Essay: Mom on Strike

(Originally in Ladies' Home Journal)

Maybe it was the moment I discovered my 6 year-old son smashing a Pop Tart into the seat of my car.  Or when my 15 year-old daughter sniffed at the contents of our refrigerator and said, “How come you never buy anything good to eat?”  It might even have been when my husband asked, “Can you possibly straighten up the house before I get home from work?”

I don’t know.  I really can’t pinpoint the specific moment.  But, whenever it was, that moment came and left me wanting to resign as wife and mother. 

I don’t have a bad family, just a clueless one.  My husband is a full-time software engineer.  I’m a full-time freelance writer with an office in the house, which frees me of nasty commuter traffic and pantyhose.  My three children, ages 6 to 16, do well in school and willingly complete chores – if I remind them.  I have little to complain about, but for this one shriekingly obvious thing:  Being a good wife and mother means that I’m like the air my family breathes.  They’d only notice the things I do if I stopped.

Every morning, I hit the ground galloping when my alarm clock chirps me out of bed at 5:45 a.m.  I make breakfast, start the laundry, clear the dishwasher and then, after everyone eats, I load it again.  I contemplate dinner and pull things out of the freezer, compare calendars with my husband, and hunt down missing shoes and jackets.  Finally I wipe the counters, sweep the floor, change laundry loads, and wave everyone off – all in the first hour of the day.

Where’s that Fairy Godmother when I need her?

Clearly, she’s on the lam.  I decide it’s time to break out my own magic wand.

“I’m going on strike,” I announce to my family over dinner.

My husband, Dan, looks up from his plate of spaghetti.  “What does that mean, exactly?”

I ad lib, warming to my cause.  “There will be no more washerwoman, cook or cleaner in this house.  For the next 7 days, I’ll drive you kids to school and back, and I’ll be here if somebody needs an ambulance, but otherwise everyone’s on their own.”

Dan sighs.  “Oh, great.  More fun for me.”

The children are nonchalant.  Blaise, my 16 year-old son, even grins.  “You mean you’re not going to ask us to do any chores at all, Mom?”

“That’s right,” I say.

“Cool,” he says.  “Frankly, I don’t see the down side.  I mean, it’s not like we can’t take care of ourselves.”
The gauntlet is thrown.
 
Day 1
Dan leaves for work, absent-mindedly kissing me goodbye.  I get the kids to school, then scurry around to finish my  housework just as I always do before heading downstairs to my office.  I considered striking at daybreak, but it makes more sense to eliminate extraneous variables.  I’ll be like Jane Goodall watching her clan of chimps fight over the last banana.  Besides, High Noon seems like the right time for a showdown. 

I run up and down the stairs between my office and the laundry room three times, but I still don’t have time to finish the laundry.  At noon there’s still one load left in the dryer and another in the washer.  Ah well.  At least the baskets are empty.  I can start my strike with a clean house and a clear conscience. 

I successfully stay in my office for the afternoon.  The minute school’s out, though, I accidentally cross my own picket line:  I remember that we’re out of milk, and instinctively stop for a gallon  on my way home from the elementary school.  Obviously, I need a 12-step program for caretakers. 

Like most working mothers, I have learned to squeeze my domestic life in around the edges of my career.  Or is it the other way around?  I work a flexible 40-hour schedule that encompasses evenings and Saturdays, so that I can be home after school with the children, while my husband keeps more traditional work hours.   Dan and I make nearly the same hourly wage, but of course he has health benefits and a more constant income, so my “flexible” work hours designate me as the one who will cover most of the daily housework, plus school vacations, snow days, sick days and mystery bugaboos like school closings for teacher workshops.  This means that I, like most of my women friends, view “multitasking” not just as a verb choice, but as a lifestyle imperative.  On any given day, I might grocery shop on the way back home from dropping the kids off at school, and use the cell phone on the return trip from the store to arrange interviews for article research.  I fold laundry while printing out manuscripts, help children with homework while composing emails, and advise my son on the life cycle of frogs while alternately loading the dishwasher and making notes for stories.  I have, on occasion, sorted socks while making doctors’ appointments or discussing story proposals with editors. There is not a minute in my life where I do just one thing.

