Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Virtues of Appearing To Be A Mediocre Mother and Housekeeper

Sometimes I come across voices in the comments sections of interesting blogs that really strike a chord with me. Like this commenter @fiftyfifty1 (who unfortunately does not have a blog of her own) from a recent thread on The Skeptical OB blog. I think Ms. @fiftyfifty1 really nails the nuances of how smart mothers who want truly equal partnerships actually behave as they negotiate both within their marriages and within the confines of unreasonable "looks" expectations of our larger society. Here are her words:

"It took my husband and me about a year of adjustment that included a fair amount of fighting after the birth of our first, but I can truly say I do not do more than my husband does and probably less. My techniques for success included being willing to let him fail in a spectacular fashion, being willing to ignore everything except that which was downright dangerous, and (most important) being willing to appear to be a rather mediocre mother. My kids looked worse than any kids around. But mismatched and stained clothes on your kids is a small price to pay for not having to dress them or do the laundry yourself." 

"Also strangers often seem to direct all questions to the mother. I frequently say "I don't know, ask their dad" and point at my husband. When other moms e-mail me to see if my kids can do a play date, I forward all the e-mails to him, and then have nothing more to do with it. And I don't act as a manager, delegating tasks to him. I figured he would be able to rise to the task if I were dead, so that meant he could rise to the task even without me being dead."...
"But there is a reason behind what appears to be on the surface just a "control freak" behavior by mothers. Mothers really do have to field judgment from those around them about their parenting and housekeeping. Men almost never do. This is, I think, at least part of why women go back and re-do [the household chore] when men do it poorly. Until everything got adjusted and worked out between my husband and me, there were times that things *really* looked bad. I remember that he left food scraps in the carpet in the sunroom and there was a horrible invasion of ants everywhere and yet he still didn't vacuum it up and one of his family members came over and saw it, but who do you think got criticized? Me! And other moms have teased me about how tangled my kids' hair was (and actually still is occasionally), but he's the one who gets them up and dressed. And when one of his elderly relatives sends a gift and he doesn't make the kids write a thank-you note, it is me they call up and ask "If it arrived". And these are just the criticisms that make it to my ears. I'm sure there are more judgments that go unsaid, and I'm sure they are directed at me, not him. Oh well, still worth not having to do it all yourself!"

Amen, sister. Amen. One question though. Did you really *need* to engage in a fair amount of fighting for a year after you first became parents? I ask this because I've been there, done that on the postpartum fighting with my DH (after we had our second child 3.5 years ago) and now in hindsight, I don't think any of our old behavior was productive, nor in any way feminist or cool. By "fighting" I mean verbal spats that felt really intense (activating fight or flight response/flooding), that were about the same issues repeatedly, and ultimately went nowhere - and we've learned that for us, that brand of going-nowhere fighting was a total waste of our time and energy. We should have seen our marriage counselor much sooner because we truly needed a neutral third party to get us to get past our own defense mechanisms (learned from dysfunctional marriages witnessed in our families-of-origin) to be able to see and say where the other person is coming from, and to finally work towards a solution. We certainly could have done it without all of the drama. Lessons learned!

These days though we do seem to be able to put into practice some better, research-based conflict resolution skills, and I'm thrilled we have a generally peaceful, happy union these days as a result. For a great resource, see "Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In" by Laurie Puhn, J.D. - originally recommended to me by Gretchen Rubin, author of "The Happiness Project" and "Happier At Home" as one of the many fine books in her excellent bibliographies. And don't hesitate to make that first counseling appointment.

Yes, it's hard when society is all about judging the woman for all of the various appearances-- her own, the kids', the home's -- but never the man. I think it is a worthwhile project to develop your "But is this really my priority?"-meter. It takes guts though. Not everyone is comfy enough with themselves to be able to let some things FAIL sometimes. Most women I know have simply not been socialized to be able to let appearances go, and they can't operate outside of the proverbial box. Just do it.


Nataliya said...

sent my kid to daycare with a hole in her tights this morning (it's still cold up here). And I really can't remember the last time we (as in her and I) brushed her hair before daycare.

