Mothers as “Designated Worriers”

It’s Mother’s Day today. Or Mothers’ Day. An addition to a chalked sign I saw today said, “…and to all nurturers.” Mother’s Day is so hard these days.

There are ways I think it is hard and needs to be. We just need to get some things worked out among ourselves. And then there are some ways it needn’t be hard…but is, anyway.

I think everyone agrees that a man and a woman who want to have amother 1 child should not be forbidden. But when it comes to celebrating people who have had children—parous women—from those who have not (nulliparous women), it gets harder. [1] Who should be forbidden is a pretty easy question. Who should be celebrated is much more difficult. I am a veteran of the 1970s when there was a brave but short-lived attempt to celebrate Non-mother’s Day (on the same day), validating the choice women had made to refuse to bring yet more offspring into an already overpopulated world.

mother 2And then too, no one really thinks that it is the fact of motherhood for which women should be celebrated. We think of GOOD motherhood. All the selfless and nurturing acts women commit for benefit of their children. But we all know really awful mothers. These are women who are distorting their children’s  lives so badly that they will spend the rest of their lives trying to recover from it. So we celebrate a tacitly constrained “motherhood”—some, but not others—under the guise of celebrating parity generally. And how else could it be, really?

Everything is worse for Father’s Day (Fathers’ Day) and I don’t even want to get into that.

My wife—the mother of our children—and I once tried a dodge of our own back in the 1970s. We thought we could get away with it because we were going to apply it only in our own family. Why is it, we said, that women are treated as if they are the sole source of nurture in the family and men as if they were the sole source of guidance or direction? How silly, we said. What we all know is that the husband and the wife—the father and the mother—both offer nurture and that both offer guidance and direction. Each in our own way, of course.

mother 4So the obvious solution was to celebrate Nurturer’s Day on which the nurturing each of us did would be noted and celebrated and then, several weeks later, Leadership Day, in which the direction each of us provided to the children would be celebrated. The kids were mortified. I wonder whether they will even remember the event. They ridiculed the whole idea to us and God only knows what they said to their friends. We refused, that first year, to say that we knew when we were beaten and we resolved to do it again next year, but we never did it again. And so promising, too.

So those two things continue to bedevil us. First is the separation into meritorious and non-meritorious camps of women who have or who have not given birth to children. Second is the implicit celebration of “motherhood as such,” when what we are really trying to celebrate is successful motherhood—Hallmark card-style motherhood. So we will have those problems no matter what.

Other problems are self-inflicted. I got to thinking along these lines when I scanned through an article in today’s New York Times (see it here) called “Mom: The Designated Worrier.” Scattered throughout the column in the paper copy (not the electronic copy) were little hints about what the article said. [2]

Here’s one: “So long as women talk about men ‘helping out,’ we have not attained equality. Helping isn’t sharing.”

Here’s another: “Moms don’t necessarily do everything, but they make sure that everything gets done.”

I’d like to come at that from another side. I’d like to look first at how and by whom the tasks to be done were organized. Then I’d like to look at the emotional style to be celebrated. Those seem pretty straightforward on Mother’s Day, but I think what seems straightforward has been bent backward.

Often, it’s a help to start with the truly ridiculous and work back. [3] Imagine a bachelor whose passion for tidiness has caused him to hire a maid service to clean his apartment for him. The maid starts doing a sloppy job of what should be a simple task. Dust the National League posters on the first and third weeks of the month and the American League posters on the second and fourth weeks. She dusts Cleveland and Cincinnati on the same week. “Oh no,” he says, “you aren’t helping when you do that.” After several repetitions, she replies, “You know, this is the stupidest organization of a simple job I have ever seen!” And she huffs out because she is, after all, the maid. What if the guy were a husband instead of a bachelor and the woman was his wife instead of a maid for hire?  Who decided on that National/American split?

Let’s just drive that peg in the ground and walk away a short distance.

If the work is planned together (when, how often, how clean, determined by what method, etc.) the man and woman are equally responsible for the accomplishment of the work. They are partners. Very often, they don’t have equal amounts of “off of work time,” but that would be taken into account in the planning. If “the work” is the private property of the woman of the house, then “equality” can never be achieved because there is only one planner. The husband is just hired help even if he does more of the execution than she does.  If there is no parity in the planning (just kidding about the “parity”), then everything following it is…um…below par.

