Mothers hold themselves to an impossible standard
“I fantasize about doing that.” That’s the response I heard over and over again when I told friends I was writing a novel about an overworked, overextended working mother who in the aftermath of a heart attack and bypass surgery runs away.
They told me this in whispers and in various iterations. One mom imagined staying on the train past her stop, another driving into the sunset instead of going home to make dinner.
Every single mom I spoke to about my book shared this fantasy with me.
Not a single father did.
Which is pretty telling.
Though women account for nearly half of the work force, when it comes to that second shift of hauling children to after-school activities, cooking dinner, scheduling doctors’ appointments, stepping up for sick days, that still tends to fall to the mother.
Oh, I know that fathers are far more involved than ever before. They change diapers! They do laundry! Compared to the pipe-smoking, fetch-my-slippers fathers of yore, they are positively enlightened.
But according to a report by the Working Mother Research Institute, mothers still do more, even though fathers seem to understand they ought to. According to another study from researchers at Boston College, more than half of fathers believed that caregiving should be a shared responsibility, but only 30% felt childcare was actually divided equally between parents.
This makes sense to me. I know a lot of cool dads, who believe it’s their right and obligation to be involved with their kids, but who would be hard-pressed to tell you the name of the pediatrician, let alone why Sophie and Isabel cannot have playdates together anymore. And OK, maybe they don’t need to. But someone does. And that default parent still generally goes by the name of Mom.
This means that many working mothers today are dealing with all the pressures of work while also taking responsibility for the home. Most of my mom friends are air-traffic controllers, managing the family logistics, therapists, managing the family emotions, and oh, right, they’re also at least partially financially responsible or the family’s wellbeing.
Is it any wonder that in a 2011 Forbes study 92% of working mothers said they feel “overwhelmed” with home and workplace duties and 62% of them reported feeling like a “married single mom”? In a more recent Pew study, 59% of working mothers say they don’t have enough leisure time.
In that context maybe what’s surprising isn’t that so many mothers fantasize about running away. Maybe what’s surprising is that they don’t actually do it.
But we don’t. We love our families. The impulse to flee is less about wanting to abandon all responsibility than about going someplace, just for a few hours even, where nobody else’s needs come first. It’s about yearning for a room of our own.
Which brings us back to fathers and why they don’t seem to have the run-away fantasy. Perhaps it’s because they don’t need it. They might be as overwhelmed and time-pressed as mothers—and indeed, in the Pew study I mentioned, half of fathers said they didn’t have enough leisure time—but I suspect when most dads check out for a few hours to go to the gym or watch a game or have a beer, they really check out. They aren’t watching the game while worrying about why their kid has started wetting the bed again. They aren’t feeling guilty for watching the game. They aren’t obsessing over whether the bed-wetting is somehow their fault.
Mothers on the other hand, we worry.
Though we are a long way from the 1950s and that tidy patriarchal family structure, vestiges of it remain, both institutionally (the stubborn wage gap that can relegate women to backseat earners) and socially with an equally stubborn assumption of which parent should be the primary caretaker of children (hint: the one with a vagina). Another recent Pew Research study about U.S. families was revealing. One-third of respondents said it was best for young children if their mothers didn’t work outside the home. No statistics were given on whether respondents thought it was better if fathers didn’t work outside the home.
So, mothers know they are expected to be the ones on deck and as a result, they are the ones on deck. Asking for help is tough. Not feeling guilty about accepting is tougher. It’s hard to unhear the ways subtle and blunt, that we’ve been told that it’s our job to take care of family, that this job is exalted more important than anything else. That we are blessed.
Which might be true, but when you’re trying to help a sobbing fourth-grader with a math packet and get the dinner on, and respond to that urgent work email, blessed is not the word that comes to mind.
Family is important. But so is work. And so are friends. And naps. And having chunks of time to daydream or sing along to Beyoncé or do absolutely nothing edifying. I think most fathers understand this implicitly because they haven’t been fed a lifetime of messages suggesting that they should sacrifice their entire selves, at all times, at all costs, for the family.
This is the impossible standard to which many working mothers (or, really, mothers) are held. This is the impossible standard to which many working mothers hold themselves. Achieving it is not only impossible, it’s also no good for families to have a resentful, stressed-to-the-hilt, trying-to-be-perfect mom (never mind the behavior we’re modeling to our kids). It’s time to let go of this idealized mother, who never really existed anyhow, and for mothers today to learn to ask for help, to accept help and, this part is harder, to feel entitled to it. Maybe then, we’ll stop fantasizing about running away and start fantasizing about other things, like affordable subsidized childcare.
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