I look at my friends who run themselves rugged trying to "have it all" and ask why?? Really, why? I also look at them and see how their "control" is really about being the centre of their child's universe and wanting to be the primary caregiver. Some mothers are just not able to let the father have a significant role in their child's life. Some mothers WANT to be it all. Of course, that doesn't stop anyone from complaining that they are tired, overrun, etc.

It also helps that hubby and I have naturally come to a realization that I'm better at cooking and he's better at cleaning. So we just let the other do their thing and are grateful that our own workload is less.

After our daughter was born we had to adjust as well, everyone does. We said some things we didn't mean. But in the end, we are happy with the parents we are because we naturally let each other do the things we're good at. And don't expect perfection, and happy to share affection, and present ourselves as a united front to the child.

Mom and dad always make decisions together (including the child where appropriate). Mom and dad always support each other. Mom and dad sometimes argue (productively) in front of the child (they have to learn conflict resolution somehow, right?). But mom as dad are always there, equally, physically, emotionally and in decision-making.

That's what lets us have two successful careers + two academic careers + enjoy our marriage and parenthood + have individual hobbies and friedships. If we were not able to share in the home/parenting responsibilities, there is no way we would be able to pull off everything else.

sorry for running on and probably not making much sense. but I really think equality is about letting the other parent in and not expecting perfection from anyone. "Controlling" for the sake of being "one and only" is very lonely.

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate. Not to the fighting with spouse part. And I've never really felt guilt about my parenting. I mean, look at my kids, they're perfect. Whatever I'm doing I can't be destroying them too much. It helps that my parents and my mother's parents defined free-range parenting, and I was brought up to feel kind of sorry for people with smothering parents who didn't get to learn basic life skills until they left the house. (Still do.) Plus, given how nurturing my DH is, me doing any more would probably be overkill.

Re: the mental load stuff, prior to having baby #2, we shared the mental load, which meant we would both forget from time to time, but chances were one of us would remember to look at our dayplanners. Since baby #2 I just don't have the brain capacity for it, especially since I'm juggling multiple (money bearing) projects at work and DH is winding down on his end. So I've been letting him take over scheduling of the mother's helpers and things like that. He still hasn't called to start piano lessons for DC1 (something he's been supposed to do since January). But I don't have the time to do any thinking about it other than a brief recollection every time I see his email reminder to himself to call. We don't have time. (We're both kind of glad that daycare starts next month, though not looking forward to being sick!)

We live in squalor, and we're used to it.

Our son is almost solely responsible for getting himself and his stuff ready. If he forgot his coat and it's cold, that's on him. He's been doing laundry for years and we're starting him on cooking now that he's taller. He's amazing at watching over his little sister. We are incredibly lucky that we can count on him to shoulder some of the family responsibility. He is going to make someone very happy someday.

There's a lot of stuff we just don't care about. We may spend a lot of time on academics with our squiggly children, but we do "let kids be kids" when it comes to stained clothing and playing.

So, bottom line, mediocre is awesome. And disapproving society isn't worth paying much attention to, other than to occasionally pity or laugh at.

Cloud said...

Lots to think about and comment on here, and I'll come back and do so later when I am not ignoring a career ladder spreadsheet that needs doing...

But I wanted to throw one thing out there: my husband and I DID have to NEGOTIATE the division of labor- and it is in fact an ongoing negotiation, although at this point we pretty much have our "areas" we each cover and don't need to discuss much unless something really different comes in or unless something upsets the balance of the force.

But we rarely truly fight over these things. I think we've had maybe 2 or 3 real, true fights about household work in 8 years of marriage- all after the first kid was born 6 years ago. The way we avoid them is that when something is bugging us, we talk about it before it bugs us so much that we explode. I'm always harping on about Friday night beers, but that is where a lot of these things get sorted for us. In a low key, problem solving sort of way- not in a confrontational "you never fold the laundry!" sort of way. We're not perfect, by any stretch, but it really, truly is possible to get to this happy place of fairly equal sharing of chores and parenting without having to fight a lot.

And now, speaking of fighting a lot, back to that career ladder spreadsheet. Sigh. I just want to be able to promote my people....

oilandgarlic said...

