by Linda Burton
There is a Greyhound bus in my imagination, which I dream of taking on the bad days at home. On the moderately bad days, I plan speeches and theatrical exits. But on the awful days, all I want to do is quietly, in an ordinary sort of way, tell my family that I am going to the store for a loaf of bread; then walk out the door, drive carefully and purposefully to the Greyhound bus station, and never even look back.
Where would I go? It doesn't really matter. Maybe start life again in another town, under some other name. Maybe be a waitress in a quiet little diner and have a quiet little apartment and two or three little cotton dresses and never again have to... have to, what? I suppose it depends on the day. Never again have to respond to the ninety-third request for some form of sugar in the same four hour period; never again have to mediate twenty-six conflicts in rapid succession; never again have to completely clean up a room which I had just completely cleaned up only two hours before. Never again have to cook a dinner which is almost never good enough. Never again have to work hard under a barrage of criticism, complaints, and demands. The thought is intoxicating.
And on the bad days, the idea of escape lures me like Bali Hai.
I once asked my mother if she had ever had any truly bad days when my sisters and brother and I were growing up. Of course, I knew that there had doubtless been some days that were horrible; there must be for every mother. Yet, somehow I couldn't really believe that she could have experienced the degree of despair which I periodically do.
She recalled how, when we were small (as my children are now), we would go as a family to the beach for a week or two. Because my parents had very little money at the time, we would stay in a two bedroom, tiny little cottage about a block-and-a-half from the ocean. My mother was expected to bring all linens, cooking utensils, and food, and to essentially carry all of her work from home to the beach. For me and my siblings, it was a great vacation. For my mother, I think it was probably only a compression of the demands made on her into a smaller, less hospitable place. One night, she said, she went to the beach. She sat on the shore, watched the ocean, and wept. She told me how she cried there because she had felt that she couldn't cry in the cottage around us and my father. And how she prayed that the ocean might just silently come and get her and wash her away with it.
No dramatics, no yelling, no accusations. Just wash her away. I have probably never felt closer to my mother, nor more empathetic, than when she told me that story. Eventually, she told me, she turned around and came back -- back to the cottage -- though I think she was never entirely sure why. It was just something she did, like the interminable laundry.
Why Do We Have These Bad Days?
What is it about the business of being a mother that must almost necessarily bring us to these occasional times of exhaustion and despair?
First at fault, I think, is the vast, limitless nature of the job. Mothers are literally at the job -- often hard at work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with no coffee breaks, lunch hours, or sick days. When we vacation, if we vacation at all, we are usually required to bring much of our work along with us. In any other profession in this country, these working conditions would be considered well below the level of accepted human endurance.
But it is not just the shifting parameters of her job that can bring a mother right to the edge. There is also the incessant nature of her work. With all of its unparalleled rewards and excitement, the nature of a mother's work, like most work, does have a dark side. And when this dark side of the job is joined by the feeling that her days have no end, a woman can easily believe she has come to the end of her rope.
Like Sisyphus pushing his rock up that legendary hill, a mother, at one time or another, will feel that no matter how much she has done, someone has always come along right behind her and undone it; that no matter how hard she works, there is always more to do; and that no matter what she has managed to get done, it is never good enough. For most of us, there is eternal cooking, cleaning, breaking up fights, carpooling to the same places and back again, putting the same clothes in the same wash and taking them out again. On the bad days, it is easy to forget that these repetitive, interminable chores are only a small part of an otherwise pretty fascinating job. Most of the time, these repetitious tasks are simply taken in stride as incidental to the real work we do. But on the bad days, the repetitious tasks consume us. They become, in our minds, all that we do.
And the Relentless Demands...
We must add to this the fact that these endless tasks are punctuated by the ceaseless battering of children's interruptions and demands. Few people, I think, other than the mother directly involved, can ever be truly aware or completely understanding of the emotional toll which these demands eventually take.
