litter box and sweeping up crumbs, I don’t have to worry about the nitty gritty so much.

I figure, we outsource so many services that we technically ‘could’ do ourselves (like repair our cars, teach our children math, negotiate legal contracts), it sometimes makes sense to have someone specialising in that perform those duties. We can’t be all things and there’s no shame in admitting that. Having young children, working for pay and running a household is increbily challenging and the sooner we realised that and made it acceptable to need help doing them all efficiently, the better off we would ALL be.

There is no such thing as Superwoman, or Supermum. We need to lose the martyr image and stop taking it all on for the sake of appearances or because our partners won’t lift a finger or because we think it’s “just what women do.” We should not be complicit in our oppression, in our degradation. The unhappiness,  the depression, the feelings of inadequacy and anger…these are all too common threads in the fabric of mothering. We are people with dreams and desires and needs. We are worthy of respect and authority and autonomy.

We should not be standing idly by while we disappear, rubbed out by cultural norms and expectations. Preserving ourselves and our relatationships and demonstrating a true sense of self-worth is one of the most priceless gifts we can give our children. To show our sons and daughters how more equitable relationships can and should exist, regardless of who earns they money and who stays at home, that women are more than mothers and fathers are more than what society defines as ‘manly’…it is so important.

No one’s relationship or division of labour is perfect, regardless of status. But we must keep trying and insisting and refusing to let our needs be ignored. If we don’t want to hear our daughters bemoaning the same of their husbands in thirty years’ time, we have to model the change we wish to see.

We are not superheroes, or super anything. We are women and mothers and partners and we deserve happiness and respect as much as anyone else.

I deserve more than a lifetime of anger and resentment, and you do too. Don’t vanish into thin air.

25 Responses to “The incredible vanishing woman”

  1. I’m not sure I’m *allowed* to comment on this as I’m divorced, but two things occur to me.

    First, I think many women are authors of their own “oppression” after having babies. How many women have you seen roll their eyes and take over from their husbands when the chap does try to take on some domestic or child-rearing task? I wonder sometimes if friends miss the self-esteem they used to derive from work or study, and so focus on being this ‘super’ mother, who can handle it all without batting an eyelid.

    Second, I think there’s an assumption that childcare is something you can do with less sleep and less support than paid work. I know one couple where the husband slept in the spare room for a year so he wouldn’t be woken in the night by the baby. Apparently he needed to be well-rested for work in the morning. When I questioned whether his wife didn’t also need to be well-rested for her work – taking care of the baby – both agreed that you didn’t need to the same alertness if you were a stay-at-home Mum. The group of friends we were with were probably split 50/50 on this issue – indicating it’s a common belief that somehow men working outside the home during those early months are doing a ‘harder’ job than their partners.

    For what it’s worth, in my own situation, I worked part-time from home. We employed a part-time nanny and a cleaner, so I’m with you on getting help rather than running yourself into the ground, if you’re in a position where you can.

  2. emms says:

    Good for you guys! I’m glad to hear you have reached a happy medium :o )

  3. the bad aunt says:

    Curious how stay at home fathers feel? Do they have the same issues as stay at home mothers?

  4. Trish says:

    I had a few complications during my first pregnancy that prompted my doctor to recommend no strenuous physical exercises including housework. It never occurred to my husband and I – before we had kids, when we were both working full time – to hire some help to a) clean the house and b) settle the constant arguments about who does the most around the house. So we have always had a cleaner, even when I haven’t been working outside the home. These days we put a dollar value on our free time. What is it worth to us to have our weekends free? Is it more than the cost of hiring a cleaner? Yes, it is. BTW, a cleaner in my country (Australia) costs around $30-$40 an hour. This is about the same wage for a good legal secretary, or a level one Help Desk operator, or the starting salary for a school teacher.

  5. geekymummy says:

    great post. I think this change in responsibilty is what can make the “one partner stays at home” arrangement very tough, on both partners but especially the at home one and I think you have a got a smart handle on sorting it out. You will make a great negotiator ( have you though about getting into politics?!). I don’t have the guts to be an at home parent, I am convinced that for me it would be far far harder than my divided life.

    As for housecleaners, I got over the guilt many years ago. Geekydaddy and I have employed a cleaning service since before kids, as we both hate to clean. We use an immigrant woman run local business, who pay a reasonable wage, and I feel good about keeping her and her team in work. And I feel great every second Wednesday when my house is gleaming.

