There’s tired, then exhausted, fatigued, dead, and finally, if you take a left turn at the seventh circle of hell and go down three flights of stairs – you’ll find me. That. That is marrow-saturating, soul-depleting tired.
I have arrived here via death by a thousand details, and it’s not a pretty place. I’m an apparition fueled by caffeine and waning ambition. But I’m not alone. Millions of mothers have fallen victim to a psychosis that leaves us feeling fragmented and overwhelmed. It is challenging to work two full-time jobs: simultaneously running our households and our careers. There’s work, and then there are household chores, appointments, meals, shopping, all-things children, school events, soccer shoes to buy, aging parents, holidays and birthdays to plan, balancing the checkbook, ending world hunger, and solving the foul-smelling mystery hidden beneath the back seat of the car. We are left feeling like we are doing “everything” but doing “nothing” well. It doesn’t sit well with me – a straight-A student struggling not to fail.
Centuries-worth of gender-defined roles in the home have collided with new societal norms, and something has to give. This “having it all” mentality is rightfully under intense scrutiny, and best-selling authors like Reshma Saujani are shedding attention-getting light. In Pay Up, The Future of Women and Work, Saujani shares on average, women spend 5.7 hours daily doing unpaid labor: caring for their families, completing household chores, etc. And, at least for me, that figure is conservative. Penning this paragraph, I have stopped twice to prepare snacks, once to take out the dog, once to switch over the laundry, and once to stream Encanto. When you distribute those unpaid labor hours over weekends and sleepless nights playing Frogger between bedrooms, the bathroom, and the phone (to check on the big kids), it’s no wonder so many of us are losing it.
This life is not sustainable. System failure. Meltdown. But our society and systems are not set up to allow for much of anything else. Though a global pandemic taught us we can work FROM home. It also revealed that there is immense work IN the home. And though getting through mountains of laundry and running kids to appointments and practices are relatively inconsequential compared to some careers, when put into a complete body of work that spans a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day work week, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
I left teaching ten years ago because I couldn’t do it all. I came back because I was fairly certain I could. And now, I’m convinced the game is rigged against me. My husband is great and spends hours carting our kids around the country for sports. This isn’t an indictment of men. It is a recognition that women, specifically, are struggling under the current system.
Saujani reports that by mid-pandemic, nearly thirty-five million working moms were burnout: “headaches, chest tightness, fatigue, hair loss, nausea, lack of motivation, irritability, cynicism, and increased crying” (Saujani, 37)… Check, check, check! Every. Single. One. My inner Momzilla rages and weeps and diabolically plots the demise of anyone who suggests I just need a little more “me” time. How about we dismantle a system that penalizes me for wanting to have children AND a career? How about we reimagine a world that places raising children as its highest priority and doesn’t dismiss the work involved as inconsequential compared to high-paying jobs? It all seems a little idyllic, and honestly a bit intangible or lofty. But…
Regardless of your politics, this progression is, well, progressive. I don’t have the answers, but I know acknowledgment feels like a good first step. Maybe support and cohesion are good second ones. Can we band together in the trenches and push the front lines just a little more? Can we set personal boundaries while breaking down systematic barriers? Our details matter. Our lives, not our deaths, should be in the details. At the very least we need matching shirts… #details!
Sauajani, Reshma. Pay Up, The Future of Women and Work. One Signal Publishers, 2022, New York.