In the past two weeks, I’ve read two incredibly relatable pieces of writing that take to task the never-ending extra labor mothers inevitably carry on behalf of our families.
The first is a beautiful Facebook post that went viral (again) called I Am The Keeper, which praises all the invisible but crucial mental and organizational work we mamas do on a daily basis–work which often goes unnoticed by our families and without praised, but keeps the train on its tracks and heading back to the station on time and on budget.
In the second piece, an essay entitled Stop Calling Women Nags for Harper’s Bazaar, Gemma Hartley argues that the emotional labor women bear is an unpaid job that the men in our lives will never truly “get,” citing several powerful examples from within her own marriage where her husband fails to meet her expectations.
“Bearing the brunt of all this emotional labor in a household is frustrating. It’s the word I hear most commonly when talking to friends about the subject of all the behind-the-scenes work they do. It’s frustrating to be saddled with all of these responsibilities, no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation.”
The common thread here is clear, and is nothing new: both authors want their efforts during the “second shift,” as it’s been called (a.k.a., the brain power required to keep a household running) to be acknowledged and appreciated by their partners.
But more importantly, they long for some of the weight to be lifted by their spouses–without having to ask them to do it. They long for their partners to “get it;” to take some ownership of that “second shift.” (“I want you to want to do the dishes” is one of my favorite lines from the film The Break Up for good reason!) In couples for whom the labor is skewed, that heavy burden can take its toll in countless ways: anger, resentment, frustration, depression, and plain old marital tension.
I’ve certainly been there. Even with the blessing of an equal partner like I feel lucky to have in my husband (who does his own share of invisible work), those feelings can still fester.
Because here’s the thing: in the early years especially, the balance is tipped for many couples in straight partnerships. By nature, the role of “mother” means we will never be truly equal. There are just some things that innately fit into the “mommy” bucket: obvious ones like pregnancy and breastfeeding, and less obvious ones like wiping bottoms and kissing boo-boos (why oh why is it always “Mommy” they yell for from the bathroom?!).
As one of my wise friends says, a woman’s mind is like a computer with all the windows open, and it is draining. We toggle back and forth between these windows (needs) all day long–job, marriage, kids, activities, house, health. We moms are often the ones laying awake at night trying to remember if we turned in the book order form, if library books made it back, or if flu shots are part of the kids’ next doctor visit. And if a kid is sick, which one of you stays home?
It’s exhausting being the keeper.
Yet reading both pieces got me thinking about why that extra burden tends to fall on the female half of the relationship. Is it solely about gender roles? Is it societal oppression—or just an intimate relationship problem that many of us have?
And which came first, the chicken or the egg: Did the authors’ partners not step up to the plate in the beginning of their relationship so they got in the habit of doing it all themselves, or did they not give their partners a fair chance to even try?
Every relationship is unique. But it’s worth asking these questions.
Does anyone else remember this pivotal scene from the The Break-Up? Though the couple isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, I think this says a lot about the gender divide. Brooke, played by Jennifer Aniston, tells her boyfriend, Gary, played by Vince Vaughn:
“I just don’t know how we got here. Our entire relationship, I have gone above and beyond for you, for us. I’ve cooked, I’ve picked your shit up off the floor, I’ve laid your clothes out for you like you’re a four year old. I support you, I supported your work. If we ever had dinner or anything I did the plans, I take care of everything. And I just don’t feel like you appreciate any of it. I don’t feel you appreciate me. All I want is to know, is for you to show me that you care.”
Gary is stunned. “Why didn’t you just say that to me?”
Brooke breaks down. She is sick and tired of carrying this load in their relationship and getting nothing in return.
But if you really think about it, she’s kind of playing a martyr. Did he ever ask her to do those things for him, or did she just assume them on her own? It’s what we women tend to do–we take on all the things and then feel overwhelmed or that our partners aren’t meeting our expectations stepping up to the plate.
Ultimately, I think it’s OK for us moms to appreciate what our partners do to help us and simultaneously feel like we’re not getting all the help we need; I don’t think it makes us ungrateful to wish for the burden to be lessened. But I also think we need to do a gut-check and recognize that we may (however unintentionally) be playing a role in allowing our “keeper” status to continue.
So we would be much better served if we put aside our thoughts of “Gosh, I wish he just knew to do this!” and just asked for help, owning up to the notion that our partners don’t necessarily think like we do and may not do it how we would do it–but that any help is better than no help.
And sometimes they surprise us.
Last week was our son’s birthday, and I had baked cupcakes the previous night. I went into the kitchen to find the portable cupcake trays and, to my surprise, three were stacked on the stove. It was a small act, but it meant the world to me.