  6. One of the most timely posts for me I’ve read in a long time. I’m currently navigating these waters; very similar to you and yours: good husband and man, but I’ve shouldered a burden that is too great. I’ve got to get some breathing room. A friend of mine and her husband have a deal on the weekends for them and their twins: she takes them in the mornings, he gets them in the afternoons. Whatever the means, stay-at-home-moms have to be diligent about carving out space for themselves, lest they become lost in wiping noses and folding laundry forever.

  7. Charlotte says:

    I used to feel like the vanishing woman too, but slowly sorted out the inequities as you have. I am now, miracles, considering going back to an office job full-time after ten years of what I feel has been service (chosen service, but service nevertheless) to my family. I can’t tell you how excited I am about being Out Of The House.

  8. First of all, on the vanishing woman syndrome… I have actually found that I’m finding more of who I was since having children. Prior to that, I always took on to some extent the principles, personality and habits of the man I was with. Now I’m a mother to someone who will one day grow into a woman (and soon to be a mother to yet another futuer woman), I have felt it my responsibility to stand up for myself and voice my own beliefs more. I know this is far from the normal experience!

    The other thing we did (initially through circumstances conspiring that way, then as a financial decision and latterly as role modelling decision), was to give up our cleaner! We have stuck to it, because we both want our chidlren to grow up being able to do housework and understanding that it needs to be done. And we particularly want our girls to grow up seeing that men should bear the equal brunt of this responsibility. At the moment, Chris is bearing far more than an equal share of it, though I suppose carrying daughter number two does count for quite a lot!

    But… we are fortunate (intentionally so), because we are both at home and run a business together, so we do not have to deal with the issue of one of us being at home and the other not. The ability to share everything puts us in a very good position, because neither us has to do too much of any one thing (work, housework, childcare) and so we both have a balance. I know how tired we both were when we worked outside the home (before children) and am certain that, if one of us was doing so, we would definitely need to have a cleaner again and possibly other outside help to ensure that both of us got some kind of balance.

    I agree, as would Chris, that women who are the at-home partners need to stand up for themselves and request/insist on the help they need, whether that’s from their partners or in the form of outside help (paid-for or family), as should men if they are the at-home partner. It’s difficult to fully appreciate what is needed in terms of housework and childcare when away from the home all day, so some prompting is pretty much essential.

    Anyway, it sounds like you’re on the way to finding a good balance that works for you. Hopefully, more and more couples will be able to get there.

  9. jen says:

    the thing that strikes me as the biggest inequity in all this? (speaking as a non-mother?)

    that anyone should have to ASK their partner to help come to a more equitable arrangement.

    it just seems so unfair that the onus on the person who’s struggling to fight for what they need, rather than the other partner recognising that they’re not pulling their fair share.

    anyway, glad you’ve come to an arrangement that works well for you guys!

  10. joanna says:

    Great post! So many things echoed over here. I act the martyr a lot and then about once a month have a complete melt down. Everyone suffers. I also have a loving, happy-to-help husband but we have the same argument over and over again – he thinks I just get too caught up in the dirt and chaos and wonders why I can’t just relax about it. Because I have to live in it 24/7!

    Anyway, there’s much more I could say on this topic… have to take it up over at my place.

  11. Karen says:

    Very interesting post and thank you for the link to the Guardian article. It is an interesting time for us, with my husband being at home part-time, although this may be changing again soon. It will certainly be a priority for me if I do stay at home part-time again to ensure that doesn’t mean I am taking on too much.

    Working outside the home full-time has certainly given me a new perspective on things and I don’t necessarily come out of it as well as I could. Admittedly, I have been quite ill recently, but the balance does seem to be in danger of tipping towards my husband doing more than his fair share. Is there something in the balance of power for whatever reason being tipped towards the one who is working outside the home?

    I still need to do some more thinking about this and about getting a cleaner. Having read the Guardian article, I am still not comfortable, for the reasons the article goes into and Tasha alludes to: the abdication of responsibility for making a mess if someone else cleans it up, the example set to our children and the practical knowledge of how to clean. I am not being critical here and certainly understand your decision – indeed I am still seriously considering it myself.