I am lucky in so many ways.  I have a rich life, a rewarding career, a loving family.  But I’m also – like most of my working mother friends – exhausted.  As sociologists noted when women started flowing into the work force in the 1970s, the standard scenario in most dual-income families is that Mom and Dad might both work full-time, yet Mom’s second shift at home isn’t equally shared by her husband.  This has changed a lot in 30 years, of course.  Glance around any birthday party, soccer game or grocery store, and you can see fathers cajoling whiney kids and frowning over the mustard choices.  Yet, we still have a long way to go.  I don’t know many husbands who are apt to notice the daily details without a good prompt, like the child who needs a haircut or a new pair of shoes, the babysitter who must be called for Saturday night, or a laundry basket that needs emptying.

Later that afternoon, I manage to rein in my impulses when Aidan, my 6 year-old, accidentally knocks over a jar of candy in the kitchen.  Ordinarily I’d be right down on the floor,  helping him scoop up the candy.  Today, I simply shake my head.  “Mom’s on strike,” I remind him. “Unless you pick up your own candy, it’ll stay on the floor.”

To my amazement, Aidan snatches up every bit of candy.  If I’d known it was this easy to train kids to pick up after themselves, I would done this years ago.  Does this mean I’ve been a bad parent?  Would my children do for themselves if I just got out of the way? 

On the other hand, if Aidan had spilled a bag of carrots, they’d probably still be there when he went to bed.
That night, Dan and our two teenagers make sandwiches for dinner.  I cook macaroni and cheese for myself, but take pity on the kids when they hover at my elbow, sniffing the magic cheese packet like puppies.  They end up with most of it.  I eat an apple and wish I weren’t such a wimp.  I should have eaten that whole dang box of noodles myself.

After dinner, I glance at the washing machine and note that the loads haven’t been switched.  Those wet clothes must stink like used gym socks by now.  Normally, I’d fold a load or two of laundry before bed; tonight, though, I proceed straight to the bathroom, where I see that Aidan must have undressed in his usual frenzy.  Little boy socks, shirt, underpants and trousers adorn every high surface, including the shower door.  Our bathroom looks like a cheap bordello.

There aren’t any dry towels, because they’re all moldering away in the washer.  I don’t say anything about that as Dan steps into the bathroom for his shower.  Dan doesn’t mention the lack of towels, either – he’s being curt with me, after washing all of those dinner dishes – but he’s dry when he emerges. 

“What did you use, a washcloth?” I ask.

“A hand towel,” he sniffs.

Day 2
Our older children wolf down cereal for breakfast and leave the bowls on the counter.  I leave them there, too.  Dan takes Aidan to McDonald’s on the way to school.  “I thought if we went out to eat, the kitchen would stay cleaner longer,” he confesses when he calls me later.

Gosh, why didn’t I think of eating out every day?  I don’t mention anything to Dan about forgetting to run the dishwasher last night.  I had to fish around on a shelf of orphan mugs to find a clean one, and I have to physically shield my eyes with my hand as I maneuver through the dining room, where newspapers and dishes still clutter the table.  On the other hand, I get downstairs to my desk an hour earlier than usual, so there’s definitely an up side to this zero housekeeping policy.  Maybe the kids are right, and it really is easier to be messy than it is to be neat.  I don’t have to throw away that empty crackers box on the shelf or take out the overflowing trash bag.  And I’m not going to waste precious minutes removing the soda can graveyard that has sprung up next to the TV.

There’s just one hitch:  we have no fruit, other than a single bruised apple, and I want some.  I walk to the corner store, where I realize it’s tough to buy just one banana.  I hide the rest of the bunch in my office when I get home.  I really do want my kids to notice that I’m off duty.

That night, I finally score.  When my 15 year-old daughter, Taylor, asks me to drive her to a friend’s house, I Just Say No.  Dan says no, too.  He has desk work to do tonight.

“What?” she shrieks.  “You’re not giving me any rides this whole week?  Then how am I supposed to get anywhere?”  She storms out of the room.

Dan has made Aidan pick up his clothes in the bathroom, with the exception of the dirty t-shirt still dangling from the towel rack.  The laundry room is a Himalayan range of dirty clothes, and the only towel in our bathroom stinks like a lake house in April.  I use it anyway.

At least Dan runs the dishwasher.  When he comes to bed, I’m reading.  I shut my book and say cheerfully, “You know something, since I wasn’t doing chores before bed, I’m feeling downright frisky.”

“I’m exhausted,” he says sourly, but rallies. 

