The Curse of the
I was ready to fold.
The Case of the Missing Blueberries
> I'm surprised you didn't get blueberries.
I stared at my husband's text and imagined him speaking these words in what I call his "porn voice"-breathless, like he gets when he's frustrated or overwhelmed.
Instantly defensive, I thought: Um, why can't you get the blueberries?
I'd taken the afternoon "off" in order to spend time with my oldest, who was sorely in need of some mommy reconnection time in the wake of the recent arrival of his new baby brother. After going over my long list of instructions for the sitter (twice), I hustled out the front door to pick Zach up from school-all while balancing the snacks I'd just packed, a bag forgotten by the prior day's playmate, a FedEx package to be dropped off, a brand-new already-too-small pair of children's
shoes to be returned, and a client contract that needed a markup
before tomorrow morning. I was just barely holding it together when my husband's "blueberry text" arrived, and the tears came so fast and furious I had to pull over to the side of the road.
How had it happened that I'd gone from successfully managing an entire department at work to failing to manage a grocery list for my family? And what self-respecting woman cries over an item forgotten at the market? And, just as alarming: Would a container of off-season blueberries serve as the harbinger to the end of my marriage?
I wiped away the mascara streaks beneath my eyes and thought: This is not how I envisioned my life-the fulfiller of my family's smoothie needs.
Hold up. Rewind.
How I Got Here
My mom and dad divorced when I was three and she was
pregnant with my brother. Mom opted to forgo alimony to avoid acrimony and raised my brother and me in a one-parent home while working full-time as a professor of social work in New York City. Not a high-paying job, but she made it work for our family. Or so I thought until the first eviction notice was slipped under our apartment door. Mom had taught classes all day, picked my brother and me up from school, took us to the dentist uptown, dropped us back at home with a sitter downtown, and then . . . went back to work. When I saw the envelope on the floor, I opened it, read the letter inside, and then waited up late for Mom to come home. When she finally walked through the door, I broke the news to her that we no longer would have a place to live. I was eight years old. Mom assured me that she'd simply forgotten to pay our rent, and she would mail a check first thing in the morning.
She followed through on her promise and we didn't have to move, but from that moment on I understood how hard life was for my mom because she carried 100 percent of the burden at home. Throughout my formative years and on too many occasions to count, I remember looking at her at the end of another long, exhausting day-my overworked super mom who tried to do it all-and thinking: That will never be me. When I grow up, I will have a true partner in life. Though it wasn't modeled for me, I became determined to build and sustain a 50/50 partnership one day.
I worked hard and got myself through college and then law school, when I met the man who would become my partner. My best friend had set us up. Zoe said about Seth: "He's Jewish and obsessed with hip hop." I instantly flashed back to when I'd surprised guests with a choreographed dance to Slick Rick's "Children's Story" at my bat mitzvah. I had to meet this guy.
I was a first-year associate at a law firm in New York City, which meant logging long hours, so for our first date Seth and I agreed to meet at a late-night bar in Union Square. But at 9:30 p.m., I received a client call that kept me on the line for nearly two hours. By the time I arrived at the bar, it was almost midnight and Seth was . . . still there. One of Seth's friends had waited with him until I showed up. Seth told me later what his friend had said when I walked through the door: "She was worth the wait." And so was Seth. I liked him right away.
There was just one snag to our budding romance: Seth lived in Los Angeles, and I had just taken the New York Bar Exam. We did a cross-country courtship for a year, and on our anniversary, I presented him with The Best of 2003, every single email that we'd written to each other since the night we'd met. There were more than 600 pages of email exchanges that I'd printed out in the basement of my law firm and bound into a deep red four-volume book set. Seth was touched by my sentimentality (and equally impressed by my meticulous organizational skills). I think we both knew then that this was the real thing.
Within the year, I took on the arduous endeavor of studying for and passing the California Bar and uprooted to Los Angeles. And then, when Seth's growing business required an East Coast office, we packed up and moved back to New York as a newly engaged couple. (Getting him back home was my secret plan!)
Our first apartment across from the Midtown tunnel was cramped and always loud, but we didn't care. We were in love, true collaborators in the home, and champions of each other's careers. As a young couple, our dynamic felt equitable, a reciprocal partnership of equals. In between loads of laundry, I marked up his operating agreements as his entertainment agency expanded, and Seth gave me business pointers while he unloaded groceries.
He was my right-hand man as I worked my way up the ladder to my dream job-using my legal training, organizational management skills, and mediation background to work with individuals and companies to structure philanthropic organizations. In layman's terms, I advised the wealthy on how to give away tons of money to nonprofits that served the greater good. We were both doing work that we felt proud of, and together we crushed it every step of the way.
Cut to married with children-everything changed.
The She-Fault Parent
I became the default parent-or more aptly, the she-fault parent-and as such, the only thing I was crushing were peas for my baby. To be fair, Seth eagerly jumped in to diaper change, bottle-feed, and provide middle-of-the-night comfort to his firstborn. But beyond forming this early, critical connection with his son, Seth would frequently say about our new family dynamic: "There's not a lot for me to do."
While my husband is no Neanderthal, he was echoing what a good cave buddy had promised him during my pregnancy: "Relax. Dads don't really do anything for the first six months. It's more of a 'mom' thing."
