Just call me "Jack" or how doing everything has led to the feeling that I'm doing nothing.
Jack of all trades, Master of none?
It certainly feels that way at the moment. My life is anything but linear and predictable. It requires different skills all at once and often at random, never knowing which arrow I'll need to pull out of my quiver means I must keep them all sharp at all times.
I'm sure most Mothers feel this way. No matter whether we work from or in the home, or elsewhere, it is often incredibly difficult to focus on one particular task at a time. We carry our family's well-being in a pouch around our necks and interruptions are considered customary. The kids are stressed or sick, the school needs a chat or forms have to be signed and money provided, there are appointments at dentists and doctors and therapists, extra-curricular activities need to be booked and paid for, kids have to be ferried to and from the activities and playdates and parties, homework needs to be supervised, healthy diets and physical activity and bedtime routines maintained. All of this needs to be done with rigorous consistency lest the family wheels fall off.
There is, of course, a lot more swirling around in our heads at one time but I find I'm unable to access the complete list in my brain right now because of the mental fatigue of Mothering. This list of parental responsibilities is so deeply embedded in my psyche that I am mostly unaware of the enormity of it. It sits like a giant rolodex (remember them?) in the back of my brain, and I pull out the task cards from the roll as needed and juggle multiple skills when necessary to manage it all, which is 99% of the time.
This piece is about Mothers because that is what I am, it is my own personal experience and that is the platform I choose to write from. It is not an indictment of Men or Fathers but simply a reflection of cultural norms as I experience them. I know there are Fathers out there who regularly engage in all aspects of their kid's lives and do a lot of emotional labour, there are single Dads and two Dads but let's be really frank about this, these men form a minority. In my almost fourteen years of being a Mother in three different countries, and my 40 plus years of being someone's daughter I can count on my hands the number of Men I know who are involved at the grass roots level of their children's lives. Most men dabble but need reminding. They do a decent job, but inevitably their responsibilities take them outside of the family bubble and they spend many hours a day as individuals with a single job to focus on and very little distraction from home. If you are a Dad who has another story to tell then I encourage you to do so but I'm not going to couch the truth of our experience in fluffy phrases and nurturing language to let you off the hook. We all grew up in this culture and have often modeled our lives on those of our parents, but it leads an enormous amount of dissatisfaction for Women who are Mothers. We need to start talking about this honestly and work together for some change. At the same time, this isn't a piece condemning my Husband or Father, both excellent Men, or an effort to seek change from them regarding the roles we play or the expectations we have. I certainly hope that any Men reading this would take the time to contemplate the manner in which their family lives play out and whether they should make any effort to change that but I'm really more interested in telling the truth about Mothers as I see it right now. We need to lay everything on the table and take a good look at it before we can discuss moving forward in a different direction. No one individual is at fault here, yet here we are.
I know very few men who spend their lunch breaks searching online for the perfect pink sweater, and the right pair of yellow shorts to wear to the Pride March because their daughter currently identifies as Pansexual and wants to wear the Pan flag colours IN VERTICAL ORDER in two day's time. Nope. That sort of thing just isn't in most Dad's purview.
Yet it is most certainly in mine.
I am literally writing this piece on my cellphone half-watching my daughter have her braces tweaked. I'm also engaging in silly chat with our fab Orthodontist and her staff, noting that her subject of choice today is about how difficult her morning was. She laughs about the difficulty of getting her kids out the door (one child determined to sing-scream loudly through every stage of her morning routine, and the other still in his underpants playing with toy cars, with five minutes to get them both out the door so she won't be late for work). We all laugh and joke about how badly she needed a second coffee today with a little something extra in it, wink wink. Mothers joke an awful lot alcohol, it is part of the language we speak when we discuss the tasks we face. This sarcasm and camaraderie, laughter and imbibing of wine together (and alone) is how we cope with the stress of intense multitasking. We joke because we need to find something funny in our day as a release. We laugh because it all feels so ridiculous.
It is ridiculous.
Feminism has given Women so much. We can wear trousers now (lucky us, yet the pockets are sadly always too small or non-existent), we can vote, study, earn degrees, are employable (on paper) in all walks of life regardless of our gender.
Yet as move forward in our lives, encouraged to meet our potential as strong intelligent Women, we still carry the entire cultural burden of child rearing.
Case in point.
I began writing this piece a week ago whilst sitting in the orthodontist's office. I wrote a little more this morning in the dentist's office as my kid had some more work done (when will the braces ever end?!) and I am finally now sitting in my studio attempting to finish it between the gaps of giving her painkillers from said work, and putting another load in the washing machine and needing to begin planning dinner. Oh, and the dog needs a walk. At some point soon I know that my girl will come outside to show me the piece of art she is working on and there will be conversations to be had and funny social media clips to share with me. I will do all of these things simultaneously, trying to maintain a calm state of mind when really what I feel is total frustration that I am not writing enough and blogging enough and parenting enough and doing enough.
Enough is possible the most loaded word in a Mother's vocabulary. I can't truly remember the last time I completed one project or piece of writing or task in a single sitting. Perhaps I should rearrange my schedule and my tasks so that I dedicate more hours to my personal goals (I am always attempting to) but that merely leaves the rolodex of jobs til the evening or another day. Procrastination is my shadow.