Day 3
Dan looks everywhere for his jeans.  “I think they got mixed up with Blaise’s laundry,” he says.
“They might still be in the washer,” I suggest.

He looks dumbfounded.  “There are still clothes in the washer?  How was I supposed to know that?”
“I usually check the washer before bed,” I venture.

He gives me a look I don’t want to interpret and leaves the room.

A little while later, I discover a list of chores – typed on Dan’s computer – taped to the kitchen counter above the towering piles of dirty dishes.  Next to it is a Memo to the children in bold letters.  Included is a “Philosophical Note” that reads, in part: “You can leave behind the self-absorbed world of the child by taking responsibility for other people’s dishes when you find them.”

Dan comes into the kitchen just then, defiantly wearing his moldy jeans.  “I wrote that memo to motivate those shambling somnambulist teenagers,” he says. 

“Good luck with that,” I quip, then realize that I have unconsciously slipped into nasty teenspeak.  Maybe it’s because our bathroom now smells like a fraternity.

“What’s your point with all this?” Dan barks back.  “Are you trying to offer empirical proof that your efforts count, or are you just trying to make me lose my mind?”

I think about this for a minute.  Am I just trying to earn some applause, or do I really want to change my marriage?

That’s the thing about marriage, of course: if one of you changes course, the other person had better be willing to change, too, or else risk getting knocked off the life raft.  That’s why the experts tell you to keep talking.  The thing is, Dan and I have never talked about housework, or what feminist writer Susan Maushart calls “wifework” – those hours spent cooking, cleaning or taking care of your kids before and after your “job-job.”  Like most couples, we just jumped into marriage feet-first and started swimming, with no clue about the rapids ahead.  Not surprisingly, we fell into the pattern we both knew best.  Our own fathers worked and our mothers stayed home to feed us grilled cheese and soup for lunch, so it was natural for Dan to work full-time, while I fit my job in around the edges of housekeeping and child care.

Our haphazard arrangement worked well until we had our youngest child six years ago, at the same time that I started longing for more of a career.  Dan agreed that I should work more, since our growing family needed more income.  I started taking on more assignments as soon as our youngest child started preschool – but I never got around to figuring out how to relinquish any of the housekeeping and child care responsibilities.
As Mt. Holyoke psychologist Francine Deutsch points out in her study of equal parenting, Halving It All (Harvard, 1999), “Parenting is the key issue in the gendered division of labor at home.”   When dual-earner childless couples who work full time divide up household labor, women may do a bit more than their husbands, she notes.  “Children, however, create an inequality of crisis proportions.”  Ironically, career building is at its most intense during a woman’s childbearing years, she adds.

To add to the confusion, when the kids are around, most couples are too busy trying to stay afloat emotionally and physically to rationally sort out petty resentments.  It’s no wonder that Dan looks not only puzzled by my behavior, but furious.  I have betrayed our unspoken agreement, and he’s stuck picking up the slack. 
At last, I tell him that I’m just trying to make a point about how much I do for the family that everyone else takes for granted.  “You’re a great husband, but you act like all of the work is done when you come home from work, and I’m still at it until 11 o’clock.”

He’s visibly angry, almost shaking.  “But you have more flexible work hours than I do.  You never have to commute anywhere, you get to be with the kids every day after school, and if you feel like playing tennis at lunch, you can.  Nobody’s ever looking over your shoulder.  Sometimes I feel like I’m living poor so you can live rich.”

I’m so stung by this remark that I feel sick to my stomach.  “I didn’t know you felt that way,” I finally manage. 
“I don’t, usually.”  Dan sighs and looks out the window, where clothes and trash litter our back yard.  “What’s all that?” he asks.

“Aidan had a friend over after school, and they left their sweatshirts and the packaging from their snacks outside.”

Dan stomps out of the house.  “Maybe I should go on strike, too,” he mutters.

Day 4
There are more memos taped to the kitchen counters.  One of them is titled “It’s not my mess; why should I clean it up?”  In that memo, Dan has written, “If we each recognize that even with the best attitude possible we will all leave some messes behind, we can keep the house clean with just a little extra effort: just clean 111% of your messes, and the house will be nearly 100% clean.  This isn’t just a math problem; it’s a moral question of our responsibilities to one another.”

“I had no idea you were a socialist,” I say as Dan joins me in the kitchen.

