So it’s Mother’s Day, arguably the only holiday on the calendar besides Thanksgiving that remains a universal celebration of gratitude.
In our own mothers, both my wife and I have ample reason to reflect on gratitude. These moms are the kind of women who have shepherded the human race for millennia, often/usually with inadequate appreciation.
As an at-home parent, I appreciate the rigors of daily childcare — an occupation which women staffed by default until very recently.
But on this Mother’s Day, I want to reflect on the unique challenges faced by moms who work outside the home, and thus find themselves doing double duty.
My wife (or Mommy, as she’s known when the kids are awake) is one of those women whose global job description is juggling chainsaws.
Households tend to be collaborative enterprises. By their very nature, households with children have to be collaborative enterprises.
In collaborative households, individuals have their primary jobs, of course, but amid the scrum of competing interests individuals rely on one another in order for those primary jobs to get done.
In the Mad Men era, this arrangement was more rigid, and was acknowledged in the sexist slogan, “Behind every great man there’s a great woman.”
These days, gender roles are merging, even in traditionally-structured households which have an at-home mom and a breadwinning dad. Plenty of dads my age and younger clock out from their paid jobs and handle the kiddos.
My dad probably changed a diaper or two in his life, though I’d have to confirm that. I’m quite sure his dad wouldn’t have known how to change a diaper if you held a gun to his head.
However, before we as men sprain our wrists patting one another on the back, consider the results of a recent study by Ohio State psychology professor Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan.
Schoppe-Sullivan found that, while dads in the US have nearly tripled their parenting time from 2.5 hours per week in 1965 to 7 hours per week in 2011, women’s parenting time has also increased — from 10 hours per week in 1965 to 14 hours per week in 2011. And this is during a period in which women have increasingly been employed outside the home.
So what the hell is going on?
It’s a big topic. Schoppe-Sullivan’s conclusion is that contemporary middle-class families in America follow the norm of “intensive parenting,” which means what it sounds like, and that because motherhood has increasingly become an idealized role, women bear the brunt of meeting unrealistic parenting standards.
Schoppe-Sullivan describes a burnout vortex into which moms are being sucked, with our help. Even the kids get in on it, if our household is any indication. Who do the munchkins hit up more often?
Answer: it ain’t me. And I’m the primary parent. They clamor for Mommy. We frequently and explicitly have to send the message: Mommy’s closed right now.
If the culture makes it clear that how the kids turn out is a reflection on Mom, Schoppe-Sullivan opines, then moms are in turn more reluctant to hand over the reins to Dad.
After all, Mom reasons, if the kid turns out to be a serial killer or a Cleveland Browns fan, Dad’s not the one who’ll get blamed. And Mom would be right.
Schoppe-Sullivan found that while dads spend 8 percent of their time solo parenting, moms spend 33 percent of their time alone with the brood. It’s a vicious cycle that starts in the early months.
The results of this study are consistent with other research in this area, and as the primary parent in our household the research in this area is troubling to me.
I do the job of primary parenting to the best of my ability, and occasionally I flatter myself that I do it well. That’s how I can still venture to show up every day for work.
Simply put, however, Mommy does everything, and she does it with everything she has — which is quite a lot.
So I’m conflicted. On the one hand, like other moms of her ilk, she certainly deserves to be valorized. At the very least, she deserves a trophy, or a plaque, or maybe a crown. (Actually, she got one this year. See below).
On the other hand, I’m not sure we shouldn’t be encouraging moms to take a load off.
Of course, I know what Mommy’s response to that would be. “Really? Who’s going to do X?” (And she’d have a point, even if what she means is who’s going to do X like I’d do it, or argue with the conclusion that no one will die if X isn’t done).
All of this leaves me wondering how, exactly, moms get off the treadmill. You might be unsurprised that I haven’t a clue.
Anyway, I could list all of the things that my wife does as a mom that amaze me, or which invite the attention of the gods, but frankly lists aren’t my strong suit.
I write long as it is. If I set down a comprehensive list of every way in which she crushes it as a mom, the battery on your device would die long before you scrolled to the end of it.
For instance, she’s there to dust you off when you land on your can:
And she works hard to promote literacy:
More broadly, a couple of things stand out in the moment. Again, they are by no means exhaustive.
She handles her paid job and her unique responsibilities with the kids so deftly my brain shudders just trying to grapple with how she does it. Not to mention that (most days) she does it with grace and warmth.
A meeting ends, and I shuttle the Munch up to her workspace for a nursing session. He finishes, she pings me, and she’s back on another call before I’ve closed the door.
At the end of a long and demanding workday, she doesn’t wander past the kids in a trance — something I might do in her shoes. She always engages with them before getting herself ready for dinner.
Frequently, she’ll take over if I need to do something time-sensitive. After a full day of work. Sans grumbling and without any auto-drama.
She’s far more patient than I am with the kids. My tool of choice is the hammer; hers is the heavy blanket.
The woman’s not perfect, though she is working on it. She occasionally makes mistakes. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what those mistakes are. Usually, I only know she’s goofed because she tells me.
Her mistakes only magnify her status in my mind. Without the occasional flub, after all, we might forget she’s human, and thus fail to see the greatness in what she pulls off.
When I contemplate her motherhood, I think of what Edmund Wilson had to say about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel.
Sure, it isn’t flawless, Wilson noted. It’s messy, at times even chaotic, but “it does not commit the unpardonable sin: It does not fail to live. The whole farrago is animated with life.”
So it is with our resident mom. She utterly inhabits motherhood. It suffuses everything about her. She’s sold out and bought in.
Every day she sets the example by her total commitment to the workaday job of being a parent and big provider, and every minute she inspires us with her profound and total love for her family.
In this line of work, you meet a lot of world-class mothers: women who are unbelievably tough and smart, experts at nurturing their children and guiding them through the labyrinth of life. I personally know at least a dozen such moms.
And I wouldn’t trade our mom for all of them.