  12. Lyn says:

    I totally agree with hiring help to do some of the things that you can’t find time for otherwise, especially the deeper cleaning. This need may change over time as your kids grow and they don’t need your constant attention. But if you can afford it, I would keep it. As your kids get bigger they can help out with the lighter duties, such as taking out the garbage, picking up their own things, and making their beds. Later they can help with the tougher chores and then you can reconsider your needs. As with your husband, you will have the same battles to get your kids to do their chores. And you will have to keep an open mind when your kids are in school, which for them will be much the same as parents going to work. And with homework to be done after school, kids also will need time for themselves. You will have to pick your battles, and if having someone come in to deep clean weekly or monthly eliminates some of those battles, then go for it and don’t worry what anyone else thinks about it. I, for one, spent way too much time arguing about housework and who was doing more while we both worked full-time with three children to raise. It wasn’t always pretty!

  13. NS says:

    @Who’s The Mummy – Of course you’re allowed to comment! Being happily married forever and ever to one person is never a prerequisite for commenting on relationships. You have a unique insight that I don’t, in fact. You make some very good points about women’s participation in their oppression. I do think that many women subconsciously feel they have to be the best mother and can’t let the father do TOO much lest they begin to feel unworthy. When full-time motherhood becomes your job, it’s hard not to let your self-worth become entangled in that as well.

    @emms – Yeah, me too. :)

    @the bad aunt – I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting question. I’m sure some do, but I know a couple women who work while their partners stay home (though not necessarily looking after children) and they admit to sometimes feeling that he should be doing more of the housework and getting up earlier because they “have to work.” I think it’s almost impossible not to feel that way, even a little bit, through the way we’ve been socially conditioned to value paid work above all else. It’s not necessarily a gender-based thing, but a ‘paid work’ bias.

    @Trish – Wow, that is a really good wage, I’m really impressed! Now the wage I’m paying my cleaner feels a bit paltry in comparison, even though I know it is on the upper end of the normal range for this area.

    @geekymummy – I only considered getting into politics briefly then reminded myself that I’d rather spend my life castigating and criticising them than becoming one of them. I’d feel so…unclean! ;)

    @Jessica – “Getting lost in wiping noses and folding laundry forever”…That sounds like a rather hellish place to get lost! I keep imagining a giant snotty nose and a pile of towels a mile high. *shudder*

    @Charlotte – Wow, congrats, I didn’t realise! How very exciting! I hope you will keep us posted of any developments on your blog.

    @Tasha – It sounds like you’ve got a great situation going on in your household. I think it must help that you both work from home, definitely. It gets rid of that whole “But I go OUT to work while you sit on your bum all day” mentality that so many secretly think, even when they know it’s wrong.

    @jen – No, you’re right, it *is* unfair. But rather than blame individual men who have been conditioned to devalue domestic work, just as we’ve been taught to devalue ourselves in doing it, I think it’s more productive to acknowledge the prejudices together and work to abolish or at least lessen them. Even if it means that the one being unfairly burdened has to initiate a more equitable division. It’s far from ideal but it’s the only solution for many women, barring an ability to go back in time to ensure that the men they are having children with won’t fall back onto these old gender roles once the children arrive. Because there’s really no way to tell if or when that will happen, and it happens to women with partners whom they were absolutely SURE wouldn’t fall into that old claptrap.

    @joanna – I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it at your place.

    @Karen – I think your point about children learning not to abdicate responsibility for their messes is a very good one, and something I was concerned about as well. That’s why I know that I won’t be employing a cleaner once the children are old enough to help with some of the chores and/or they are old enough to entertain themselves and keep out of the way while we’re doing them. They won’t be growing up not having to do any cleaning and thinking “Oh, the cleaner will get it.” Over my dead body!

    @Lyn – I remember it well and I still don’t know how you did it all. I guess that’s why you live on so little sleep. It’s not in your genes, it’s just been done out of necessity over the generations of women in our family. That’s a bittersweet realisation for me. But my hat is off to those of who have have done it while working full time. I haven’t had to do that yet and don’t know if I could handle it, at least not until the kids are a little older.

  14. Krista says:

    Oppression? Degradation? Hmm.

    Before I had a child, I worked full-time outside of my home. After I had my child, my husband and I decided together that I would stay home with our daughter – not because of any predetermined gender roles, but because I very very much wanted to do so, and my husband, bless him, wanted me to do what made me happy.

    This is my job. My full-time job. My job isn’t simply “parent” or “caretaker” – those are included, certainly, but they’re things I do all the time. My husband does those things too, when he is home.

