A writer friend of mine has been talking a lot on social media about the emotional labor of motherhood. Recently, she added an essay to her website as a culmination of her ideas and how she plans to tackle this heavy burden. I mostly agree with her points, and on a few points I disagree.
Amanda makes an excellent case: motherhood is mentally demanding. We mothers are in charge of not only a clearly uneven amount of household chores, many of us also work outside the home in various forms, and then we carry the mental load of worrying, planning, prepping, and just knowing.
I know when my daughters’ checkups are; I know when they need to have their teeth cleaned; I know what we’re out of in the kitchen; I know what we need to cook each week; I know what needs to be bought both food wise and supply wise; I know what bills need to be paid and when; and so on and so on ad nauseum.
My husband knows to do what I tell him.
I have easily one of the most feminist, most accommodating, most open hearted husbands on earth. He takes my lead, he trusts my wisdom with our children, and he does everything he can to carry as much of my load as he can bear.
And it still isn’t enough.
Here’s what I mean by that: while it is true that my husband does many household chores – after dinner dishes, cleaning bathrooms, taking out the garbage, laundry – and many childcare tasks – bathing kids, feeding the baby, changing diapers, restocking kid supplies – the truth is that he is following my lead.
Which means I have to lead.
That in and of itself is exhausting. I even wrote an essay a while back about the daunting task of doing it all as a mother. Not much has changed.
Yesterday, I was puking my guts out and sick with diarrhea all day. I’m pretty sure I ate way more cheese than one human is supposed to eat in one sitting on New Year’s Eve.
I got so excited seeing everyone’s cheese platters on Instagram that I decided to make my own. And then promptly ate the whole thing.
Seriously. The whole thing.
So after two nights of little to no sleep (thanks to a baby who still wants to feed twice a night and then party for two hours) and a platter of cheese, oh! and a glass of wine, New Year’s Day saw me in the bathroom and in bed.
This never happens.
I never get sick. The last time I was sick was when Celaya was Matilda’s age. Five years ago.
My household didn’t know what to do.
My husband kept showing up at our bedroom door, baby in his arms, five year old hot on his tail: “what should we do?”
Lesson: When Mama is sick, life falls apart.
I am such a baby when I do get sick that I get dramatic.
“Say nice things about me at my funeral, honey.” I joked with my husband last night.
“What do you mean? Why would you say something like that?” He was dead serious.
And it hit me. While my husband is a fabulous father and can hold the fort down while I am away at work, and can back me up when we’re both home, I am the leader. I am the queen. Everyone is following my lead. I’m on my deathbed, and they want to know what’s for dinner.
I don’t have to make it. But I have to tell them what to eat.
Yes, it is a heavy crown to wear, queen of the castle. I have a load to carry that I alone carry and my husband simply will not ever take on.
Sure, I suppose if I were to actually die he would naturally assume the role of load bearer, but barring that (and we are in fact barring that) the load is mine to bear.
I agree with Amanda that chores and tasks must be agreed on in advance, and in my household we have done that.
It helps that we have opposing schedules; my husband quite literally has to take on the tasks of running a household four nights a week.
But I disagree that this problem can ever be solved completely.
Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a poignant piece on the working mother a few years ago in The Atlantic on this topic. There is something distinctly biological about being a mother. We do indeed internalize so much more than fathers, and I do think it is inherent.
I actually do not have a problem with that. It is good to be queen.
I care more about hearth and home than my husband does. And I have no intention of letting my house fall into complete disarray in an effort to be less burdened by the weight of it all.
What I have found helps immensely is ensuring that my husband has more than his fair share of regular tasks in advance.
Carlos works a full time job, cooks once a week, cares for our children four nights a week, does dinner dishes, cooks breakfast often on the weekends, thoroughly cleans the kitchen once a week, is largely in charge of the laundry, cleans our bathroom once a week, and is solely responsible for the garbage, the recycling, and the compost.
And for the most part, he doesn’t complain.
My husband is a feminist. He understands the emotional labor of motherhood. He watched his mother raise eight children after his abusive alcoholic father died when Carlos was ten.
He knows that while he has all of these standing tasks, or “obligations,” I am the one who bends over, picks up, puts way, folds, puts away, stacks, puts away, walks the length of our two thousand square foot apartment at least one hundred times a day putting away bundled socks, random shoes, toys, books, and so on.
He knows that I plan, shop, prep, budget, pay bills, meet deadlines, make appointments (including his), meet appointments (including his), plan vacations, plan family weekends, plan parties, and so on.
He knows that when I am in the house, my children want me, want to be on me, all over me, talking to me, babbling at me, crawling on top of my head and back into my body. I am an attachment parent, and that alone is exhausting.
Oh, and I work outside the home as a tutor and inside the home (with children crawling on me) as a writer.
He knows that he could do every single standing household task and it still would not come close to measuring up to the combination of what I do and the weight I carry, the emotional labor of motherhood.
That is feminism.
Trying, both of us trying every single day to find some semblance of equality in a world of intangibles.
And I love him for it. I thank him for it. I praise him. I am grateful that he is grateful for all I do. I do not take for granted for one second that I have a husband who is proud to have a queen running his household.
I am not a man hater.
I do think that men, even the most evolved men, still don’t understand on a bone deep level the weight that mothers carry.
So it is up to us to tell them; we must remind them, we must share with them, and expect them to share with us.
And expect them to carry a large part of the tangible load, because we both know they will never carry the intangible one.
One burden we mothers bear far too often is the burden of silence.
We must speak up, regularly, about how burdened we feel, how difficult it is, how we want to cry, scream, give up, run away, whatever the overwhelming feelings we have in the moment happen to be.
The more we are silent, the more they will not understand.
“But you do it so well.” They will tell us.
“It never bothered you before.” They will remind us after years of our silence.
Ah, but it did. It has always bothered us. It is just so easy to just do it ourselves.
But it isn’t really easy, is it?
So yes, love your husbands, your men, your working spouses, for carrying part of the load, for stepping up to the plate.
But never, ever lower the bar.