All around me, young mothers are stretched, and stressed, and struggling. Mommy burnout is rampant. And while, I’m sure that to some extent, it’s always been hard to manage a house full of young children, I also have a sneaking suspicion that it’s worse today, that the women of modern generations face handicaps our foremothers didn’t have to.
There was a time in the not too distant past when families worked together toward common goals. The day began with Pa and the boys doing the chores while Ma and the girls got breakfast. Everyone ate together, and then the men folk went to work in the fields or the shop downstairs, while the ladies set about the baking, or washing, or gardening, or whatever else was needed that day. The family was all together again for the midday meal before heading off to their afternoon’s work, divided only by gender lines, and then it was back together again for the evening meal and a little family time before bed. Everyone grew up watching their parents train younger siblings to help with the work, and possibly did a fair amount of training and tending of little brothers and sisters themselves. Work was done together for the good of the family business, whether it was a farm or a blacksmith shop, tailor shop, or dry goods store. Society was family centered.
Enter the Industrial Revolution. Individuals left the family unit to work in factories for the good of their employers. All day long they gave their best to further the company, and at the end of the day they brought home a paycheck that enabled them to buy food and clothes and other things that families used to make for themselves. Life became individual centered, and individuals became peer focused as they spent the majority of their waking hours with co-workers rather than with family.
The result was our modern society in which fathers go off to work alone, often very early in the mornings thanks to long commutes, and get home late; children are splintered off to age-graded classrooms and activities until they reach adulthood when they take their own place in a corporation, living all day with co-workers, striving together for the good of the company.
Now suppose one of those employees is a woman. We’ll call her Jane. One day, smiling at her over the water cooler is Mr. Right. They tie the knot, and four years later (once they’ve had time “to get to know each other”), they decide to have a baby. Jane has always been a bit old fashioned, and she believes that children do best with care from their own mothers, so around her seventh month of pregnancy, she quits her job and gets ready to be a stay at home mom.
At first, it’s exciting. The baby’s on it’s way, and there’s lots to do to decorate the perfect nursery. But then one day, Jane finds herself in her pajamas at 11:00 in the morning with stringy hair and spit up down her back, trying to comfort an inconsolable baby, and wondering what happened to her life.
Fast forward four years. Things have improved slightly. Jane usually manages to get into sweats before the day gets too far along, but she’s bored and lonely, and her four year old and her two year old are constantly fighting. The living room floor is littered with toys. The laundry is never folded. And dinner was frozen pizza three nights last week. It drives Jane crazy, and she’d like to work on trying to solve some of her problems, if she could just figure out how to get a shower.
Why is it like this? I’ll admit this was a bit of a caricature, but not much. Nearly all of Jane’s woes have happened to me before, or at least I’ve heard multiple women complain about them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one. What’s going on? I blame most of it on our handicaps.
Obviously, not all women have all of the handicaps that I’m about to enumerate (I don’t), and some may even sound a little foreign, depending on each person’s background, but I think that most of us are plagued by at least a few of the following.
1. We are handicapped by our society’s (begrudging at times) acceptance of mothers at home, but total lack of acceptance of women staying home without children. “There’s nothing to do,” the conventional wisdom goes, as if cooking, shopping, and laundry are so incidental as to fit nicely into cracks. The result of this is that, just like Jane in my story, most women don’t come home full time until they become mothers. What few of us take into account is that coming home after spending most of your life in school or at work is a MAJOR life change. We go from almost constant people contact and interaction to hours of solitude. We go from a life in which we are able to complete many tasks (like papers, and work projects) that we will not have to do again, to a world in which we will have to do most of our tasks over, and over, and over. We go from a world in which our work was evaluated by others, and our schedules were, at least to some extent, controlled by others, to a world in which we are almost totally responsible for our own time management, and in which we are only seeking to please our husbands and the Lord. This can be hugely bewildering. It was for me. I was very depressed for a long time when I first came home after graduating from college. It took me between one and two years to wean myself away from dependence on the constant feedback of school grades to confirm my worth.
Becoming a mother is also a MAJOR life change. The responsibility can be overwhelming at times. For the first time in our lives, another human being is completely dependent upon us for everything. This little person can’t even change his own position if he gets uncomfortable or bored. We have to completely adjust our schedules to take into account the baby’s needs, and often our own needs seem lost in the shuffle. Many women face difficulties learning to breastfeed, figuring out sleeping, and yes, even showering with a new baby to care for. Marriages are often in flux at this point, too, as relationships adjust to account for a third family member. On top of this, many of us face the postpartum hormonal roller coaster and the physical pain and exhaustion of recovering from the birth.
