1 March 2021
Even super Mums do it tough
I was supposed to be delirious with joy. My parents had booked us an enormous house in Apollo Bay (Victoria) and, while summer was cold and blustery, we were together at long, long last. I’m the only one of my siblings who has kids (so I did it thoroughly and had six). They were all there with me, except for my eldest who was due to arrive that evening.
I was definitely not thinking about my fifteen-year-old daughter being murdered to death at the V-line bus station in Geelong. I was thinking about the roast dinner I was cooking. How often do you get a roast dinner on summer holiday? Never, that’s when! Everybody would feel loved and impressed in equal measure. Except, maybe, the vegetarians. I needed something nice for the vegetarians. Some protein.
And was my Greek sister-in-law fasting? It was Epiphany Sunday, but the feast day wasn’t until Wednesday. I knew this because I took the five of my children who weren’t being possibly murdered to the local church that morning because I’m Superwoman and I can do anything.
My kids, God bless them, were doing their very best to exhibit their behavioural issues at full capacity. If a visiting professor wanted to do a study on challenging behaviours, it would have been very convenient. But there were no experts with clipboards to witness the shrieking meltdowns and general lack of impulse control. There was just me, deftly taking things in hand, soothing, mediating, drawing useful social lessons from each dispute. This was not a day to stick a podcast in my ears and hide in the pantry.
My Superwoman routine lasted until around 3pm, then I fell to pieces. It had been a long, hard lockdown. Somehow, it was only now, when the worst was over, that I felt how stressful it had been.
Mums are supposed to be tough. Mums are the ones who hold it all together. When we talk about mental health, we are not talking about the industrial-grade constitutions of the family matriarch. After all, the worst indictment you can throw at a mother is to suggest that she is ‘not coping’.
It’s fashionable to joke on social media about “mummy wine time”. Novelty wine glasses, Nappy bags with hidden cask taps, and ironic 1950s-style illustrations emblazoned with “I can’t wait for the day when I can drink with my kids instead of because of them”. I love a glass of red and I love a good meme, but a quote from Tiffany Baker made me pause: “Mommy didn’t need wine; Mommy needed real and significant help.” What if jokes about mums and alcohol dismiss the pressures faced by women with families?
It’s expected that women can have successful and fulfilling careers and can have families too. As girls we are told that we can do it all. As women we wonder: why do we have to do everything?
These days women are more likely to work longer hours outside the home, but still do the lion’s share of housework. Census data shows that Australian women spend an average of five to 14 hours per week on unpaid domestic labour, while men spend less than five hours a week. And even when household chores are shared evenly, women tend to take on the bulk of invisible work – mental load and emotional labour.
Mental load is all the thinking required to be the project manager of a household. It means being the one who knows where Peter left his shoes; what day the termite inspection is; who needs to bring a gold coin to school; when the scout meeting is not at the scout hall. If you’re not the one doing this work, it’s easy to assume it ‘just happens’.
Similar to mental load is emotional labour. This is the work required to care for the emotional health of a family. This might involve mediating in sibling disputes, maintaining family friendships, and listening to a teenage child who is going through a hard time (or who is having a bout of chattiness at 11pm). Emotional labour is recognising when a family member is anxious, needs space, needs affirmation, needs to let off steam. While this work is mostly unconscious and unrecognised, it requires mental bandwidth. Indeed, for those navigating the pandemic and lockdowns, emotional labour within families can be gruelling.
The mental work of running a family ultimately remains with the mother, because it’s the mother who suffers the consequences when not taken on.
“That child’s face is dirty. Doesn’t his mother keep wipes in her bag?”
“Looks like that kid’s mum forgot it was dress-up day!”
“This is not a wrap-free lunch! Tell your mother to read the newsletter!”
In a secret language of nods and raised eyebrows, women are socialised from an early age to seek the approval of other women. There is sometimes a strange divide between being a good mother and being SEEN to be a good mother. We are living in the age of Insta-pressure, where the glossy highlights of our friend’s lives are compared to the daily mundanity of our own. This gives us a skewed idea of what being a good mum looks like.
So what do we do? Of course, there is no simple solution, but one part of it involves resisting the temptation to judge other mothers and another part involves having the humility to ask for help.
Self-care is essential to mental health. Too many of us mums will stay up past midnight decorating a birthday cake or perfecting a Book Week costume, but not take time to eat a nourishing breakfast, or exercise our bodies, or to do something that makes us happy.
Of course, raising a family is a wonderful privilege. But even joy-filled adventures come with their share of stresses and we need to address these if we are to be healthy.
And I should make one thing clear: when I say I was crying into the roast potatoes, I wasn’t letting the tears drop onto the food. I do have standards. Plus, they’d already been salted to perfection, so any more would be overkill.
My sister took me to the laundry, listened to me blather, hugged me and asked me what I needed.
I needed a nap.
When I woke up, my dad had drawn up a meal plan, assigning dates and suggested meals to all the cooks in the family. My children were calm (my husband had taken them to the soggy park to wear them out) and were variously cuddling their grandmother, colouring at the table, or playing backgammon with their aunty. And Matilda arrived, safe and completely un-murdered.
I couldn’t claim the credit of single-handedly producing a roast dinner (or single-handedly producing calm children, for that matter). In the end, it was a group effort. But dinner still tasted delicious. I had failed. I had asked for help. I was not Superwoman, but I was still a good mum.
The pamphlet Celebrate Mothers is available from the Majellan Bookshop for $5.00.