Motherhood doesn’t mean you have to do everything for everyone all of the time. Sometimes it’s healthy for Mom to go on strike!
I remember the first time I told my family that I was on strike. My 6-year-old son had just pulled every DVD off of the media center shelves in search of one he’d left at a friend’s house. My 15-year-old daughter had carried an armload of dirty dishes from her room to the sink then headed back upstairs. The entire time she was happily chatting on her cell phone, pausing only to say, “There, I cleaned my room. Happy?” Five minutes later my husband announced he was off to play 9 holes of golf with a buddy and would be late getting home for the dinner I was fixing at that very moment.
Don’t get me wrong: my family is wonderful. Though my husband has since passed away, he was a good man and a loving father and husband. My kids are sweet-natured and caring — now.
Back then? Well, let’s just say there were times when my husband was at work and the kids were at school when I’d be driving along on some errand and daydreaming about turning left instead of right, heading for the highway, and continuing to drive until I found somewhere else–anywhere else–that looked like a nice place to live solo.
But that day? Something in me snapped.
It was a Monday. That morning, like every weekday morning, I’d woken up at the same time as my husband. Actually, I woke up 20 minutes before him because I got out of bed the first time the alarm clock went off, whereas he habitually hit the snooze button at least twice each morning. I’d made breakfast, fed our pets, scooped the litter box, cleaned house, made lunch, did three loads of laundry, took my son for a haircut and my daughter shopping for a new outfit, scheduled my husband’s dentist appointment, took the car in for an oil change, and sent flowers to my mother-in-law for Mother’s Day because I knew my husband wouldn’t even remember to send her a card.
My family had time to play or chat with friends, but the only time I wasn’t doing something for them were the 10 minutes I’d spent showering and getting dressed, and the occasional visits to the bathroom which, frankly, were usually spent answering my kids’ questions through the door.
When did I become the household drudge? How did my family come to assume that any boring, tedious chore was mine to do while they enjoyed themselves? I’d married a man because we were in love with each other. At what point did that turn into being responsible for taking care of every aspect of his life outside of the office?
We became parents because of obvious biological functions, but also because we wanted to celebrate our love. But why did motherhood mean giving over every minute of my day to doing things for the kids, giving up my own social life, and being considered a “bad mother” if I wanted to do something just for myself?
That evening when my husband got home from golfing and ate the dinner I’d kept warm for him, I sat down and explained how miserable and resentful I was feeling. He’d never been a man to ask much about how I’d spent my day, in part because he figured I’d tell him the highlights and in part because he didn’t want me to think he expected an accounting for my time as a stay-at-home mom.
But when I gave him my Done List (something I’ve discussed here), he realized that the clean house, the ironed clothes, and favorite dinners he came home to didn’t just happen out of the blue. I wasn’t spending my days watching soap operas and eating bonbons, then racing around for 30 minutes to get things done. I was working hard, too, and in between household chores I was earning a part-time income from blogging. Because my duties didn’t end at 5 PM, I was putting in many more hours per day than he was, but I didn’t even get an hour to myself for lunch.
I nearly cried when he said he’d take over the morning drive to school. Until that point, he’d left for work an hour earlier than necessary so he could grab a parking spot just outside the front door to his office rather than having to walk for 5 minutes on a tree-lined trail. He’d get to his office and have a cup or two of coffee while he read the news online, then visit with coworkers before the workday started.
As a mom who hadn’t enjoyed a hot cup of coffee on a weekday for almost fifteen years, and who rarely had the chance to speak to adults aside from my husband or store clerks, I’d resented his flexible mornings for so long. But until I went on strike he had no idea.
While telling the kids I was going on strike, I promised I’d take care of them and immediately get them to a doctor if they got sick, but otherwise they were in charge of taking care of themselves. They needed to wake themselves up, pick out their own clothes, make their own breakfasts, pack their own lunches, and work together to make dinner. They’d have to do the dishes, laundry, and other household chores. They’d have to do their homework and turn it in without being reminded. They’d have to entertain themselves, solve their own problems, and referee their own arguments. I was on strike, and I planned to spend my strike doing things for me, not for them.
