author – activist – faculty – mom
Lately, I’ve been reading non-fiction books about overworked moms. Really, I listen to them in audio format as I do overworked mom things like housework and schlepping my kid to and from preschool. First I read Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn and now it’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte. They catalog how moms are drowning in the demands that we be perfect workers and perfect mothers.
In Overwhelmed, I felt validated by the chapters on overwhelm and inequality. I felt vindicated by the section where she reveals the gender bias in the leisure researchers’ methods. Her message is clear: we, as working moms, are being squeezed by a US society that demands perfection from both workers and mothers. Working motherhood sits at the intersection of various oppressive structures in the society. Decades of anti-feminist backlash have engineered the myth that our children will suffer if we work outside the home. From flawed studies to commercials to peer pressure from “helicopter moms,” countless daily messages reinforce mothers’ anxiety that only our perfectly attentive presence 24/7 will ensure our children’s well-being. Yet meanwhile the economy demands two incomes for families to keep up with rising cost of living. Economic insecurity and mistreatment of workers keeps everyone anxious and determined to be the perfect worker in order to keep their jobs and ensure their economic survival. This fear-based pressure intensifies for parents and in times of economic recession. And (unlike many European societies) the US refuses to organize structures to support families in general and working families in particular. So we working mothers live in the center of this dual pressure, using our sheer will and overwork to ensure our economic survival and our children’s well-being.
I loved these books! But when Schulte got to the chapter on play, it got hard to keep listening. In the play chapter, she pushed her readers to look at the places where we, as working moms, routinely collaborate with the oppression and deny ourselves joy in the pursuit of perfection in these other two areas.
I didn’t want to look at that. I have lowered the joy bar to be satisfied the joy of accomplishment and the satisfaction of crossing something off the to-do list. I have settled for creating a spark of delight in my daughter’s eyes. My own spark is only reflected light these days. In this context, it was downright painful to think about my own joy and play and delight. Because it feels like one more thing to do. And I couldn’t imagine how I can make it happen.
But fortunately for me, I hit the heart of the play chapter while I was camping in the redwood forest. Somehow, surrounded by trees that are a few hundred feet high, anything seems possible. Some of the biggest trees have serious burn scars, but they have continued to grow and thrive anyway, their tops are lush and green in the far above distance. The burns are scars from a fire they survived and kept growing.
So I claim parenting through my kid’s early years has been a fiery time I survived but now I’m ready to thrive. To that end, my biggest project this summer is reclaiming play. Miniature golf. Waterslides. Karaoke. I have a whole list. And it’s not gonna be easy. I’ve been home five days and have only managed to do one thing on my list: order the platform shoes off the internet.
It’s hard to prioritize play. As mothers go to work, and our small children cry and don’t want us to leave, many of us comfort ourselves with the notion that it’s important for kids to see their moms engaged in the world. And many studies bear this out, that there are advantages to having working moms. Particularly if we have daughters, working moms can model women’s engagement and influence in the larger world.
As a teacher and performer and writer, I have modeled this easily for my daughter. The area of play is the biggest place where my life is lacking. This is the place where I want to model for my daughter that adult women get to have fun, too. Particularly as a black woman, this goal is a crucial contradiction to the historical legacy that we are workhorses in this country. Previous generations of black women have worked ourselves ragged to ensure our children could have a better life. They had to. The conditions were that hard. But I have a chance to do it differently, so I plan to. My goal is not only to run around like a crazy person to make sure my daughter has a good life, but to set up my life that I’m modeling a good life for her. And that needs to include play.
Okay, here goes….