August 31, 2016 by Julia
Once, sitting in a hot tub with a bunch of people at a vacation house in the woods, I asked a man I hardly knew if he thought it was harder to be a woman than a man. The surrounding ladies and I were just buzzed enough to think we might reach some feminist epiphany by persuading this man, also buzzed, to admit a few things about gender roles. He said he used to think the pressure is greater on men, because they are expected to make enough money to take a woman out to dinner, to impress, to breadwin. But now he would admit that women do have it harder in general. (I can’t remember the details of why he thought so.)
“THANK you!” we exclaimed. We didn’t actually give each other high-fives, but we could have.
There are multiple struggles that generally hit women harder, but one I notice more as I approach middle-age is that women do seem overtly burdened by mundane work. Men are burdened, yes – but usually by more “important” things, which are usually happening outside the home. Who sees those outside, big-picture ideas and adventures as being more important? All of us, really.
Out of choice, most of the work I do during the day is traditional “women’s work.” I am a feminist who wants to spend her weekdays mostly home with the kids, supporting our family and home through chores, while also making time for writing and exercise every day. But I feel kind of embarrassed about it – not because of my feminist beliefs, which simply support a woman’s right to pursue the life she wants, even if that includes being a homemaker – but because I worry that women’s work does not appear relevant to the world in general. I worry that if I don’t decide to get a “real” job outside the home while my kids are in school full time this year (for the first time in over eight years! I’m taking some time to figure it out, by the way), I will need to constantly justify that, even if I end up still feeling busy with everything. I suspect that if I spend a portion of my time volunteering at the kids’ school and in the community, I will be less respected than someone who earns money for that time.
The other issue that bothers me is that in the general public, the workload feels imbalanced. Men and women may work the same office hours, but women are more expected to handle the “off the clock” stuff out of the goodness of their hearts. On a personal note, I believe the workload between my husband and I is pretty equal – but I assume I’m luckier than most women, especially moms, in that regard.
Often, if things do get imbalanced and I’m starting to feel resentful about it, I don’t actually blame my husband – because women’s work is often invisible, and he may have no idea unless I tell him I need help.
Which makes me want to explain this particular burden that women carry in life, in order to make it less invisible.
The work society expects us to do is comprised of the background chores that keep life rolling along, the comforts that people can’t help but take for granted at times: food in the pantry, clean clothing that fits, toilet paper in the bathroom, paper in the printer, a scheduled yearly checkup at the doctor, a vacation or two in the summer, catering for the holiday party. People are not making movies or writing best sellers about women’s work. It’s daily work that disappears at sundown and reappears at sunrise. It’s the foundation of families, communities, offices. It’s not melodramatic to say women are often unsung heroes, supporting the lives of everyone else. No wonder we feel the urge to post our crafts and gorgeously packed lunches on social media – will someone please acknowledge this work? Please?
Our work is often invisible until something goes wrong. We all hold women more accountable for nothing short of the well-being of the people around them. The cleanliness, health, manners, hunger, habits, mood, activities – if any of these are lacking, look to the mother, or wife, or secretary.
There aren’t awards or public recognition or group critiques or even anything tangible to show for it. It does not feed the ego, it rarely pays well, if at all.
You can’t just buckle down and focus on it until it’s done, because it’s actually ten things at once and it’s never done.
The result of successful women’s work is quality of life for everyone around her. And how does someone else objectively measure your job performance when it comes to that?
For any human being, it’s a fight to make time for meaning beyond the basic living stuff. Women have to fight harder, though, to reach the timeless work, or to go on adventures, or to leave her mark on the world. History will show we are often providing the food, cleaning, emotional support, clothing – while the men are encouraged to leave a legacy. What about our legacy? Most of us still give up our last names, in lieu of a better, more equal option. Our children are a wondrous legacy, yes, but they are also their own people who want to live their own lives.
Women want to be heard and seen and remembered, too. We want to see the world. The guilt, though. The values that we’ve been taught since birth pull us back to our loved ones. Too many people depend on us. We expect to be judged more harshly, as women, for selfishness. We lose track of our personal desires, which in essence is ourselves.
