I recently participated in a program, Dear World, in which we were asked to identify a message that we wanted to share with the world and write it on our bodies to be photographed.
I had arrived at the event planning to use black marker to write “Fight for Justice” on my arms. But, the organizers dissuaded us from using pat phrases from a Hallmark card like “Be the Change” or “Value Diversity!” Rather we should choose words and phrases that connected to the moment one realized the concept or word.
Immediately my mind was flooded with many messages, but the one recurring theme always came back to moments, and there have been many, including the recent illness and death of my mom, that were about feeling overwhelmed, about not being able to carry everything I was asked to. To capacity.
I often talk to women who are overwhelmed, who are “at capacity,” who like Shel Silversteins’
“Giving Tree” are nothing more than some crumpled roots underground, literally stripped, with nothing left to give.
At the event itself, without disclosing my own word, several women shared their words or phrases: “sucked dry,” “never good enough.” Earlier in the day, a woman with whom I work broke down in tears in the restroom. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was overwhelmed.
Ok, so it’s not just me. This got me thinking about the gendered nature of work, in the workplace, at home, in our communities, and especially the emotional labor that many women perform as they care for spouses, children and aging parents.
In my field of higher education, women advise the majority of students, we do the majority of committee and other service work, all on top of having to perform twice as well in teaching and research in order to be awarded tenure and to be promoted.
At home, though there have been changes over the years, even when they work for pay outside of the home, women do more housework and significantly more child care than their male partners.
Often not long after women enter the empty nest stage, they begin caring for their aging parents. According to research done by Family Caregiver Alliance 66% of family members caring for family members are women.
No wonder my colleagues and friends are breaking down in the bathroom or choosing phrases like “sucked dry” to describe their experiences.
We are often simply tapped out. At or over CAPACITY.
In my household my spouse and I share the work, including many of the time intensive tasks like cooking. My spouse cooks way more than half of all our meals, including preparing breakfast and lunch for me to take to work every day!
But, even when tasks are shared, women, including me, do much more of the emotion work. Since my mom has passed, my dad calls me sometimes 6 or 7 times a day just to say hi, or to share a memory of my mom. And, as much as I love these calls and I’m happy to support my dad through such a difficult time, sometimes these calls leave me feeling beyond my capacity. Some nights I fall asleep praying the phone won’t ring at least until the next morning. Or sometimes I wish my brother would take a call. Just one.
When I get up, sometimes refreshed and sometimes not so much, I prepare myself to answer his phone calls again, because I know I have to, who else, including my brother, is going to answer the phone?
This is another common theme that my women friends and I often discuss…no matter how tired we are, how far we are above our capacity, our children, our parents, our spouses, our friends, our colleagues and our communities depend on us. So, each day we must get up and keep doing the work, both physical and emotional that sustains them and allows them to thrive.
And, for many of us, it is other women who help when we simply can’t carry the load anymore. We are quick to give a sister a hug, send a supportive text, surprise each other with a cup of tea, or even drop off a meal or drive carpool so that our sister can catch a break. And, for this I am so grateful to be a woman. To know I can count on my sisters.
But, my question is, when will men pick up the load?
It is said that women hold up half the sky….I’d argue that in fact we hold up way more than half.
We are persistent and resilient and committed and competent. But we are also tired. We need our partners, sons, fathers, and male-identified allies to lend a hand with the heavy lifting. For when they do, not only will women be less tired, but we’ll be even better partners, parents and colleagues! We’ll be better able to achieve our goals and to support our families and communities in reaching theirs.