Over the next week, both my family and I learned some things about when Mom goes on strike that surprised us, things I’d tried expressing to them but couldn’t get across, things they could only learn through experience. Yes, the first couple of days were rough but by the end of the week I was proud of how well my kids were doing, and how changed their attitudes toward me and each other were. Here’s what we learned.
5 Reasons Why Moms Should Go On Strike
1. It restores gratitude.
In this age of “helicopter parenting,” it’s easy for us and our kids to forget that we do things for them by choice. I know many women believe in the Proverbs 31 role, specifically the part about joyfully serving one’s family, and I’m not arguing in any way with that approach. But one of the ways we should also be training our children involves showing gratitude to others.
Being a valet means parking cars, being a hair stylist involves styling hair, and being a food server involves waiting on people: but we still say thank you and express gratitude for those who perform such things. It’s only right that children should learn to recognize and be appreciative of the efforts their parents make to do things for them, too.
When I went on strike my kids figured out that meals don’t just appear on the table: someone puts effort into cooking for others. The first night of my strike the kids decided they’d make spaghetti for dinner. They’re both pasta fans, and it sounded like an easy enough meal. Of course, no one had thought to defrost the meat for the sauce, so they had to wait for the microwave to do that. Then they needed to find a recipe because I wasn’t going to tell them how to make it. Then, of course, there were onions and tomatoes to chop, Parmesan cheese to grate, pasta to boil, etc.
It took them nearly two hours to make spaghetti, and while they cooked I watched TV and talked on the phone with a friend I hadn’t had time to chat with for weeks. Although I honestly wasn’t trying to gloat, both kids kept giving me stink-eye because they were missing out on things they’d rather be doing. When they realized after the dishes were done that their bedtime was in 30 minutes, they just about lost it. “Why don’t we get any time for fun?” they both argued. I nodded sympathetically and said, “Yep, it’s frustrating, isn’t it?” as I grabbed a book and went to soak in the tub.
2. It rebalances expectations.
Although what we do for our families is by choice, sometimes they forget we do have a say in the matter. There is no law that says a wife must be the one to remember the birthdays of her husband’s extended family, for instance, but many wives have taken on this task. This invisible burden even has a name–“kin keeping”–and it’s one of the reasons some women find the holidays exhausting rather than joyous.
Like the husband who expects his wife to do the “kin keeping,” kids grow up expecting Mom to continue doing certain things because she’s always done them. Those dishes my daughter left in the sink? I’d taught her from a young age to help wash dishes after a meal, but had never insisted she deal with dishes she used on her own. Those I’d just put in the washer while tidying the kitchen or before making a meal. I hadn’t thought much about them, and neither had she until she walked in with a load she quite clearly expected me to wash.
During my week on strike, I washed the dishes I personally used but didn’t lift a finger to do any others. The first time she made dinner, my daughter looked at the overflowing sink with dismay. “Why should I have to deal with these dishes before I cook for everyone?” she wailed. I just shrugged and said, “Beats me” as I grabbed a magazine to read in the living room. The next morning she pounced on my husband for setting his empty coffee cup in the sink instead of the dishwasher. Later, she did the same to my son. By the end of the week, that sink was constantly empty, just the way I like it.
Making meals, doing laundry, driving the kids to playdates: there is a myriad of things Moms do for their kids to demonstrate how much we care for them. Raising your children to be caring people means teaching them to acknowledge such things, rather than treating them as their due.
3. It teaches kids new skills and independence.
It’s so easy to confuse demonstrating our love for our children with doing everything for them. As the saying goes, “give a man a fish and you feed him a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same is true for kids, whether we’re pouring them a glass of milk, making their beds, or dropping what we’re doing to help them search filthy rooms for an overdue library book.
Sure, there are times when it’s good to do things for them that they could do on their own. What Mom would stand there, holding the milk in her hand, and insist on putting it down to make her kid pour his own glass? Not one I’d want to know, that’s for sure. But what about other things they can and should be doing independently? If we’re in the habit of doing everything for them, how do they learn to do things on their own?
