By Virginia Fundora
I remember the keychain, a little Dodger baseball cleat. We had been to their spring training in Vero Beach and my dad had gotten it for me. His love affair with the Dodgers was like a religion. Now, that key chain was my most important possession. I could not lose or misplace it because forgetting it meant being locked out of my house after school, and then waiting in the backyard for my dad to come home from work or asking the neighbor for refuge and the phone to call my mom and tell her I was okay. It was the most responsibility I had ever had—at eight years old.
There was no aftercare, no sports or extracurricular activities. There was Duck Tales, Tail Spin, Dark Wing Duck—a lot of duck cartoons back then—to pass the time and entertain myself but also comfort my loneliness, which I called boredom. I felt disconnected from the world. In my house, alone, until my dad came home. He started work early at the hospital and returned before my mom’s traditional 9-5 job ended. He would come home check on me, ask about homework, and then fall asleep on the recliner. I wasn’t alone in the house anymore, but I was still lonely.
When my mom arrived it was the mad rush of picking up my younger sister from preschool and getting dinner ready, cooking while still in her work clothes, sneaking in a few house chores when she could. I would sit on the counter and talk to her about anything really, sometimes I would just watch her. She seemed happy to see me but not happy to be home. For a long time I credited her unhappiness to her marriage. My parents did not always model a loving partnership and separated years later when my sister left for college. Now, as a working mother and a wife myself, I see that her struggles were from carrying so much while also feeling like she wasn’t doing enough.
We all know the narrative now; the ever-plaguing mom guilt and the resentment it can create. Back then if the husband pitched in with the cooking and the cleaning women were seen as lucky; they picked a good one she might hear. And my dad did try, he cleaned and cooked from time to time. He was also a father of two daughters and, for his generation, would be considered quite the feminist. But what we’ve coined now as the “cognitive load,” the preoccupations of childrearing and family life, that mostly belonged to my mom. She just didn’t have a word for it. And because she didn’t have a word for it she didn’t talk about it and so it seemed like she was always running on empty.
Now as a mother of an eight year old myself, I try to imagine what it was like for my mom to be at work in front of her computer, looking at the clock as it neared 2:30pm, her daughter’s dismissal time, and feeling a pang of nerves in her stomach or her heart race a little as she mumbled a little prayer under her breath, something like “I hope she gets home ok, I hope she didn’t forget the key, I hope, I hope, I hope” until the phone rings and it’s me assuring her all is well, “yes, I am ok, yes I locked the door, yes I promise not to open the door for anyone, yes I will eat a snack and do my homework, yes I know that dad will be home soon, yes, yes, yes.”
My kids are not latchkey kids. But, the mom guilt is still there, just for different reasons. I too feel overwhelmed by the cognitive load of motherhood. The difference is, I can talk about it openly with my husband and it is always validated—which takes away the resentment even as we are still trying to figure out how to share it. Sometimes, it feels like it’s a thing I inherited and can’t give away. So I wonder: will I continue the tradition and will my daughter inherit it? What will she know of motherhood and marriage before she makes her “choices”? What will I tell her and, more importantly, what am I modeling for her and my sons?
I grew up with a clear understanding of expectations. Whether they were taught overtly or covertly doesn’t matter, I listened and followed suit. My parents wanted me to have it all, the career, the family, the husband, the beautiful home. Of course they did, they were good parents. And so I bought the having it all narrative like so many other women of my generation did. But I didn’t read the fine print, the part of the having it all (and all at the same time) brochure that said it will come at a steep cost—that along with all those great things there also came stress, guilt, most likely some if not a lot of debt, and a fair share of anxiety.
This is not new information, far from it. Women have been writing and talking about the Having It All deceptive narrative we were fed for some time now. And yet, nothing has replaced it. But I think we are getting closer, another silver lining of COVID perhaps, as society has been forced to take a good hard look at how vulnerable family life is in our country with lack of adequate and affordable childcare, an ongoing gender pay gap, and the imbalance of parenting put on mothers, especially working mothers.
There are times when I do feel punished for the choices I have made. After all I chose to go to graduate school, I chose to have a demanding career and multiple children, I chose many things but I was also expected to make those choices. And I wonder, would I have made the same choices had I known the cost of striving to Have It All? Perhaps. And yet, what I hope for my daughter is a world where woman can choose to be mothers and have a career without the mental and emotional toll of carrying with the never-ending cognitive load. I imagine our idea of success and work-life balance would need to be redefined. And then, maybe then, we could put to rest the having it all and replace it with sharing it all.
Virginia Fundora is a clinical psychologist in Tampa, FL, where she lives with her husband and three young children.
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