At my wedding, my mother’s toast to me focused on how competent, how planful, how organized I am. My father’s toast included the line that I “could run a medium-sized country.” (My thought, of course, was “Why not a large-sized country?) The groom at this wedding, my now-husband of almost 20 years, would never have received those kinds of descriptions or accolades. His compliments would have been more along the lines of a mad-scientist, disorganized-genius variety.
Rewind a year earlier, before we were engaged but once my mother, with her maternal spidey-sense, could tell it was a serious relationship, came down to visit me in Washington, DC. She and I went for a long walk in Rock Creek Park, and in one of those utterly unique moments in my life’s narrative, she said to me: “Is there anything about him you can’t live with? Because don’t marry him expecting him to change.” It was the single best piece of advice my mother has ever given me and I have been able to pass it along to others along the way. And stupid me, what did I say? “Nothing I can’t live with. His flaws are minor and they don’t bother me that much.” God bless the naivety of the young and dumb.
Fast forward 20 years, four children, a master’s degree, 9 books (written by him not me), two companies and a burgeoning college process later, and I can tell you, my mom is one smart woman. My uber-competence grew and grew inside and outside our home, as did my husband’s application of his whip-smart mind to his profession, but as both those things evolved, so too did the imbalance of the workload in our home. I took on more and more tasks for our family as their needs expanded while starting and growing my own business. I was the one who could multi-task. I was the one who was more efficient. I was the living embodiment of: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” My husband worked harder and longer on his business. Period. I rarely dropped the ball, at home or at work, and I started hearing from my kids’ mouths the same thing I’d heard from my parents at my wedding 20 years earlier: “Mom, we’re so lucky that you’re so organized. You take care of everything.” I would smile, proud of my competence and ability to take on more and more responsibility with each passing year.
And then a few months ago, my friend Eve Rodsky came out with a new book, FAIR PLAY, about rebalancing the domestic workload. I sat down to read about Eve’s own experience in carrying the universe of her family’s domestic burdens on her shoulders, mirroring my own story of uber-competence. I got to the middle of the book where Eve lays out the 100 FAIR PLAY cards, the breakdown by category of the many responsibilities that make up the domestic tasks of the modern American family. Staring down at those pages listing all of the cards, my hands started to shake, my heart just about stopped and I started to silently cry because, yup, you guessed it, I held just about every single one of those 100 FAIR PLAY cards. I did just about every domestic task in my house. To be fair, I didn’t count every single card and if you ask my husband, he would say he held about five of the 100 cards. (He would know this because eventually I showed him the book and he spent a long time looking at those middle pages, which he refers to as “Rodsky’s playing cards,” and I’m pretty sure he was counting which ones he held.)
So what did I do when I realized that I take on essentially every domestic task in my family while running a business? First, of course, I rationalized our arrangement: he’s not as good at details; his executive functioning is much worse than mine; he earns more money than I do, so his time is more valuable; he’s overwhelmed with work and can’t take on more, and so on. (Eve warns about all of these pitfalls in the book and when you read it you’ll understand why these are NOT reasons to NOT share the workload.) And then I realized I needed to own my own contributions to the dynamic: I’m controlling; I need things done a certain way; I have no patience for things being less than perfect, and so on. And then I decided I was going to sit on this issue for a little while. Being married for 20 years has certainly taught me that coming in swinging, shouting and crying, does nothing to solve big issues.
While I was sitting on the enormous ostrich egg of (un)FAIR PLAY in my family, my 11-year-old daughter came home from school with a poem. Shakespeare couldn’t have written better timing into this story. The prompt for the poem was: “write about someone who goes unrecognized.” My daughter chose to write about me.
Owed to my Mom
Your love and support
Your willing for me to succeed
Your strong and confident voice
Your neverending love for your family and the Indigo Girls
Movie-sleeping, Dark chocolate-eating, cardigan-wearing mom
I know that this is long overdo
The craziest part about this magnificent poem that broke my heart and rebuilt it in 8 short lines was the way that even her spelling mistakes held powerful double meanings on the topic of domestic workload. When my husband and I were discussing the poem later that night, he asked me if I thought I went unrecognized and that appreciation for me was long overdue, because he feels like our family so appreciates me. I was stunned because I always assumed he realized how unappreciated I felt for the zillions of mundane tasks I perform for our family. However, his question forced me to parse the important distinction between feeling loved and feeling appreciated. I explained that I certainly feel loved by our family and sometimes feel appreciated for the endless domestic tasks I take on every week. I explained that I certainly don’t feel appreciated for my identity outside of our home, nor do I feel like my children really know me outside of my role as their mother. Because I organize my work so that it doesn’t really impede on their lives, it also means my work life and therefore my identity outside our home, goes largely unseen by them.
I knew for certain when I read my daughter’s poem that I didn’t want her daughter reading a similar poem to her in 30 years time. I want her to learn the skill of sharing the burden of competence. I want her children to know her as a human being outside of her role as mother. Like so much of my life, my impetus for change was spurred on by my kids and the way they see the world, in this case my daughter. I didn’t want my daughter thinking that it was her job to take on almost every domestic responsibility in her family and I didn’t want my sons thinking that their partners should take carry the enormous workload in their families. I also realized that always being recognized as the competent one in any sphere meant that I had sacrificed being recognized for all of my other qualities that were perhaps less useful for others, but equally deserving of recognition and celebration.
So where do we go from here? Eve is coming to visit NYC to talk about FAIR PLAY and will give me all the answers. Just kidding. But truly, my husband and I are reading the book together and then we will start to rebalance the load, slowly and patiently. We will start to undo dynamics that have been created in our marriage over 20 years, undo dynamics in our lives before we ever met each other, undo dynamics in our families before we were ever born and in generations before us. We will trust each other’s good intentions and have faith in each other’s desire to change for the better. We will play fair to get to change.