Or at least, what this woman thinks she wants…
As I write this, it’s International Women’s Day. People around the world are tweeting about great women, inspiring women, beautiful women, high-flying women, much-loved women. We’re valuing women and their achievements, as we should be.
But some women don’t feel so high-achieving. The online parenting forums I subscribe to are filled with exhausted, overwhelmed women asking for advice, asking for reassurance, begging for someone to tell them they’re doing it right, they’re doing a good job, that what they’re doing is worthwhile and it is valued.
I remember one day, a few months ago (I remember it because it felt so different, so special), I went into work for a meeting. I wore a blouse. I wore lipstick. (I drew the line at heels). I carried a handbag. I discussed the rate of deforestation in China, talked about going to a conference. My work was appraised and my ideas sought. I came out with a progress report and a list of targets for the next six months. I felt my brain waking up. I felt alive and inspired, and I felt valued.
Why don’t we value mothers the same way? Why don’t we value ourselves the same way?
The thing with parenting is, people only seem to notice when you get it wrong: I will hear it from nursery if my daughter tries to cut another little girl’s pigtails off; from my daughter if her favourite jumper is not laundered, dried and back on the shelf within two hours of being left on the bathroom floor; from my husband if I shout at the children; from myself if I don’t feel I’ve given the kids enough stimulation, interaction or direction today. But if the kids are fed and (mostly) clothed and (partly) clean and (sometimes) sleeping and (in one way or another) entertained, nobody really notices. I don’t have a manual, I never get a progress report and the targets for one day are usually the same as the next: keep them alive, and stop them from killing anyone else.
The thing with parenting is, the job is never done. No-one ever says, ‘Well done, you’ve finished these kids now, you did a great job. Now move on to the next project.’ Or, ‘You got a B for that one, why not try for an A next time?’ In a results-orientated world, parenting is the only job that doesn’t even get to the examination.
And with no results to chalk up, sometimes it seems all you’ve got to show for your efforts is felt-tip pen (or worse, Sharpie) on your face and a hole in your jeans from kneeling doing nappies all day. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mum, a working mum, a work-at-home mum; whether your partner (if you have one) works hard all day, sits around in his pants playing Xbox all day, cares for the children all day; the chances are you’ve made sacrifices he (in my case it’s a he) isn’t even aware of.
I’ve lost my waist, I’ve gained some wrinkles, my hair is falling out, bits of my bowel are still threatening to escape out of my arse. I don’t have time to shave my legs or paint my toenails. I haven’t had my hair cut for over a year. If I put on makeup it’s usually in the dark. I can’t wear my favourite jumper or my favourite bra in case the youngest wants a snack. I sleep with one arm around the baby and the other braced to stop myself falling out of my six inches of bed. I had a black eye for a week from a Tommy Tippee cup. My schedule is entirely decided by a tyrannical five-year old, a boob-hungry one-year-old, and the regular and emergency medical needs of a complex three-year-old. I have little time and even less time off; but worse I have no autonomy, and zero control.
Yes, we would like you to do your bit. No, we don’t want you to ‘help’. Helping implies that this is all our job, that you’re just picking up the slack for us. We don’t want you to ask ‘what can I do?’ because that relies upon us to take responsibility for the organisation which, frankly, is one of the most mentally-exhausting things. We want you to know which night the bin goes out and just do it. We want you to notice that the house is a tip and tidy it. We want you to remember – just for a change – who needs a packed lunch tomorrow and what time parents’ evening is and whether it’s a nappy wash or a clothes wash today.
But more than that, we want to be valued. We don’t necessarily want flowers and chocolates (although they would be nice); we just want to be recognised for what we do. We don’t necessarily want sexy underwear and a massage (although they would be nice); we just want you to remember and remind us who we were, who we are, underneath the dribble and the vomit and the mountain of paperwork and the mountains of laundry.
I don’t have the answer. Many partners do all this already and it still isn’t working. What can I say? Women are complicated creatures. This isn’t something that can be changed by one husband buying his wife flowers. In fact, our partners probably value us more than anyone; certainly more than we value ourselves as we run around in circles trying to get yogurt off our backsides and keep the baby from getting into the guinea-pig hutch.
Maybe if the world were a little less results-orientated, motherhood wouldn’t seem like such a raw deal. Maybe if we all spent less time thinking ‘what did I achieve today?’ and more time asking ‘what can I do that would make someone happy right now?’ we might, ourselves, be happier women. Because chances are, if you’re a mum, you’re already doing it.