A man came home from work and found his three children outside, still in their pajamas, playing in the mud, with empty food boxes and wrappers strewn all around the front yard. The door of his wife’s car was open, as was the front door to the house and there was no sign of the dog.
Proceeding into the entry, he found an even bigger mess. A lamp had been knocked over, and the throw rug was wadded against one wall. In the front room, the TV was loudly blaring a cartoon channel, and the family room was strewn with toys and various items of clothing. In the kitchen, dishes filled the sink, breakfast food was spilled on the counter, the fridge door was open wide, dog food was spilled on the floor, a broken glass lay under the table, and a small pile of sand was spread by the back door.
He quickly headed up the stairs, stepping over toys and more piles of clothes, looking for his wife. He was worried she might be ill, or that something serious had happened. He was met with a small trickle of water as it made its way out the bathroom door. As he peered inside he found wet towels, scummy soap and more toys strewn over the floor. Miles of toilet paper lay in a heap and toothpaste had been smeared over the mirror and walls.
As he rushed to the bedroom, he found his wife still curled up in the bed in her pajamas, reading a novel. She looked up at him, smiled, and asked how his day went. He looked at her bewildered and asked, ‘What happened here today?’ She again smiled and answered, ‘You know every day when you come home from work and you ask me what in the world I do all day?’ ‘Yes,’ was his incredulous reply. She answered, ‘Well, today I didn’t do it.’
Don’t you just love it?!
Now, I’m aware that not all moms are in a traditional relationship with a husband who goes to work while she stays home with the children. I’m also fully aware that there are plenty of awesome dads out there who are way (WAY) more hands-on than dads of previous generations (I’m married to one of them), so I hope the overall message behind the joke isn’t lost in the details of the story. The message (and irony) behind this story is that when a mother is working hard and succeeding at “keeping it all together,” it can actually look like her job is easy and she’s not doing much of anything. (Au contraire!)
Even more than this, what I really want to highlight is that there is a whole lot more going on in a well-run home and family beyond housework, and much of that work often goes “unseen” and is frequently taken for granted. For the purpose of this humorous story, the author had to focus on the visible aspects of motherhood (and the chaos that ensues when those tasks are not accomplished), but in my estimation, the unseen work of motherhood is even more time-consuming, as well as more meaningful and influential in the long-run.
Knowing the good, deliberate mothers of our Power of Moms community as I do, I would venture to guess that for some of those who appear to be neglecting their home, yard, laundry, etc., it’s not because they are in bed with a novel, but because they are spending more of their time and energy on the unseen but perhaps more meaningful and important work of motherhood.
What is this work I’m referring to? I’ll break it down into five categories.
1. Driving and shopping. According to my rigorous online research (ahem, five minutes of googling), mothers spend up to two weeks a year or 15 hours a week just driving around. A good chunk of that is simply transporting kids to and from school, playdates, appointments, and extracurricular activities. The other chunk is, of course, spent shopping and running errands. Sure, a trunk full of groceries, new soccer cleats, and poster boards are visible fruits of a mom’s labor, but let’s be honest: who in the family acknowledges the extra rolls of toilet paper under the sink, the new “unholy” socks that magically appear in the drawer, or the five boxes of the family’s favorite cereal in the pantry? That’s what I thought. It’s only mentioned if it’s missing, and yet how can you quantify the sense of security and well-being that comes from kids knowing their physical needs are being met?
2. Thinking, studying, and decision-making. This is a big one–at least for me. I spend a lot of time thinking about each of my kids individually: What are their strengths and weaknesses? Talents and personality traits? What life skills do they still need to learn? What extracurricular activities would fit them best? How are they doing in school? Who are their friends? How is their health and level of fitness? I’m just scratching the surface here, but for moms who really think about each of their kids individually, educate themselves through books, podcasts, etc., and then make decisions and put plans into action according to what they feel will best help their children, that is a huge amount of unseen work that can have a far-reaching influence.
3. Teaching and spending one-on-one time with kids. Luckily, teaching and spending one-on-one time with kids often happens organically (while doing yard work, making dinner, driving around in the car), but when a mother tries to do something a little more deliberate like initiate better morning and evening routines, teach a child how to do laundry, or take a child out to lunch alone once a month without the distraction and competition of the other kids, that kind of unseen work can take an incredible amount of thought, preparation, and emotional energy on the part of the mother. Kudos to you!
4. Planning meaningful family traditions. I think most people (moms included) underestimate how much time and effort it takes to choose, plan, and orchestrate family traditions such as birthdays, holidays, and family vacations. These are “extras” on a mom’s calendar and can be big time and energy investments. While they do have some visible results (the holiday food and decorations, the birthday presents, the hotel that was reserved), by and large, the work that is done behind the scenes for these events goes virtually unseen and the results are primarily happy memories and a stronger family. (Not exactly something you can pin on Pinterest.) In fact, when I’ve been working on one or more of these traditions, my home often starts to look like the one in the story above!
5. Secretarial work. I have four children. By far, the easiest is my youngest, a 2nd-grader. (Easy in terms of managing her life.) Even so, let’s look at one day’s worth of paperwork for her: homework (which requires my assistance), a star-of-the-week calendar to be filed away (and NOT forgotten), an emergency contact information form to be filled out and returned to school tomorrow, picture day order forms to be filled out and sent back on picture day, a Scholastic book order form (with instructions for how to order online so the class can earn free books), sign-ups for several after-school programs, and a birthday party invitation. (I won’t even go into the computer and paperwork involved for my high school senior as we gear up for college applications next month.) Even the singular job of communicating with each of my kids’ teachers, coaches, and youth leaders (when needed) and tracking my kids’ individual schedules is enough to intimidate a low-level secretary at a “real” job. The invisible work of keeping an entire family organized is not just impressive, but truly amazing when you consider all the other seen and unseen work a mom is micromanaging.
I have to admit that this post is a little bit self-indulgent. But seriously–isn’t it so incredibly validating to look at this list? I know you aren’t always on top of everything outlined here. (Of course you aren’t. I’m not either.) But most of us are doing our darndest and doing a pretty good job at it, considering.
What I hope will be the take-away from this is that there are really, really legitimate reasons your home isn’t always spotless, your eyebrows aren’t always plucked, and your kids aren’t always heading out the door looking like Gap models. Because being a good, deliberate mother who is not only on top of the visible work of managing a home and family, but also the unseen mental and emotional work of raising good human beings is not something that should be taken lightly, considered easy, or assumed to be intuitive.
Just because it can’t be quantified, photographed, and posted on Instagram doesn’t mean it’s not real. In fact, I hope I’ve made the case today that the unseen work we do as mothers is probably the real-est of things we will ever do.
Can you see that?
QUESTION: What are some of the unseen tasks of motherhood you do on a regular basis?
CHALLENGE: Imagine you are blind and can’t see any of the messes in your home, how you or your child looks, or the condition of the family car. How do you feel about your efforts as a mother? Is the unseen work you are doing not actually more meaningful and long-lasting?
Edited by Rachel Nielson.
Image from Shutterstock, with graphics by Julie Finlayson.
Originally posted on September 25, 2105.