    I’ve never really thought of my and my husband’s jobs as “equitable”, although they are certainly equally important. His sleep, for example, isn’t more *important* than mine, not in grand scheme of things, but a sleepless night has different implications for him than it does for me. After a sleepless night, I have the option of a quiet day at home. My husband doesn’t have that option. His morning drive is dangerous if he’s struggling to stay awake. He can lose his job if he falls asleep at the office, or if he’s not mentally alert enough to do his job. If I doze off while my daughter is having “quiet time” in her room? No one cares.

    I do the bulk of the cooking and cleaning because I consider it part of my job, because it makes the most sense for it to be part of my job. I’m home. I have easy access to the kitchen during the day. My husband does not. I have a flexible daily schedule and can clean while I look after my daughter. My husband does not have that flexibility during the day, and he cannot tidy up at home while he’s working.

    This is my job and I have chosen it. I am not vanishing. My job is very important to me, and it makes a big difference in the lives of the people who matter most to me – including myself. I have my full-time job, and my husband has his full-time job, and we are both parents. I don’t see how that’s not equal.

  15. NS says:

    @Krista – I’m sorry if you took offense or felt I was criticising a woman’s choice to take on the domestic responsibilities. I didn’t mean to imply that a division along gender lines is always bad. When it is a mutually agreeable situation for both parents and neither are resentful or feel unappreciated, there’s nothing wrong with that. You obviously don’t have a problem with your situation and that’s great. I’m addressing those who DO have a problem with how domestic labour is divided up in their homes and who feel that they are losing themselves amongst their responsibilities or that their partners don’t respect them.

    For what it’s worth, I felt much more capable of handling the bulk of the childcare and house stuff and getting by on less sleep when I just had one child. Once a second entered the equation and I started working part time from home, I no longer felt that we had a relatively equitable situation going on. Perhaps that’s why I have a different take on in than you.

  16. Without wanting to get all theoretical and hypothetical do you think that some, or more, of what you’ve described is a domestic reflection of Zimbardo’s prisoners and guards experiment back in the 70s with people taking on roles that they believe/assume are appropriate rather than (re)defining them correctly?

    In a work context over and over again I’ve seen perfectly reasonable and likeable people transform into an example of snotty officialdom in a short space of time just by making them a manager and don’t even get me started on traffic wardens or call centre operators.

    P.S Would you recommend your cleaner to me?

  17. NS says:

    @The Brinkster – That’s a fascinating article, thanks for the link. I think it brings up a very valid point — that we can become socially conditioned to act a way not because it is actually reflective of how things are or of the kind of people we are but because of messages we’ve internalised over our lifetimes, even subconsciously. Will email you with details of the cleaner.

  18. Krista says:

    I wasn’t offended by your post. Apologies if it came across that way.

    I am disappointed, however, that you haven’t actually responded to the points I raised (or at least attempted to raise). I was really interested in your thoughts on the innate inequality of our different roles.

    I also find myself wondering how equal my husband feels. I know he would do just about anything to quit his job and stay home with our daughter, but that wasn’t a practical option for us. He’s in a higher-paying field than I was, and he’s 9 years my senior. Every day, he leaves within minutes of C waking up. When we were in Scotland, he often left before she woke up and got home less than an hour before bedtime. I’m the one who gets to be with her during the day, making these memories. I get to be active in her preschool and I know all of her friends. My husband, on the other hand, gets to spend his day in an office.

    I’m just not sure how much equality is possible when the situation itself is so unequal.

    (BTW, the outsourcing thing reminds me! C goes to an awesome preschool, and she loves it to bits. She went two mornings a week last year, and she’ll go three mornings a week this year. A mom I know can’t help but tell me, every time she sees me, that she can’t believe I “send” my daughter to preschool when I “don’t even work”. Then she tells me she would just love to have my life. Because, you know, I lounge about drinking champagne, eating bonbons and watching soaps. You know how it is.)

  19. NS says:

    @Krista – Whoa! First of all, you need to tell that lady to bite you. I can’t believe she has the gall to say TO YOUR FACE that she thinks you’re lazy for sending your daughter to pre-school. She needs a big reality check and a kick up the backside. Yikes!

