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.