He opens the refrigerator and contemplates the rapidly emptying shelves.  “I guess somebody has to do the grocery shopping,” he grumbles, and goes down to lock himself in his workshop.  I turn back to survey the empty fruit bowl and the sticky counters, barely visible beneath the dishes.  Up to this point, Dan’s been heroically trying to keep up with dishes, laundry, and picking up.  He’s been walking in my shoes, gritty floors and all, but I haven’t taken on any of his responsibilities.  I can’t really blame him for running away now.

That makes me remember that horrible weekend a few months ago, when Dan – at my insistence – went off on his own to spend a weekend in Vermont.  “Just sleep and read bad novels,” I’d encouraged him.  “You need a break.  We’ll all be fine without you.”

Famous last words, etc.  It was the middle of January, and the temperature was well below zero.  As I drove into the garage, the garage door froze halfway when I tried to close it.  I left it open.  Consequently, that night the oil in our tank froze, which led to the furnace going off.  I woke to a house so cold that I could see my breath, and frozen water pipes besides. 

Dan never would have left that garage door open in the first place.

There are so many things Dan does that I never do – house maintenance, accounting, barbecuing for parties.  I sure hope he doesn’t mean what he said about going on strike.  They could probably make a new Survivor show out of wives like me left at home and trying to survive home maintenance crises.  Yet, I’d better gear up for it.  Clearly, I’m not the only one in this marriage who feels depleted and underappreciated.

Day 5
The soda cans next to the TV shelf are growing in number and have been joined by a Slurpee cup.  Aidan has unfolded the sofa bed and made some sort of fort.  Toys cover every surface of his bedroom; when I come upstairs to open a window, I have to climb over piles to cross the room.  In the kitchen, the empty crackers box in the cupboard has been joined by an empty cereal box.  The linen cupboard is leaking towels and sheets because somebody pawed through it and didn’t refold anything.

“I don’t get it,” I complain to my friend Philip that morning as I make my tea.  “Why aren’t the kids doing anything about the mess?”

He laughs.  “What did you expect?  You’re not telling them what to do, which is what they’re used to.  And nothing is impacting them directly, except for you not driving them places.  Probably the level of chaos in the house would have to rise above whatever chaos is in their own bedrooms before they’d do something about it.”
Another memo flutters from the kitchen counter, but I don’t have the heart to read it.  I step over the toys, cardboard boxes and newspapers littering the dining room.  I once visited the city dump in Tijuana, Mexico, and our house is starting to have a similar feel.  All we need are a few stray dogs.

My friend Phoebe calls that morning, too.  “Are you staying strong?” she asks.

I have to pace the house to avoid doing what I usually do when I’m on the phone: fold, pick up, wipe.  “Barely,” I say.  “I thought my family would appreciate me more, but instead they’re all just mad at me.  And I don’t know what to do with myself.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Phoebe assures me.

Back in the kitchen, Dan is muttering as he looks through the refrigerator.  “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he says.  “Nothing is where it should be.”

Blaise peers into the bread drawer beside him.  “There aren’t any bagels,” he says hopelessly.  “And no cereal.”
Bagels, cereal and canned soup are my teenaged son’s mainstay, and Blaise seems genuinely confused to discover that these items do not  magically regenerate as they diminish.  “You’re not buying any food,” he accuses me.

“I’m on strike, remember?” I answer.

Blaise glances at Dan, notes his black mood, and ends up eating peanut butter and crackers for breakfast. 
By 8:15 a.m., I’m worrying about Aidan getting to school on time.  Dan and I typically take turns driving Aidan to school, and this is one of Dan’s days.  However, even when Dan takes Aidan to school, I’m the one who gets my son’s clothes and backpack ready the night before, and today I haven’t done that.

There are only 20 minutes left, and Aidan isn’t dressed and hasn’t eaten breakfast.  His backpack is still downstairs, where he dropped it yesterday after school.  As Dan sits down to eat breakfast, I make a conscious decision to cross my own picket line yet again.  For the good of my son, I make Aidan  scrambled eggs with jelly toast, get him dressed and pack his bag for school. 

When I tell Dan that Aidan’s ready for school, he snarls, “Are you going to wipe up that jelly on the counter or just leave it there?”

“You’re welcome,” I huff.

“I didn’t ask you to get Aidan ready for school!”