Like many breadwinner-working fathers, Seth returned to work just one week after Zach was born. I'd been granted three months of maternity leave to "stay home" (as if
that term encompasses all that new parents do every day). Looking back, I hadn't anticipated the endless emotional, mental, and physical effort parenthood would require. My cousin Jessica, who lived a quick cab ride uptown and who was also pregnant at the same time, hadn't seen what was coming either. In her third trimester, she'd signed us up for a knitting class because "we'll probably get bored on maternity leave." Bored, yes. Idle, no. I had more than enough to keep my hands occupied without ever picking up a knitting needle or a ball of yarn. Because Seth and I hadn't pre-negotiated
how to share in the domestic workload before Zach came along, it defaulted to me. He'd leave for work in the office and I'd spend the next eight hours boiling bottles, doing dishes, folding laundry, restocking the nursery, running to the grocery store, picking up prescriptions, preparing meals, tidying up, and entertaining and attending to my little one. In his defense, after returning home from the office Seth would offer, "How can I help?" but I was unable to articulate what I needed. I'd typically reply with a sputter: "I don't know. Just pick something!"
I was overtired and quickly became overextended. I also felt isolated and alone.
"My public life is so private now," I confided to Jessica one afternoon at the playground.
"We've become 'single married women,'" she offered, quoting a term coined by Dr. Sherry L. Blake that describes women in committed relationships who singularly bear the lioness's share of family responsibilities. Seth could see that I was struggling in my new role, but he also felt constantly nagged. He made efforts to extend a hand but ultimately retreated because "I can't do anything right." The bickering between us became part of our new family routine, and when I considered returning to work, the idea of juggling a demanding office job with the ever-expanding demands of domestic life seemed impossible.
One afternoon, after an office meeting to discuss my return, I "took ten" in the company stairwell to quietly pump breast milk into plastic bags. As I sat with my back against the wall, I thought: Does this really count as a non-bathroom lactation space? And more important, How the hell am I going to balance it all? I proposed to my employer that I work full-time, but from home one day a week. That was declined. I offered to work a four-day week for less salary. They didn't go for that either.
In the end, I walked away from my dream job to become an independent ("1099") consultant, a move I don't regret (but I do
still think about-a lot). In my case, it was because-however
supportive my corporate employer was about holding my full-time position for me during my maternity leave-the company didn't have family-friendly systems in place to support parents requiring more flexibility in the early child-rearing years that directly follow. The day I gave notice, a colleague texted me: > Don't blame yourself and included the following statistic: Compared to other developed countries, the United States ranks last in employment-protected time off for new parents.
Girlfriends who'd also taken a career detour by decreasing their professional workload, or who had exited the traditional workforce entirely, totally understood what I was going through. Tanya, a friend and former colleague who'd already left our company to care for her two children at home, cautioned me, "Juggling work and home is a grind, but if you think you're going to gain more time by going part-time, think again. More time at home actually translates to less time." How could that be? My new mommy friends were quick to point out that when you free up time spent in an office, you quickly fill it by doing more at home, including more that isn't necessarily kid-related.
They were absolutely right. In addition to the nonnegotiable daily grind tasks like making sure there are clean diapers on the ready, once I wasn't working full-time outside the home, I also took on many of the things that my husband used to do. Tasks like upgrading our insurance policies, bill paying, moving boxes to the storage unit, buying backup batteries for our smoke detectors, and countless other supplementary household sh*t that isn't really supplementary. Because after the basics, these other tasks keep domestic life moving forward. Without any negotiation or conscious acquiescence, in my new role as CEO, task manager, and worker bee of our family's never-ending to-do list, I performed hours upon hours of work that went unnoticed and unacknowledged by my husband-and sometimes, even by me.
On many days, feeling the full weight of exhaustion that would seize me the moment my baby was down and I was finally offline, I'd wonder, What did I do all day? When even I couldn't quite answer the question, there was no doubt in my mind that I'd lost all control of my time.
Why Can't We Ever Seem to Get Ahead
of Our To-Do List?
The more I talked with my girlfriends who'd entered motherhood, I realized we were all having trouble getting it all done-and what's more, we were all having trouble identifying exactly what it was we were doing. Why were we all so busy?
It turns out this phenomenon has a name-many names, actually. One of the most popular is "invisible work": invisible because it may be unseen and unrecognized by our partners, and also because those of us who do it may not count or even acknowledge it as work . . . despite the fact that it costs us real time and significant mental and physical effort with no sick time or benefits. No doubt you, too, have read articles describing this "mental load," "second shift," and the "emotional labor" that falls disproportionately on women, along with the toll this domestic work takes on our lives more broadly.
But what are we really talking about here? Sociologists Arlene Kaplan Daniels and Arlie Hochschild started giving us the language to talk about these deeply felt (but largely unarticulated) inequities in the 1980s, and since then, plenty of intelligent women have advanced the conversation and the popular vernacular.
Mental Load: The never-ending mental to-do list you keep for all your family tasks. Though not as heavy as a bag of rocks, the constant details banging around in your mind nonetheless weigh you down. Mental "overload" creates stress, fatigue, and often forgetfulness. Where did I put the damn car keys?
Second Shift: This is the domestic work you do long before you go to work and often even longer after you get home from the office. It's an unpaid shift that starts early and goes late, and you can't afford to lose it. Every day's a double shift when you have two kids' lunches to prep!
Emotional Labor: This term has evolved organically in pop culture to include the "maintaining relationships" and "managing emotions" work like calling your in-laws, sending thank-you notes, buying teacher gifts, and soothing meltdowns in Target. This work of caring can be some of the most exhausting labor (akin to the day your child was born), but providing middle-of-the-night comfort is what makes you a wonderful and dependable parent. It's OK, Mama's here.
Invisible Work: This is the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps a home and family running smoothly, although it's hardly noticed and is rarely valued. The toothpaste never runs out. You're welcome.
In an effort to "physicalize" this heavy burden carried by women yesterday and today, I began collecting every article I could find on the subject of domestic inequality. After amassing 250 articles (and counting) from newspapers, magazines, and online sources, it was disturbing to recognize that, since women began writing about this in the 1940s, we haven't made enough progress in sharing the burden with our partners or finding an answer to this problem that men could buy into. Same sh*t, different decade.