Perhaps my standards are too high. I want to give of myself to my child, to be available for her as she grows into an adult and beyond. That connection we have is one of my prized "possessions" and I feel strongly that it should be cherished. This does make boundaries blurry, though I don't think I'm in the minority of Mothers who have this experience. You can't just switch it off. Kids want to connect when they want to connect, depending upon their day or mood. If you aren't there to grab onto it you have missed the boat until next time. Certainly as they get older they withdraw from us (as they should) so we need to pay attention if we want to remain in contact with their lives. Add to this that my kid has anxiety and often needs me intensely for short and long periods of time, and there is no real way of predicting when they will land in my lap. I want to support her as I attempt to encourage her independence.
I like to live in an orderly way, with everything in it's place. Whilst I can put up with a certain amount of disarray in my home, at some point I will need to sort it all out. An untidy space gives me stress, I suppose it's all about control over my environment which gives me a false sense of control over my life. I have actually been working hard to focus less on my house and more on my own projects and it feels like I am doing ok on that front. I'm jealous in some ways of people who can function in a mess. They must have more time to do all sorts of things. Sadly, I cannot live this way and though I can relax my expectations a little bit I doubt I'll ever be able to leave stuff lying around for long. The house won't clean itself (when will someone invent a self-cleaning house for goodness' sake?) and the other household duties won't just occur. I don't actually dislike any of these tasks as their completion gives me back that sense of satisfaction and control in small increments, but it can also be addictive and a very compelling way to procrastinate.
I have high expectations of myself in regards to food and exercise. I have longed for a body I didn't have for as long as I can remember. In recent years I was able to face that this longing combined with my need for control ultimately led to a lifetime of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. Many years of therapy have put me on the right track at last and I am working very hard on acceptance of my body as it is, in the hope that when I am no longer at war with it I will finally want to take care of it properly and do more regular exercise. What do I eat? Mostly, I have no clue, though I can say that I no longer binge which is an incredible success for me. Yet truly healthy eating still lies ahead in my future somewhere. The amount of emotional work involved in focusing on that is sometimes an easy task but most often it sits at the back of the rolodex waiting for it's turn. I'll get there, I just have to knock a few more things off my plate before I do.
I have always set very high standards for myself regarding my work. Being a Mother first for so many years (my daughter is now 13) means I have subconsciously trained my brain to pay heed to those responsibilities ahead of any others. This has occurred at an almost genetic level, it has been necessary and naturally occurred without my notice. I have no problem with that. Raising young children takes an enormous amount of effort and time and energy and love. I'm really happy I've had the privilege of being able to stay home and do this. No regrets. This does mean, however, that I now have an enormous amount of difficulty changing my focus onto myself and my work. I feel compelled to complete all the Mother tasks first which allows me very little time for the rest, which is my future. If you had told me when I was younger that at 44 I wouldn't be earning an income I would have punched you in the face. I was educated in an environment in which Women could and should have a career and use their intelligence to achieve lofty goals. This deviation from my expected path has surprised me and it is taking quite a lot of time and effort to untangle myself from such habitual behaviour.
So, do I change my standards?
Well, I admit I have to let a few things slide more often but I also want to live my life in an tidy environment in which I can find things easily (how I hate losing things!), I need a strong bond with my child and I want to be healthy so I can stick around long enough to see how her life pans out. The challenge ahead is to also find more and more time every day to write and focus on my own career and prospects, to be the Woman I always wanted to be.
There's really no way to achieve that other than to divide tasks in another way and this would mean letting go of so many expectations (because why should my Husband perform any of these tasks in a way I see fit, as if he were an employee in MY house) and work on negotiating a different future together without resentment and frustration. How can this be an easy thing when I, like most Women, have carried out all those invisible tasks every day in silence. Women are finally speaking out about emotional labour, about the enormous amount of work we do to keep everyone on track. The real challenge surrounding this as far as I can see it is to find a way to convey this without blaming our Men and hating on them as a sex. Of course, when we feel frustrated it is easy to do this but the reality is that we have placidly accepted this role of ours and as we grow to understand the truth of our experience we have to communicate with empathy. My Husband didn't decide I would do all the "duties" that I do. It was me who took them on, one at a time, attempting to be that Superwoman who can do it ALL. I did it without real complaint and he was able to look on and believe that I was coping just fine and this is what I wanted. He did not decide that I would stop work, we came to that decision together as a couple. We have been able to travel with his career because of this decision and it was the right one for us. I really believe that my own conditioning on how to be a Woman (wherever that has come from culturally, we are all implicitly to blame for this) is what has led me to silently attempt to do more, be more and have everything.
And so we are at the beginnings of some very important conversations in our lives as Women. As always, we need to share more and be more open about our frustrations and failings. The more we reveal to each other that we are struggling, no matter which path we have chosen, the more we can come together and make lasting change. The biggest task that Feminism faces as we move forward is that of inclusivity. We must invite Men into the conversation, certainly expect them to hear us and listen in return, but then find ways to work together for change. We can't expect this to feel comfortable but I am positive that the Men I love and who love me in return do not want me to feel less than them, short-changed and frustrated. None of us want any of our loved ones to be unhappy. Patience and understanding is key.
Is it ok that if the thought of this work makes me want to have a nap, or a glass of wine, or both? Let me just put another load of washing in the dryer and check on my kid's pain levels first...