I distinctly remember one evening, as a new mom, tidying up my daughter’s room before putting her down for the night as my mother-in-law looked on. “A woman’s work is never done,” she chuckled. She meant it in a knowing way, but I found it annoying. I was only tidying because she was there. Otherwise, I would have left the stacks of books and the piles of toys that my daughter was undoubtedly going to pull out again in the morning. But there were eyes upon me, eyes that I’d seen scan over every out-of-place item, every dirty baseboard, every dying plant in my home before. I stayed busy cleaning until she left.
I didn’t think much more of my mother-in-law’s comment from that evening until two years later. Again, I was cleaning up my daughter’s things, this time gathering them up from the floor of my mother-in-law’s otherwise pristine living room before leaving. As I crammed items at random into the battered diaper bag, my mother-in-law’s 92-year-old mother looked on and sighed, “Ah, a woman’s work is never done.” It was then that it clicked—this message had been passed down for generations among the women in their family. It was the idea that you should always be working within the home, that what I was doing was inherently “a woman’s work,” and that it was an expectation. And it wasn’t unique to their family, of course. Many women are hearing and deeply feeling this message every day.
Meanwhile, the guys were on the deck drinking beers.
I vowed then to never say such a phrase in front of my daughter. Instead, I thought to myself, Sometimes a woman’s work is DONE.
Soon after this encounter, I was reminded of this message again as my mother-in-law lamented about the chores ahead of her on a beautiful Saturday. “It’s sheet-washing day,” she sighed as if this should and would take precedence over the entire day. I tried to imagine her husband saying such a thing, but all I could imagine was him spending the day on the couch watching football or toying with a project outside.
I left that day, went home to our messy home and loaded my daughter and the dog into the car for a hike in the woods. Maybe my husband or I would vacuum that evening, but likely not. There were clothes in the laundry bin, but they’d be there tomorrow. We might throw the toys back in their bin to be pulled out again tomorrow or we might be ready to collapse on the couch after bedtime stories.
In my own family, my grandmother had six children and did back-breaking work on the family farm as well. She nurtured a large garden and canned the fruits of her labor to feed the family. She cooked multiple meals a day. She served my grandpa tea on a little saucer, delivered to his recliner each morning. On his deathbed, she begged him not to go, promising him she’d make him a tomato sandwich. The fruits of her labor, delivered to him one last time. She enjoyed much of her work, but after he passed, she started eating bags of popcorn and peanut butter straight from the jar. “Oh, I’ve never liked cooking,” she said. I don’t have a single memory of my grandpa in the kitchen. It’s where my memories often place my grandma.
We’ve come far in terms of gender norms, and I’m very grateful for the progress. But I would never tell my daughter to settle for an unequal portion of the work because “at least it’s better than it was” so I won’t tell myself that either. I see how easy it is for what we say to ourselves to become what they say to themselves.
I want my daughter to recognize how hard her father and I both work. I’m far from neglecting all the work that is to be done. But I also refuse to neglect the play. Mommies have tee times too (…or an equivalent), daddies wash sheets. And I’m complicit if I’m not challenging my husband and myself to demonstrate this. We have a lot of social constructs to work against. Made more difficult because, in addition to the messages women hear, those women whose work never ended had sons, and they were watching too.
My daughter and I have so much to learn from the strong, hardworking women who came before us, but we also have things to unlearn. There can be joy in the work, great satisfaction in nourishing your family and cultivating a home. However it certainly isn’t our work as women, alone. Our generational message is evolving: Mama works hard, but sometimes the work is done.