The period after having our first kid (and second) definitely required a lot of negotiations in terms of chores. Lack of sleep didn't help. I think we're at a better point now. I'm fortunate that for the most part, my in-laws don't seem to blame me for an unclean house or not-picture-perfect kids! I promise that when my sons get married, I won't ever blame the wife for lack of thank-you cards or anything household related!

Got It, Ma! said...

My husband and I just celebrated (in a low key high-five-ish sort of way) our 21st couplehood anniversary. I think it helped us a lot that we were together for 10 years before we had kids. I'm sure it's significant that we share a very similar preference for tidiness. That really helps a lot. I can imagine it would be hard to find a balance if you were a neat freak married to a slob.

The sticky thing for us is that he has always traveled for work. For twenty years he has been away for part of most weeks, including the infant and baby years for both our kids. Which means that, no matter how willing he is do his share of everything (and he does - with household chores, parenting, you name it) it doesn't change the fact that for several days most weeks, it's all on me.

That unbalance and need to constantly shift gears has led to frustration on both our parts. But, after years of practice, we've got a sort of rhythm. If he has been gone, I get some wiggle room in the chore department. I sit and sip a beer while he makes dinner. He takes the reins with the laundry. The longer he's home, the more things swing back to 50/50. Usually, he's so happy to be home and not in a hotel that cooking and cleaning jumping in with the kids are pretty appealing tasks.

Since I'm always here, the kids' schedules fall to me. He'll jump in for pick-up and drop-off duties, but I'm the master of the timetable and let him know where to be when. And I don't give him a hard time if he doesn't remember which day is acting class because he may only have been home for it once since it started. Since the schedule has to be one that I can manage alone, it really makes sense the I take charge of it.

Conversely he is in charge of scheduling and overseeing repair work on the house, car maintenance, etc, making sure it happens when he's home to deal with it. Again, I'll help out, but he drives that bus.

One of our take-aways is that, if there's a job that needs doing that you either hate to do, or you just never find time to get to, it may be time to delegate. Sometimes writing a check so the lawn gets mowed regularly is the best gift you can give your marriage, and as such, it's worth budgeting for, even if it means giving up something else.

It sucks that people still have such unfair expectations of women versus men when it comes to housekeeping and children. I confess, it perplexes me. My dad was 58 when I was born and he cooked and cleaned, took us to playdates, ironed our clothes, you name it. My mom did all that stuff, too. I guess they were unusual, but it always seemed normal to me, which makes me believe perceptions can be changed if we keep at it.

Pamela said...

This is so true! Women are judged much more harshly for things like homemaking and cooking and how the kids look, etc. It's like working out of the house--I hear a lot of snotty comments about mothers who do that, but none about fathers who do it.

One of the reasons why I was VERY resistant to learning any traditional "girly" skills like cooking or sewing, etc. was because it really was expected of me, and I resented it. I'm a fairly good cook now and I'm learning some other skills, but if I got married/partnered and my SO assumed I'd be the one to do ALL of it, he'd be in for some learning.

Haley said...

After seeing friends literally almost get divorced after having a child, I'm hyper-concerned about situations like this. I truly enjoy presenting a well-coiffed version of myself and my home (hello, I have a blog!) but I know I'm going to have to learn to let things go and it won't be easy for me at all.

My husband and I really don't have anything serious to fight about after 5 years together, and I worry that we don't have conflict resolution skills that will mesh well. I'm a verbal person and I talk thinks through, while he internalizes and then snaps. I'm hopeful that being so aware of the potential for a problem is going to help me realize that we need help before things get terrible.

You mommies need more than a Sunday in May to get presents.

Anonymous said...

I have to say though, the woman in the original blog doesn't understand AP at all. It sounds like she's only talked to some of the extreme crazy people (quite possibly former lawyers trying to justify quitting the jobs they hated while their husbands work overtime to pay the bills including student loans) who tend to be in your face on the coasts. She also may be confusing AP with helicopter parenting, which it isn't at all.

AP removes, rather than adds, guilt. AP frees parents to do what works for them. AP has a large component of dad being AP too. AP does not force women to lose earnings. We're totes AP here and I'm totes ambitious. We just don't waste time doing things that don't work for our babies and make me feel awful.