As much as I love caring for my people, I also want to be awesome, creative, fulfilled. When I have to ignore these longings for too long, I grow as dissatisfied and resentful as any man.
So yes, I do think it is harder to be a woman in this world, with these burdens and expectations.
But! (Deep breath.)
I don’t think the answer is to drop everything and seek power, nor is it to constantly, bitterly ask men for more help with all the women’s work that surrounds us. In fact, disparaging the work only seems to make me feel worse about the situation. I have to come at the problem from a different angle.
I have to remember that I actually love women’s work, despite the difficulty and humbling aspects of it. There is deep, inherent beauty in women’s work. When I embrace it, I am so much happier.
It is a privilege it is to be a person’s caregiver. And I am proud of the thorough, detailed work that I do throughout the day. I can be a badass feminist with a weekly cleaning schedule. I don’t need to apologize for my desire to serve others and cultivate the quality of our lives together – to do so is one of humanity’s greatest callings. Besides, women’s work is not entirely selfless: the happiness of my loved ones is so intertwined with my own that I can’t say “this one’s for me,” or “that chore was just for my daughter.” Her happiness feeds my happiness, and vice versa.
Essentially, I have to remind myself that traditional “women’s work” is not lesser than traditional “men’s work.” And I don’t have to defend myself for being drawn to it.
When I view the work this way, I want to spread the word to men and women alike that even the mundane chores are not so bad, really. Rather than implore women to shove more of the annoying burden onto their male counterparts, I suspect that if we viewed it as a gift, they would begin to see it that way, too, and want to take on more of it. Because although it’s difficult, it IS a gift. Difficult is how heroes are made, and humbled. Difficult is how love becomes real.
I wonder if this is part of the reason that women have trouble sharing their work with the men in their lives: the rewards run so deep, giving us so much meaning, that we worry if we give up some of the burden we’ll lose out on some of the prize, too.
We might also fear that men can’t handle it, due to preconceptions about gender and skill sets. But men can handle the work, and of course their capacity for goodness and care goes as deep as ours. It’s not like I can hold it together so well all of the time – just ask everyone in my life. Why not let the men in our lives try, fail and succeed just like we do on a daily basis? There is no one correct way of doing things. Let it go, a bit, and we will all be better off. Sharing the rewards and difficulties of “women’s work” as well as “men’s work” will only make us stronger in our relationships.
It’s so important as women that we set limits for ourselves. I can’t go down the rabbit’s hole of perfecting the art of keeping a clean house, or making gourmet dinners when I don’t even enjoy cooking all that much. I have to guard my time and energy for the personal things that I enjoy. Or else I’ll get all used up. Because we still live in a sexist world, women tend to get used up.
So I will do both: write and clean. Travel and volunteer at school. That’s all there is to it. Embrace what I’ve been calling “women’s work,” but set limits. Plan for what I value most, and then follow through. I will try to ignore whatever society expects of me as a woman, and just focus on what I expect of me as a person.
If I do need help, I can ask, no big deal. None of this “I’m trapped in housework” stuff. I’m the one most bothered by a messy house, so I clean it more than anyone else. (Also, the kids will be at school and my husband works at an office, supporting us there. I have more time to do housework than them because I want to. Remember, I am a bad-ass feminist.) No doubt there are men who feel this way, and act upon it, too. How we spend our time is a choice. An organized and attractive home contributes to the well-being of my family as well as meeting my own need for beauty, sanity and focus. So I do it for me, and for them – not for the neighbors or even my friends, who aren’t especially judgmental about appearances anyway.
I know this is a super-long post with probably too much art (if that’s possible). It took me a long time to make heads or tails of this topic. I have fiddled with my ideas and feelings on it for so long I fear I’m just going in circles, and just need to post it now. I hope something of meaning has come through, though – something that can help you be happier, less frustrated, no matter your gender.
All people of every gender need both: the mundane day-to-day work, and the timeless work that fuels discovery and memories and social recognition. We need to search for the beauty in all kinds of work, especially the kinds that have been delegated over the centuries to one gender or the other, and share it as equally as we can with each other…opening up new worlds as we go, strengthening and weaving beautiful lives.