Recently I was working under deadline to finish a piece of writing. My younger son interrupted me with a request -- the same one he had made many times that afternoon -- for some juice."Mommy, I want some juice," he said
"You just had juice," I responded. "I've gotten it for you already fourteen times today."
"Get it, Mommy," he whined.
"I can't now, honey," I said in what I thought was a sweet tone of voice. "My hands are very busy. I'll get you some more in a few minutes."
"I want it now, Mommy," he rejoined.
"I know, honey. Just a few minutes." A ten-second interval elapsed as my son went into the other room, picked up a toy and threw it down again. He returned
"Has it been a few minutes, Mommy?" I smiled (which I thought was a pretty incredible thing for me to be able to do at that point).
"Not yet. Honey, leave me alone for a few minutes. I am right in the middle of this, and I am losing concentration."
"Mommmmeeeee," whined my son, "I want my JUICE."
"No. I can't now. Get some water if you're that thirsty."
"I don't want water."
"If you're thirsty enough, you'll drink water."
"I AM thirsty. I'm THIRSTY. But I'm not thirsty for water, I'm thirsty for juice."
At this point, I managed to recoup my fading maternal strength and attempted one kind, but final, parry.
"Now leave me alone for a minute, honey." My son returned the favor with a forward thrust.
"I waant juice. I want juice, juice, juice, JUICE."
"STOP!" I cried. At this point in the conversation, the phone rang. I was forced to make quick apologies and promises to call back, while my son screamed in the background. I stormed angrily out of my chair, jerked open the refrigerator, and got the juice, poured it, and put it in front of him. "THERE!" I said. "There's your JUICE!" I stormed back to my desk and tried to pick up where I had left off when I heard my husband, returning from work, at the front door. Before he had a chance to say hello, my son let out a devastating whine.
"I didn't want APPLE juice; I wanted ORANGE juice!"
I shrieked in frustration, which was met with loud tears at the kitchen table.
"For heaven's sake," my husband remarked calmly, his comforting arms around my sobbing son, "he only wanted some orange juice. Don't you think you're overreacting? Here, honey," he said, "I'll get you some orange juice."
Now much of the time, my husband is one of the most remarkably understanding and insightful of people. He is extraordinary. But on this occasion, I felt as if I was beating my brains out on the tennis courts at Wimbledon, and my husband was sipping tea in the Royal Box and wondering why the players were sweating.
If You Don't Come In at the Beginning, Don't Criticize the Play
Our stresses as mothers are multiplied when the pressures that create our tensions are misunderstood or -- as is more often the case -- incompletely understood. As any critic will tell you, if you want to accurately assess someone else's performance, you have to come in at the beginning and sit through the whole thing.
Most of us who catch up with a mother on one of her bad days not only make assumptions about the quality of her life, but also make instant judgments about her fitness as a mother, based on the same kind of incomplete information. Most of us, as my husband did with the orange juice, come in near the end of the story.
Sometimes, while out shopping or on the street, I will see a mother say or do something hateful to her child. ""Sit DOWN, do you hear me?" while shoving a child angrily into his seat. Or I have seen a mother give a child a hard whack on the bottom, screaming at him for "going where I couldn't see you!"
From the view of the passerby, these angry outbursts can appear unprovoked and cruel. The most disgusted among us whisper to each other and consider calling the child welfare authorities. How could this woman do this to her child? Why did she ever decide to become a mother, anyway? Some people just shouldn't have children. Young single women who happen upon one of these angry mother-child exchanges look on disapprovingly and whisper to friends about how they can think of nothing more frightening nor horrible than being a mother at all, let alone one like that.
And yet those of us who have been mothers are more inclined to wonder: How many times did that mother try to explain something to her child and try to explain and try to explain? And how many times did the child ignore her, refuse loudly and rudely even to listen to her multiple attempts at kindness and reason? How many times? How many times before her best intentions and Herculean efforts were simply exhausted? Or how many times had the mother nicely reminded her child to sit down before WE ran into her? How many times did she see him fall and hurt himself because he was standing precariously when he should have been sitting, before she finally pushed him and shouted, "SIT DOWN!"