    As for your earlier comment, I completely get what you’re saying about being at home with your daughter being your job and your husband’s office job being his. I also understand that, practically speaking, it can sometimes be easier for the person at home to do the bulk of the cleaning and cooking when the employed partner is out of the house. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    What I’m more concerned about is when the person in paid employment comes home and then expects the at-home partner to carry on doing the vast majority of the parenting, cooking and cleaning, even on the weekends, because that falls under “her job.” As far as I’m concerned (and again, this is just my opinion based on my OWN life), when the paid parent is at home, they are equally responsible for childcare and domestic chores. Now, if the at-home parent *wants* to do more than their share of that when the other person is at home, that’s fine. As long as that is an agreeable situation to all parties and everyone is happy…great. I just don’t think it’s fair to the women who *don’t* consider all of the domestic labour their “job”, only the childrearing bit.

    As it stands right now, childrearing done by one adult in a relatively isolated situation (that of the SAHM) does require a certain amount of cooking and cleaning that is just unavoidable. But to get stuck with it even on the weekends and evenings, while the paid partner “relaxes” and “gets his sleep” does irritate me. When does the SAHM get to relax, or sleep? I know my husband needs decent sleep to do his job well, but so do I. Being cranky and irritable is not good for my mental health and it really, really affects my mood and patience. Snapping at my daughter and just letting her watch tv all day b/c I’m too tired or miserable to run around and play isn’t good for her either.

    And I think that’s the root of my irritation with the sleep situation…the belief that someone caring for a child or children doesn’t need to be alert, rested and mentally sharp; that it’s just a series of rituals and duties that are mechanically performed. To me, parenting is an intensely emotional thing and if my emotions are close to the surface due to sleep deprivation or resentfulness or stress, my daughter is going to experience those negative emotions. Maybe others are better at suppressing those feelings while parenting but I’m not.

  20. NS says:

    @Krista – And regarding your husband wanting to be at home if he could…I’m sure he would, I don’t doubt that. My husband would love to be able to spend more time with our kids as well. A more even balance between work and family is something we ALL need, I believe. Not just women, but men too. It’s a huge feminist issue that I feel passionately about. If men get more involved in caring for their children, they are more likely to fight for their rights in that arena. Just as women have had to fight tooth and nail to get into the workplace, so too should men be fighting to get more time at home.

    I also think women would benefit from being able to work flexibly, if they choose to. Would you work, even if just a few hours a week or on occasion, if you could? Most women I know would like to keep their toe in but are instead required to get in up to their neck, which is not appealing, making the SAHM (all or nothing) option the only way to go if full-time work is not something you want to do. There needs to be more balance.

  21. NS says:

    Apologies for my novella comments! Sheesh. Brevity is not my strong suit.

  22. kat says:

    Thank you so much for this. The cleaning issue has been making me feel dreadful for a while now. Your words helped me put it into context and we are looking for a local cleaner – I’m focussing on my children. Kat xx

  23. Ellen Keim says:

    I wrote a post about maids about a year ago and I thought you might appreciate the comment I received:

    I have worked as a part time maid for almost 5 years now.
    I love my work. I really love doing house chores and cooking.
    I adore when I see a neat place.
    I have been paid normally. Not too much but I think it fair.
    What I cannot understand is why is this idea of seing cleaning work as dirty or lowering or so.
    I understand that in class divided societies there are upper class ladies that never clean. I find their lives really annoying. Attending teas and gossiping.
    But America’s is supposed to be not a class divided society or not too much, anyway.
    So the work of a maid should be appreciated as any other work. And those who, like me, love this kind of work should let live our lives peacefully.
    I guess.

    Rosa Maria Sanchez

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  25. Judith says:

    Great post. I feel like my marriage has an equitable division of labor and we don’t have resentments hanging around about who needs to be getting what done, but it’s all been about two individuals working together at compatible goals for our life together.

    I think you are right, that as women we have our own part in giving in to “victimhood” of the lessor role in a marriage, and then we feel resentful for having done it. Maybe we are even feeling some self-loathing in the mix. So, for me, the key is to not wallow in angst and blame others for putting me in a situation that I don’t wish to be in — I make the situation work for me. Which, in my case, means I am not the little houseslave and I am able to have my own outside interests beyond my husband and child. But my family is extremely important to me also. I am no superwoman by any means. I know my limitations and work hard to not overextend myself (this is after a pretty spectacular crash and burn on the other end of trying to be a superhero). Balance is important for just about every aspect of life, and I think my husband and son benefit greatly by me being a whole person as well. Not only because I am happy and easier to be around, but they also have the freedom to do the same for themselves.

    Thank you for sharing such a thought-provoking post.