The conversation about overworked mothers is not new. But what we don’t discuss as often is where—and how—to draw the line. And that nothing will change until we do.
One of my favorite movie lines is from Star Trek: First Contact. Jean-Luc Picard is in the midst of a war with the Borg—who once abducted him and remade him in their own image—and he has had enough. “The line must be drawn here!” he says with passion and conviction. And so it must—if ever there was a need for a definitive boundary, it is here, where Picard’s personal pain and humanity’s survival coincide.
I love this line because it gives a compelling voice to the need for boundaries: a need that I, like many women, have had to acknowledge and then exercise, building its strength like a forgotten muscle. Women—especially mothers—are taught to consider personal boundaries fluid, if we acknowledge them at all. We tend not to set boundaries for ourselves—instead, we scramble to meet the needs of others. Moms run PTAs, volunteer at churches, handle doctor’s appointments, do the largest share of the housework, help with homework, plan social events and clean up afterward—all of this, in most cases, while working either part-time or full-time jobs.
To some degree, the endless to-do list is a side effect of modern parenthood—fathers are overworked too, and spend record amounts of time with their children. However, our cultural definition of parenthood still expects moms to carry most of the childcare and housework load.
The conversation about overworked mothers is not new—we have been discussing “having it all” and “leaning in” for a while now, along with the ironies and impossibilities these terms carry for women who have always had to work outside the home while raising children. What we don’t discuss as often is where—and how—to draw the line. And that nothing will change until we do.
This has been a difficult lesson for my family and me. And we aren’t alone: Most mothers I know feel they do too much, yet aren’t sure how to change the dynamic. We hold contradictory beliefs about motherhood: according to All Joy and No Fun author Jennifer Senior, around 79% of us think we shouldn’t go back to the way things were for a slice of white middle-class life in the ’50s, yet 51% of us think kids would be better off with the mother at home. Everyone—including moms—thinks moms should do it all even as the attempt is making us miserable. What I have learned, painfully and slowly, is that the answer to this dilemma is to establish and maintain personal boundaries.
For a little over four years, I have been researching and writing about feminist topics, from sexism in the media to reproductive justice, from motherhood and work to violence against women. As I have immersed myself in feminist discourse, I have also been raising two children—currently aged 12 and 9—with a husband who teaches literature and gender studies at a university where I have also taught part-time. My husband is my best friend, and a wonderful partner. That doesn’t mean that either one of us thought parenthood—or housework—was a 50–50 deal when our daughter was born and I quit my job as a technical writer to stay home with her. We both had unconscious beliefs about what moms did and what dads did, and we set about fulfilling our roles automatically.
One of our unexamined beliefs was that moms—especially stay-at-home writer moms—did most of the housework. For years, I simultaneously embraced and resented this concept of motherhood. As our kids aged and the work of raising them morphed and multiplied, my resentment would occasionally explode into anger. Slowly, my husband became more conscious of housework, and considered some of it his domain.
Slowly, I shifted my self-perception from stay-at-home mom to writer with kids. Still, the kids came to me with the details of their lives—from forms that needed signing to boots that needed buying—and I seemed to notice messes that everyone else walked past. Sometimes, I made the kids pick up their messes. Sometimes, I picked them up. Sometimes, I yelled at everyone.
As my husband and I both evolved—as individuals, as parents, as feminists—our communication improved. Arguments about children and housework became discussions about how to live what we believe, and what unconscious ideas about our roles we had to ditch. For me, that meant letting go of the idea that I’m not a good mom unless I’m the one juggling all the details—and putting aside my writer life for my mom life at a moment’s notice. For my husband, that meant keeping an ear and an eye out for the needs of the kids—and the household—at all times. But what if we did OK at this for a while, and then forgot? What if we fell back into old habits?
I knew what I wanted: for each family member to hold her- or himself accountable. For packed lunches. For dirty socks. For not interrupting me when I’m writing. Of course, these are the kids’ issues—but they bring their issues to me. So I wanted my husband to become someone who everyone saw as a signer of forms and a buyer of boots and an enforcer of chores. We all wanted this, for the health and happiness of our family.
And yet. When June of this year arrived and my daughter was bored, it was my work she interrupted. After several interruptions over a couple of weeks, I realized—not for the first time—that when others fall into old habits, I must not fall into mine.
My daughter left for camp in mid-June. When she returned, I showed her a list of suggested activities for downtime on the fridge. Next to my writing chair, there was a bowl of small foam hearts. Each time she asked me a question she could answer herself, I handed her a heart rather than answering her question. She was not fond of this system, as she thought she was too old for it. She stopped interrupting me, and I put the bowl away within a week.
My summer experience with my daughter was only one manifestation of the need for personal boundaries in my life as a parent. There will be others, and soon—the requests and demands on a mother’s time come from many directions, often simultaneously and unexpectedly. But I have found a tangible reminder that setting a personal boundary is part of good mothering, and essential to my health. Now, when I begin to feel resentful, I apply Picard’s line to myself: the line must be drawn within my self-perception before it can be drawn anywhere else.
Elizabeth Hall Magill has been blogging about pop culture, religion, and politics from a feminist perspective since 2011. Posts from Yo Mama have been featured on BlogHer (Spotlight BlogHer), The Representation Project’s Sexy or Sexism campaign, and Girls Re(write) Herstory. Ms. Hall Magill has also written a series of articles for the news site .Mic, and her essay “Jesus and Sophia” appears in the anthology Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak, edited by Trista Hendren and Pat Daly.