The Invisible Work of Motherhood

I work. Yes, I know all moms do things but when I say that what I mean is that I have a job and I’m telling you that so you can see where I’m coming from. I wake up to a laundry list of outside obligations. Every weekday morning (and on a lot of weekends, too) whether or not my kids are at home I sit down at the computer and get down to the business of handling the marketing needs of a range of clients. Just like someone who works in an office.

Except that’s not the whole story because every morning before I sit down at the computer it occurs to me that I need to walk through the house and perform the same three actions: I turn off the baby monitors, switch off the kids’ nightlights, and then I turn off the lights in the kids’ bedrooms. I don’t know why but I’m literally the only one who does these things.

And now it’s just about lunch so I’m going to get up from my desk because I remembered that I need to go vacuum up a whole bunch of scattered cat litter and get the trash and recycling out because it’s trash day and because I guess that’s what I do during my breaks. Tomorrow my to-do list includes – in addition to drafting articles for one client and creating an editorial calendar for another – going through the children’s clothes to make sure everything still fits and is seasonally appropriate. Which I do three times a year, every year.

Now I’ll probably get blasted for this but have you ever ever heard of a dad deciding out of the blue to pack up the family’s summer clothes and pull out the fall jackets? Because I haven’t and I know my fair share of liberated dads who aren’t afraid to change a diaper and furthermore hate it when people suggest they are babysitting their own kids. And yet not one of them that I know of has ever tackled the back to school shoe shopping without being asked by their wives first.

Motherhood? Is management.

the-invisible-work-of-motherhood

Whatever needs doing you either do it yourself or you’re the CEO of the family – a mantle that quite a few stay-at-home-moms and even working moms wear with pride but one that irks me to no end. First off, working mothers (whether CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or managers at the grocery store) shouldn’t be expected to have to be 24/7 managers just because:

  • They’re home more
  • Women are just better at that stuff (as many claim)
  • God said so
  • Whatever other stupid reasons people think up

And why do moms, stay-at-home or otherwise, have to make all the executive decisions anyway? Why is part of motherhood having a partner who has to ask “Do we have any plans this weekend?” What would happen if we as moms decided the appropriate answer was something like, I don’t know – did you make any?

What’s for dinner? I don’t know – what are you making?

What do the kids need for back to school? I don’t know! Let me know when you find out!

What should we do for Thanksgiving? You tell me.

And so on…

Serious question: if all the moms, career-oriented or otherwise, vanished off the face of the earth tomorrow, how often would kitchen floors get mopped? How often would sinks be cleared of toothpaste smears and beard trimmings? How many holiday and birthday greetings and gifts would get sent? Would the winter jackets ever come out storage?

The standard reply is that these things would happen when they absolutely needed to happen and not before. Of course the children would wear winter coats in winter, I hear offended dads say, but they wouldn’t be dug out of storage until absolutely necessary. The floor would get mopped when things started actively sticking to it and the sink would be cleaned when its white sheen was no longer discernible. As for holiday and birthday greetings and gifts, there are far too many Hallmarkian occasions to attend to them all so by ignoring them dads would be doing the world a service.

Honestly, it sounds pretty good in theory. You hear it often enough whenever mothers dare to complain about the state of the sink or having to switch off the nightlights every damn morning… just let it go! Stop worrying and learn to love the clutter! There are starving children in this world – do the crumbs under the kitchen table really matter?

But moms, ask yourself this. Who is suggesting you just let it go? And should you decide to follow that advice, will that person step in to pick up where you have left off? Will they vacuum up the cat litter once weekly and declutter the hall closet when it’s inevitably overtaken once again by boots that no one is wearing? Will they deal with the influx of school papers and the mounds of childhood scribbles that amass every three months or so? Will they randomly decide to go through the kids’ clothes to pull out what no longer fits and then bag it and drive it to the donation box?

If the answer is no and that person lives in your house, they probably honestly don’t know how good they have it.

I mean, how nice it must be to inhabit a world where toilets refresh themselves weekly and children’s shoes always fit. Holiday gifts arrive by post and the refrigerator shelves are always pretty clean. The radiators never get too dusty – neither does the piano or the side tables or anything else, really. Sometimes the mudroom or the living room starts to get cramped but then a few days later all of the things that made it feel so confined have simply vanished. A world in which teachers’ gifts just happened, plants are watered, clothing is organized, the waste bin in the kitchen is wiped clean, and the kitchen cabinet knobs are never sticky.

Wouldn’t it be neat, as a mom, to live in a household where those things were just taken care of? And taken care of so well that you never even had to think about them?

I tried it once, you know. Letting a thing go, assuming that in my absence someone else would take care of it completely, and can you guess what happened? I got a lecture about my failure to write exactly what we needed on the grocery list. Because, I suppose, I am the only one capable of actually checking whether or not we are low on American cheese. Imagine if I were to turn around and do the same to him! You know, darling, if the floors have gone few weeks without a mopping you could just mop them.

I imagine he would be, if the surveys are any indicator, appalled that I would even suggest he was not doing his equitable share.

In the end, though, it’s not really the chore hours that constitute the invisible work of motherhood. It’s the thinking. More precisely it’s the mental management and internal responsibility that really makes it more difficult for women to balance work and family. It’s being the default parent even when that was never your plan.

And more personally, it’s not that I pull out the autumn coats every September, it’s that part of my mental energy is devoted to remembering that September means it’s time to dig out the coats. November means the kids’ annual physical is coming up – better call and find out when that is. Or it’s knowing that if I don’t make arrangements for my and my husband’s dinner, he won’t simply look through the pantry and prepare something but will rather look at me for direction.

Essentially, it’s having to think a week or a month or a day or an hour ahead at all times because I was thrust into the role of the keeper of the calendar and meal planner and activities director and butler and maid.

The whole of it is, when added to my professional duties, exhausting. And yet what I do is for the most part invisible – it goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. No one has ever said thanks for turning off the kids’ lights every single day. Thanks for cleaning the door knobs so they’re never sticky for more than a few minutes. Thanks for wiping down the inside of the fridge!

Motherhood is a thankless job perhaps because so much of what we all do just seems to happen. Like magic.

It’s only when we don’t do it that anyone notices.

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