It is insane that our culture expects us to go through both changes at once. And yet, for many women, this is the norm. We’ve all heard of “stay at home moms.” “Stay at home wives” and “stay at home daughters” are oddities in most circles.
2. We are handicapped by our society’s norm for raising children. Most of us did not spend much time at home growing up. The majority of our hours were spent at school or in age graded sports, music, or other activities. Add to that the fact that most women came from typical 2.1 child households, and the result is we know nothing about being home all day with small children. How many of us watched our mothers cook dinner every night with babies on their hips? How many of us were assigned the job of folding laundry with our three-year-old sister? How many of us helped with potty training or spent our pre-mommy lives thinking it was normal to have conversations with six-year-olds about dinosaurs or construction equipment? We have been thrown into a demanding job we have no experience for. We don’t know how to get our household jobs done with “help.” We loose our minds having “infantile” discussions with children all day and miss our “intelligent” peers and co-workers. We don’t have the management and multitasking skills to drive the household forward, and often wind up getting dragged behind a run-away mob of runny-nosed hooligans, maybe not every day, but often enough to lead to at least minor bouts of despair.
3. We are handicapped by our society’s view of home as end of the day landing site. We don’t know how to cope with being there all day. The majority of our before children creativity is devoted to careers and school. This means that when women come home, their minds are numbed by the sheer monotony of staying all day in the place the rest of the world only resorts to when they want to watch TV, eat a quick meal, or sleep. We have no vision of our homes as productive centers of education (both for our children and ourselves), outreach, artistic expression, and even entrepreneurship. And those of us who do catch hold of the dream, usually have no examples to follow, and have to work out what that means all by ourselves from scratch, making all the inevitable mistakes along the way.
4. We are handicapped by our society’s undervaluing of homemaking. Home skills aren’t really respected because home isn’t seen as all that important. After all, wasn’t it the family farm we all wanted to get away from so badly in the Industrial Revolution? And we can thank the feminists of the 60′s and 70′s for reminding us that any brainless, dependent leech can keep things going at home. Work is the exciting place. Now some people will concede that children do better with their own mothers than in a daycare, so it’s OK with some people if mothers stay home to care for their children, but homemaking? That’s not really necessary. We don’t have any idea of what to do at home, so many women assume that they’re just kind of there as babysitters to keep the kids from killing themselves while they play all day and trash the house. There’s nothing more boring than having no goals, no real responsibilities, and no meaningful work. If you don’t cook, so what? There’s always McDonald’s. If you don’t clean, so what? The house is a disaster, and you’re depressed about it, but you have little kids, and who can really expect anything to be different?
5. We’re handicapped by our society’s view of fatherhood as financial support and nothing more. We women are home ALONE with our children. We’re no longer part of a team. Modern men don’t live in a family centered world. Instead of working downstairs in the shop or out in our own fields, they’re across town all day in an office. They aren’t home for a midday meal. They aren’t taking the children with them to do chores, or training the boys to work alongside them.
Men no longer see children as their “job.” Consequently, women have the full responsibility for the children in many households, which means they must be working, or at least “on-call” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which translates into a 168 hour work week. Men think they’re working crazy hours when they hit 60 or 80 hours per week, but many dads still feel entitled to sit around in the evenings watching TV or surfing the web to decompress and still expect their wives to do all the parenting. Since the children aren’t their job anyway, even when they are home, many fathers don’t invest much in their children. But parenting IS the father’s job. Nearly every parenting command in the Bible is given to “fathers,” not mothers. Women are being asked to parent for two much of the time. And as anyone in the work world will tell you, doing your job AND someone else’s is exhausting.
A lot of dads (like my wonderful husband) believe that they need to parent with more than a paycheck and are making their children a priority. But they’re still stuck in the system. They’re still gone for hours. They still have to go to work alone instead of with their children. And for mothers, the lonely days can be long and hard.
So what’s the answer? Well, the best plan is to become a radical and create a Utopia. Seriously. Realize the mess our culture has made of motherhood, and make fixing it part of the micro-culture you create in your home. You may also have to put yourself through rehabilitation and physical therapy for your attitudes. And it may just be hard for a while, but at least maybe we can stop blaming ourselves for our lack of “talent,” or thinking that we aren’t cut out to be mothers and admit that we do actually have some challenges to overcome.