No one would call this standard “helping out.” “We have planned the work to meet our standards (even if that required some compromise) and now we will be responsible to do what we decided. Who’s helping out?

mother 5Besides, it isn’t factory work. When you are having a hard week—an accountant near the end of the tax year, for instance—I pitch in and do work that under normal circumstances, you would have done. And I do it to the standards you have established.  It wouldn’t be any help otherwise.  And I do it with a friendly spirit because I remember with gratitude how you filled in for me during finals week. The meaning of “partners” isn’t some rigid definition of work to be done, no matter how collegially it was first planned. “Partners” includes the adjustments we make as life happens.

Everything is harder if we are talking about helping the kids grow up and not something relatively more simple like keeping the house clean. Kids, for instance, know which parent to appeal to for what immediate goal. They work the parents in ways that household tasks don’t. [4]

Let’s come back and look briefly at the “designated worrier” role. That’s how it appears in the title. But down in the article, it is called “making sure everything gets done.” Does that sound like the same thing to you?

Worrying is a style of management. [5] It is currently the fashionable style, but it is only one among many. The value of worrying in this system is that it keeps everything active—while you are worrying about it, you are thinking about it—and makes it less likely that you will forget things that are related to the task. On the other hand, attention span being variable but still finite, it makes it more likely that you will forget things unrelated to the task. The worrier’s spouse, for example.

And as the standards for child-rearing continue to escalate, the anxiety about meeting those standards increases. That doesn’t make worrying a more effective strategy, of course, but worrying is the cheap form of concerned engagement, just as guilt feelings are the cheap form of behavior change. Everything is more complicated than it really needs to be, don’t you agree?

So long as worry is prized for its own sake, there is really no solution to the designated worrier problem. If that is the problem. More often, I think, it is the “default worrier” that needs to be dealt with. If, for instance, the moral requirement is that one of us needs to be worrying and you are not worrying, then it falls to me to do it. I have not been “designated.” That would be a much better arrangement. I have volunteered.

The solution lies in the same direction as the “share the planning, share the work” standard. Let’s agree on what has to be done and then let’s keep at it until WE are finished. Now there is no real need for worry. If you want to worry as a recreational matter or if the worrying reflex is left over from a previous administration, then we can safely let it be. Maybe a counselor could help, but it isn’t an issue between the partners any more.

Again, the standards will need to be negotiated. If they are not, the parent who wants more to be done and who cannot convince her or his partner of the value of it, will very likely take on the worrying at whatever cost to them both. If, on the other hand, the person with the higher standard is not willing to compromise with the partner with the lower (more…um…flexible) standard, then we need to ask why compromise is so hard to reach. Maybe reflexive maternal worrying isn’t really the problem here. Maybe it’s worse.

Mother’s Day thoughts. I’ve been a father since 1960 and a stepfather since 1979. I don’t approach these issues as if I don’t know they are hard to deal with. I just think we could, maybe, be a little gentler with them.

[1] Some dictionaries give parous as a word, meaning “having given birth,” while others consider it only a suffix. There is no question about the legitimacy of nulliparous, so it is possible that parous is a back-formation. The form of the word as a noun is much clearer, so far as language goes, but much less clear as a social attribution. It should be possible to say of women who have successfully given birth that they have “achieved parity.” But that would require some notion of the Latin verb parere = “to bear,” rather than the Latin paritas = equal. The fact that both words, spelled the same as nouns, are part of our language makes it possible to look at headlines like “Women have achieved parity in the workplace” and to turn silently aside to watch sports or something
[2] I haven’t actually read it and I won’t until I’ve finished this post.
[3] Celebrating, as always, Maxwell Smart’s offer (from the TV show Get Smart), “What would you believe, chief? Let’s start there and work our way back.”
[4] Not that household tasks can’t be used the same way. On the week when I take over tasks you would normally do, I could do then to my standard rather than the one we agreed to and then I could show it to you and say, “There. Now that look better (than when you do it)?” Everything is more complicated than it would have to be.
[5] English has the expression “a dog worrying a bone.” In that expression, the dog is doing the worrying, so to speak, but it is a transitive verb, so it is the bone that is being worried. And if it is “being worried,” then in “is” worried. A lot of worrying could be left for the bones to do, while the dogs go off to happier pursuits.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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