I stand my ground.  “He was going to be late.”

“I can tell time,” Dan says.  “I was doing things my way.  I decided it didn’t matter if he was a bit late for school.  You just didn’t like my way and took over.”  Dan turns on his heel and leaves the room.

He’s right, of course.  It is becoming abundantly clear that one reason we mothers end up doing too much for others is because we expect too little from them.

Day 6
Dan’s memos are wadded up in the kitchen  trash.   Yet, some things are definitely shifting to fill in the vacuum left by my absence. Dan remembered to start the dishwasher again last night, and he’s issuing commands to the kids instead of relying on memos – always a better strategy with most teenagers, since they really are sleepwalking until four o’clock in the afternoon.  Taylor washed and folded two loads of laundry.  Not only that, after dinner tonight, I overheard Blaise asking Dan how to run the dishwasher.  As the machine starts humming, I congratulate him.

“It’s not that hard, Mom,” Blaise says, dismissing me with a casual wave.  “All you have to do is put in the soap and push a button.”

Later, I apologize to Dan for taking over yesterday morning when I was supposed to be lying low.  “And I’m still feeling horrible about what you said about living poor so that I can live rich,” I add.

Dan sighs.  “Look, all I meant is that I wish I could have a life more like yours.  One where I didn’t have to go to work at a certain time every day and do lots of things I don’t want to do.  My life’s half over, and I still spend almost every hour doing things for other people instead of for myself.”

I stay quiet for a minute, thinking about how parenthood really is like having homework for the rest of your life.  Then I reach up and stroke my husband’s face.  “What we need to do,” I say, “is figure out how to give both of us more of what we want.”

Day 7
On the final day of self-imposed exile from my mother’s duties, I watch TV with the kids after breakfast.  The breakfast dishes and maple syrup are still on the counter by dinnertime, and those two empty boxes lingering on the shelves are now a threesome.  The kids mumble at me when they get home from school and retreat to their rooms. 

Dan calls me from work, despairing.  “How could we run out of milk already?  And it’s a surprise to me every time I go upstairs and see that Aidan’s room is still trashed.  Some things just aren’t on my radar screen.  I mean, I don’t even go upstairs until after work, and by then it’s dark.”

“But you remembered to pay the mortgage,” I said.  “And you fixed the dog fence when the mower guys broke it.” 

There’s a brief silence on the other end of the phone.  Then he says, “I love you.”

That night, Blaise, Taylor and even Aidan load their own dishes into the dishwasher after dinner without being asked.  Dan stopped on the way home from work and bought milk, orange juice and bread.  Still no bagels, but Blaise makes himself a sandwich with bread.  He pauses on his way downstairs to the TV, sandwich in hand, and says, “Thanks for buying food, Dan,” before descending.

“Well, that’s something,” I say to Dan.  “He noticed.”

Dan kisses me.  “We have to all keep noticing.”

“So is your strike over, Mom?” Aidan asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.  “Did you learn anything this week?”

He nods.  “Yeah.  It was a lot harder to play tag inside the house because there was so much stuff on the floor.”

“And?”

Aidan shrugs.  “And now I know how to run the dishwasher.”

I give him a hug.  “That’s pretty good for first grade.  Your brother didn’t learn until high school.”

Coda
Since the strike, Dan and I have had a number of discussions about how to make both our work and parenting roles more flexible, and how to teach, coax and railroad the kids to do their share of housework.  I’ve been putting notes up every day – not Dan’s philosophical missives, but chores lists IN  BIG  LETTERS.  Everyone has to do three chores a day, and whoever gets to the list first gets to pick their chores.  If someone’s chores aren’t done, I pull a ministrike: No rides, no bagel buying, or no game of Uno, depending on the offender.  Dan, meanwhile, confessed that what he wanted most was simple: ride his bicycle.  I agreed to take Aidan to school every morning, so that he can get out and ride before work.  He’s doing the grocery shopping on Saturdays.
There is no such thing as absolute equality or flawlessly domestic children.  Our entire family will have to continue working on awareness.  But the important thing isn’t how much each of us does, but that we’re doing everything together. 

Yesterday, I woke up before my alarm because I heard the oddest noises in the kitchen.  It sounded like someone unloading the dishwasher, but Dan was fast asleep beside me.  It must be one of my kids, I realized.  I smiled into the gathering light, and thought, wow.”