Recently, my daughter, who is ten, called me into her room to show me how she had arranged her doll house. She has a number of small animals that live in her dollhouse. There are LOTS of baby animals and a handful of adults animals.
She started giving me the tour:
“Here is the nursery. I made these little beds out of cardboard. And this mom is reading books to the kids before they go to bed. And this is the bathroom. This mommy is giving the twins a bath. See how I made bubbles out of cotton balls? And down here is the kitchen. This mommy is making some dinner and these kids are playing at the table while they wait.”
And I asked, “Where are the daddies?”
Without missing a beat, my daughter said, “Oh, the dads are in the living room. They’re watching TV. And look, these guys are playing a card game. I made tiny cards for them.”
I was taken aback a little. First of all, her dad is not a “watching-the-game-while-mom-makes-the-dinner” kinda guy at all. My husband is hands-on dad who always makes time to help with the bedtime routine. Heck, he’s the breakfast maker in our house. Every morning. We trade dinner making duty and he’s not afraid of cleaning a bathroom.
So where did my daughter get this idea that these tiny critter ladies should carry this load all by themselves?
I guess it would take a social scientist to dissect the myriad of subtle cultural clues that my daughter is picking up on. But I wondered, was it something I was doing, inadvertently perhaps? Was I giving her the message that all this was women’s work alone?
Perhaps you saw this video on Facebook. It was posted by Sheryl Sandberg as part of a “Share the Load” campaign. The video features a woman who is busy talking on the phone, presumably with someone from work, while she puts dinner on the stove, helps her son get ready, cleans up the living room, and at the end brings her husband, who is watching TV, a cup of tea. Her father, who is visiting, watches his daughter in awe–amazed that she can juggle so much and sad that is seems she has to.
The video is set in another country but I was struck at the way it mirrored the life of my daughter’s dollhouse, and sometimes, my own.
Recently an article in the New York Times examined the number of hours of unpaid work done around the world. These hours of work are done mostly by women and come at some economic cost. Basically, when women are busy doing the unpaid work, they don’t have time for education or paid work. Diane Elson, an advisor on women’s issues and development to the United Nations, suggests to solve this problem, unpaid work needs to be recognized, redistributed and reduced.
Now, I want to be clear that I know that I live an incredibly lucky life. My unpaid work includes folding mounds of clothes, not walking for miles to get water from a well. I know that I am very fortunate. But I also know that all women, everywhere, even in my daughter’s fictional dollhouse (!) need help sharing the load. After reading the article and watching the video, I wondered if maybe “recognize, redistribute, and reduce” was advice I needed to follow more as I teach my daughter and son to share the load with me now, and with their spouses, in the future.
Recognize: What is the true nature of unpaid work?
Folding laundry and enfolding a child in our arms is not the same thing, but we often lump them together. The New York Times article did, for example.They are both unpaid work, it’s true, and traditionally the work of women (and, in many parts of the world, still done exclusively by women) but folding laundry and rocking a baby are not the same. And there are different reasons to share both of them.
The reason to share the load on child care is simple–caring for a child is not drudgery, it’s an opportunity to develop a relationship with your child. I remember when my mother-in-law came to help with our newborns. She would gladly whisk the baby away for a diaper change. When I said that I felt bad she had to change diapers she assured me it was her pleasure. She loved that one-on-one time where she could get to know this little person. She sang and talked to the baby and then handed him back to me powder-fresh.
I know in the nitty-gritty of raising a child, we can’t always sing during diaper changes. But when we keep that attitude and vision about what we’re doing–we’re building a relationship with our children with each interaction–then we can feel less guilty when asking for help. When my husband reads to the kids at night, he’s not doing “my job.” He’s nourishing a relationship with his children. In fact, if I always insisted on doing the nighttime routine, I would be depriving him the opportunity to build a relationship with his children.
The reason to share the load on laundry is also simple–it’s not rocket science. There is nothing about being a woman that makes me better or worse at doing laundry than my husband. There is nothing in my 40 years that I have learned that makes me an expert in laundry that my 10 year old couldn’t learn in a few weeks. There’s no reason for me to do it by myself because we all wear the clothes. We should all take care of them.
Redistribute: Just because it’s faster and easier to do ourselves, it doesn’t mean we should.
At the end of the day I have a choice. I can cajole and prod and pressure my kids to help clean up the living room, or I can do it on ten minutes, flat–in a peace and quiet. At the end of the day, it’s hard to remember the larger issue at stake when we decide to shoulder the load ourselves.
We make the work invisible. The clothes magically reappear clean and folded in the drawers. The food, somehow, makes it to the table piping hot. The toys are right where anyone would want them. When our families don’t help with the work, they get an unrealistic sense of what it takes to make a home function.
Being unaware of all the unpaid (and sometimes underpaid) work around you is a problem. It creates adults who are ungrateful, who can’t recognize the ways that others have made their lives easier. I mean adults who complain about the price of strawberries without taking a second thought of the hands who picked them. We want our children to be able to look around and think–wow, a lot of hard work goes into making this world go around.
Reduce: Make peace with a little more mess and a little less stuff
This one goes hand in hand with the previous idea. We not only think it would be easier to shoulder the load ourselves, but that we do a better job of it.
Well, that’s true. I am better at cleaning. But that doesn’t mean I want to spend my time having a spotless house. I’d rather just spend less time cleaning, have a pretty clean house, and invest energy in teaching my kids to take care of the shared space they live in. My kids are not going to learn how to clean up by watching me vacuum.
So I just clean less. And in those precious moments I have to myself in a day, I never clean the house. In fact I never clean the house alone, period. Consequently, our house is not super clean and it takes awhile to get a load of laundry folded. Our house looks like a small army of children cleaned it because, that’s who did it.
But I will take that. One of my proudest moments was when my daughter and I went over to a friend’s house to play. They had a very big and beautiful house. I admit I felt a little envious. When we left, I asked my daughter what she thought of the house, wondering if she had picked up on the obvious difference in the houses, too. My daughter said, “I just felt so sorry for those guys. Imagine having to swiffer that huge house! I’m glad we live in a small house.”
I hope my daughter remembers the lesson that sometimes more stuff just means more time spent taking care of more stuff.
Daddies in the Dollhouse
When my daughter showed me the daddies in the dollhouse watching T.V. and playing cards, I decided I had to say something. So I took a breath and said:
“Wait. Why aren’t the dads helping? They would like to read a story wouldn’t they? Reading to your kids is so fun. Don’t they want to help with dinner? This doesn’t seem quite right.”
Mae thought about for a second and then, just like that, her little world was rearranged. She switched out a dad for a mom here and there, had a few adults pair up to tackle dinner duties and viola–the parents were working together and sharing the important task of caring for children.
Wouldn’t it be nice if life were that easy to rearrange? I know that working situations vary wildly and moms and dads don’t have to do the same things in order to be equal partners. But I do hope that in my daughter’s future home, the one she makes with her husband, they will share the load with the whole family.
QUESTION: How can you share the load more with your family? What are the things you can recognize, redistribute, or reduce?
CHALLENGE: This week have a conversation with your kids and/or husband about what needs to be done around your house. Brainstorm together how you can help each other get it done.
Edited by Rachel Nielson.
Image from Shutterstock; graphics by Julie Finlayson.