One week until Mother’s Day! Is everyone ready to sleep in…until 7:30? And get breakfast in bed (but get ready to wash those dishes!) And be taken out to brunch—with your kids sitting next to you dropping their pasta on the floor? It’s funny because it’s true. But when you stop to think about it, inequality in parenting is actually not funny, and the extra workload we as moms take on when we take on the role of “primary” parent has a detrimental effect on our quality of life.
I wrote an essay for the Mother’s Day issue of Westchester Family magazine titled: “Take a Seat at the Table: Motherhood Edition.” (Want to check it out? Click here to gain access to the digital edition, then head to Page 62 for the Last Word essay.) In it I discuss a moving Instagram post making its way around the Internet. There’s a photo of a family gathered at a restaurant celebrating, and off to the side is a mother and her baby, part of the family but sequestered to the empty corner for the duration of the meal. At no point does the observer, a fellow diner at the restaurant, see any other family member stepping in to switch with the mother so she can return to the table and relax. Yet there are plenty of adults at the gathering, each capable of taking the baby so that Mom can get a break.
This situation is all-too-familiar for many moms. How often do you get stuck ordering for your kids, cutting up their food, and feeding them while everyone else gets to eat without babysitting duties? In the essay I call it one of the last holdouts of the women’s rights movement. Women have equal roles in the workforce and even in the military, but for some reason at home we are the only ones who seem to be able to heat up a plate of chicken nuggets for a hungry toddler. Why is this?
My theory is that this unequal shift of responsibility to the mother is a slow tilt that begins when baby is born. Because, at first, our bodies are often the only source of food for the baby, we become the primary feeders, which turns into the primary soothers, which turns into the primary caregivers when it comes time to putting the baby to sleep. And even when kids are old enough for a bottle or for solid food, this habit stays with us. We figure I know all the tricks already so I’ll just do it.
Division of labor isn’t bad on its own, of course, but when Mom becomes the go-to parent for eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing, finding objects around the house, packing the diaper bag for an outing, the list goes on and on—that’s when it begins to build up on us, and that’s what’s so draining. If you ask a mom what’s so tiring about her job, she might not be able to pinpoint one thing, but it’s the chopping up of strawberries WHILE rescuing the lost bottle of water from under the couch AND breaking up a fight AND scheduling the next pediatric dentist appointment that takes all her energy.
There’s a great manifesto about this concept of Emotional Labor that was originally published in Harper’s Bazaar titled “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up.” The writer describes her ideal Mother’s Day gift: a cleaning lady. But not just a cleaning lady, what she wanted was for her husband to complete the chore of researching, interviewing, and agreeing on price and schedule for someone to come over on a regular basis. Because that prep work is the hardest part of the project. Her husband, not understanding this, gave up on finding someone (he found it too difficult), and simply cleaned the bathrooms for her on Mother’s Day…while she watched the kids. A nice gift, but did not accomplish nearly any of what she wanted.
I find that sometimes when I ask my husband to do something like pack the diaper bag, the amount of questions I have to answer and advice I have to give make the task seem like it’s still mine, even though I tried to hand it off. This extra emotional labor can be so exhausting that I’ve heard myself snapping, “Figuring it out is part of doing it!” And that’s not the kind of wife I want to be.
So how do we get a better sense of equality in this parenting thing? First off, hand off those kids! Just because you are the mom does not mean you have agreed to be the primary caregiver around the clock. Even if you don’t have a job in a traditional workforce, your role as CPO (Chief Parenting Officer! Read more about eradicating the term Stay-at-home-mom here) is not a 168-hour-a-week position. And even if you don’t show up to an office in the morning, it doesn’t mean you are the only person who has to get up in the middle of the night with the kids. Take turns. Even if it takes longer for your partner to soothe the kids, the only thing that will make it easier for them is more practice, and they won’t get to try if you’re always the one kissing boo-boos.
The term “Take a Seat at the Table” was coined by Sheryl Sandberg as motivation for women to not shrink away in an office setting. She saw too frequently women enter the conference room for a meeting and stand back towards the walls, away from the men sitting at the center table. Her encouragement of women to value themselves as equals launched a movement. This idea doesn’t have to stop at the workforce—let’s roll it over to the home as well.
So at your next family outing, don’t hide in the corner with the baby, hand them off to your partner and sit at the table. You’ve earned it.
Happy Mother’s Day from Baby Got Chat!
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