I am convinced that most of these passing mothers are not child abusers. They are just good women who have taken it and taken it and taken it until they could literally take it no more. They are women who desperately need a break and don't see one in sight.
Looking for a Break
Some people would, I know, contend that life at home has always been this way -- that the stresses of mothering and the nature of a mother's work just come with the job, and we should stop complaining and just make the best of it.
However, it is extremely easy to forget that until only very recently, mothers at home with their children have had relief built into their jobs in one form or another.
What is new today is the startling fact that most of the established avenues of relief for mothers, common even into the 1950s, have all but vanished. This age is one of the first in recent history where mothers have had almost no control over their own ability to take a break.
I realize, of course, that every generation has its own set of complaints and its own burdens to bear. Our grandparents, for instance, did not have disposable diapers, convenience foods, the polio vaccine, or a host of other improvements which are now a commonly accepted part of everyday living. But most of them did have more available help and extended family living nearby -- frequently even in the same house, a community full of other mothers at home for support and company, stores that delivered and doctors who made house calls. What seems to today's mothers as luxuries from a nostalgic and sentimental past were everyday realities to mothers just a little over a generation ago.
The Newest and Worst Stress
In the not-so-distant past, even mothers who were unable to hire help or did not have family living nearby were usually able to take a cheap, easy break called "Go outside and play." Whenever my own mother had guests over or whenever we children had simply become too much for her, she would wipe her brow, sigh, and say, "Go outside and play." Out we would go. Similarly, when our mothers needed to run errands, they would order us to "wait in the car until I come back." We, as children, had independence and mobility in a way that many children today clearly do not.
What mother -- particularly mothers living in or near a major metropolitan area -- could tell her child to "wait in the car until I come back" today? Or would even consider doing it? Very few.
For mothers today have to contend with a brand-new stress: the frightening and widely publicized epidemic of missing and exploited children. In the past several years, a multitude of converging factors have been bombarding mothers with the message to "stick with your children and don't let them out of your sight." The message is everywhere, from faces of missing children on grocery bags and milk cartons to television specials, videotapes, books, and newspaper accounts. Is it any wonder that a mother would occasionally, hysterically scream at her child to "Stay right where I can see you, and don't move!!!"?
Many of our small children do not go outside and play unless we are right on top of them. When we get in and out of the car to run the many obligatory errands which running a household requires, our childrenget in and out right along with us. No matter how many times we laboriously have to haul them in and out of the required seat belts or carseats, no matter how tiring the littlest one becomes on our hip; no matter how hard it is to keep an eye on several children in a store and still make the wisest choice of merchandise -- we have to do it. I recently heard a friend exclaim that at the end of the day, "My eyes feel like Marty Feldman's" -- eyeballs running around in their sockets like drunken goldfish which had just been required to swim the English Channel. I know that the actual toll that these new exhortations for eternal vigilance must daily take on a mother is hard to reckon. But based on personal experience and much firsthand observation, I believe it is immense.
Searching for Relief
What's to be done about this? I believe that mothers today would have measurably fewer bad days if some of the old avenues of relief could be creatively restored to their lives and some innovative new avenues opened up. Today's mothers, in my opinion, are much more in need of relief at home than they are in need of additional work outside the home. And I believe that we will create imaginative change in our communities, seek out sensitive accommodation from retailers, and build renewed understanding for our motherwork throughout our society.
On whatever bad days lie ahead, I hope we will concentrate our energy on helping to effect these changes instead of on feelings of internal inadequacy.
Copyright 1986, 1992 by Linda Burton
Linda Burton co-founded Mothers at Home (the original name of Family and Home Network) in 1984. This essay was first published in the book What's a Smart Woman like you Doing at Home? by Linda Burton, Janet Dittmer and Cheri Loveless.