One day during my strike my daughter screamed, “My jeans are dirty because you aren’t doing the laundry thanks to your stupid strike!” Now, I should point out the child had well over a dozen pair of jeans but the particular pair she was referring to were her favorites. She also had plenty of shorts, skirts, and dresses to wear. She’d simply decided that she must wear those jeans the next day, and she expected that I’d stop what I was doing to wash them. When I did nothing, she stormed into the laundry room, read the directions inside the machine’s lid and washed them herself. I’ve not washed a single load of her laundry since; she needed to remember she was capable of doing such things for herself.
Going on strike prompts kids to discover their own independence, whether by doing age-appropriate chores that Mom’s been doing for them or by learning new skills. Isn’t childhood, when Mom’s around to help in an emergency, the best time for them to learn to do such things?
4. It gives Mom control over her own time again.
When you’re a mom it often feels like your To Do list is written for you. From the moment you wake up, your day is driven by someone else’s needs: the kids need someone to wake them, feed them, make sure they’re dressed and have everything they need for school. They need a ride or to be walked to the school or bus stop. You need to get to work where your boss needs you to do your best work all day every day, or you need to get home to do housework. Or both. Then your kids need to be picked up or walked home, fed, supervised during homework time. You need to make dinner, ensure the dishes get done, maybe do a load of laundry, get the kids to bed, spend time with your spouse nurturing your marriage, brush your teeth, go to bed and get to sleep so you can get up and do it all again the next day.
At some point, you’re supposed to find time to fulfill your own needs, too, but as most moms know that tends to happen when (if) everything else is taken care of first. Whether we need sleep, time with friends, a trip to the salon, or just a guilt-free hour of peace and quiet, we feel selfish and wrong if we meet our own needs first. Is it any wonder moms are often full of resentment and anger?
During my strike, the change in my attitude was noticeable. “You’re glowing,” my husband said four days into my strike. “Did you go to the salon or something?” In truth, that was one aspect of self-care I hadn’t made time for. But I did read four books and three magazines during my week on strike. I took a bath in the middle of the day while the kids were at school and the house was quiet. I napped. I met one friend for a long brunch and another for a movie. I took my time getting dressed in the morning while my husband drove the kids to school, and I looked very much like a woman I used to know quite well: the rested, calm, fulfilled version of myself I was before I became a Mom. I loved that woman. I’d missed her and so had my husband. Even my kids seemed to like her, so we decided she should stick around.
Going on strike gives Mom time for recreation. Look closely at that word and what do you see? Re and creation. Time off from the 24/7/365 schedule of motherhood gives moms time to re-create themselves so they’ve got the energy to give to their family. It’s not selfish–it’s a way to ensure you’ve got more of your self to give to them!
5. It’s fair.
We hear a lot of lip service about how “motherhood is the hardest job,” and with good reason. What job would expect you to be on call round-the-clock all year long, without scheduled vacation days, without sick leave? It’s a job filled with incredible responsibility, constant worry, and incessant self-doubt compounded by the judgy attitudes of other moms who eagerly gloat whenever we make a mistake. Oh, and it’s unpaid, a fact which prompts some of those judgy types to exclaim that it’s not a job at all.
But some days it sure can feel like one.
The fact is, Moms get tired and stressed. They get sick or have blue days. Sometimes they just feel burned out. They need a break just as much as anyone else does from their daily routine, but rare is the family who’ll tell Mom to take the week off for herself while they step in to cover for her. If you’re fortunate enough to have a family that will do just that, go for it!
In the 10 years since I first went on strike, I’ve made it a fairly regular thing. We don’t call it “going on strike” anymore: now it’s just known around here as Mom’s Time Off. Every few months I just announce that I’m taking a few days off and, in the meantime, everyone has to feed, bathe, clothe, and dress themselves. Of course, now that my youngest is 16 this is no longer a big deal — he learned through previous strikes how to do for himself and give me a break, and lately he’s encouraging me to use those breaks to travel on my own, even.
It wasn’t always that easy. In fact, when I went on that first strike I’d never have imagined getting to this point. I felt stuck in a rut and taken for granted, as if everyone had a claim on my life except for me.
If that sounds familiar, if you’re burned out and have been snapping at the kids for not respecting the things you do for them, the effort you make around the house, the time you take preparing their meals or doing their laundry, then maybe it’s time for you to consider going on strike, too? Call me, and we’ll have a nice, long lunch together — no kids allowed.