Why I hate ‘mom’ calendars

Baking cupcakes in an apron, dress and high heels? Really?
Baking cupcakes in an apron, dress and high heels? Really?

Honest to God, it’s February, and I’m only just now getting my calendar for the year.

Not the Google calendar that lives somewhere off in a tiny cloud on my iPhone and keeps me on task and tries to keep me on time, like a digital collie dog. No, I mean the big, paper calendar that hangs on the wall near the fridge with a little line for every member of the family so we can all keep track of everybody’s dentist appointments, volleyball games, end of the quarter tests, out-of-town business trips and all the thousands of other fast-moving and often chaotic pieces of modern life. In other words, the Family Calendar.

And if I sound FRUSTRATED that I’m getting my calendar one month late, all you have to do is search “family calendar” on the Internet and you’ll see why.

Up pops Family Life, circa 1950. And I don’t mean those pastel-y housewife illustrations with snarky subtitles like, “She was the life of the Tupperware party.”

 I mean:

Mom’s Family Calendar, “with 500 nifty stickers & a swell magnetic phone list” with an apron-clad mom in a pink dress — ok, Mom is a really a dog — and her cute doggie children – daughter in a pink tutu, son in blue playing hockey and child of indeterminate sex hanging upside down from the O in Mom. (No Daddy dog in sight. Oh, he must be at work.)

Where's Dad? Oh, he must be at work.
Where’s Dad? Oh, he must be at work.

And Mom’s Manager – Almost sold out! – with butterflies and flowers and the promise that a mom can “keep your whole family organized in one calendar!”

Then there’s the “Mom’s Plan-it” calendar, with an unfolded basket of laundry, a mop and a bouncing soccer ball on the cover. The “2014 Do it All Mom Pocket Wall Calendar” with two adoring children clinging to a trim mom in jeans holding a baby bottle. (And Dad? Not there. Hmm, must be at work, too.)

Mom’s Home Plan-It. Mom’s Ultimate Family Fridge Calendar. More Time Moms Family Organizer – “acts as a keepsake!”  Moms Write and Remember. Moms Can Do Anything 17-month family calendar. Mom’s Busy Year.

Even some of the more generic “family calendars” had a distinctly mom-ish feel.

But search for dad calendars and, other than a Family Guy planner and some masculine-looking desk calendars with sea scapes or race cars, Amazon.com turned up only one: a sorry-looking schlump of a Dad on the beach making a sorry little sand castle with one overturned bucket of sand while his two children engineer a six-foot sand castle masterpiece behind him. (Where’s Mom? Maybe she’s dead. Oh wait, this isn’t a Disney movie calendar. Maybe she’s back at the beach house making sandwiches.)

Look, if you like these mom calendars and they work for you and your family – great. But I hate them.

Why is Mom so busy? Is anyone not just helping out, but sharing the load?
Why is Mom so busy? Is anyone not just helping out, but sharing the load?

Women still do twice the housework and child care that men do, even though men’s housework and child care time has been  on the rise, and even though a majority of mothers work outside the home for pay – fully 30 percent of them in married couples earn more than their husbands.

But I also know, having struggled with this lopsided division of labor in my own life, that keeping all that family chaos crammed in your head all by yourself all the time can make you feel like your head will explode. (Social scientists call it “contaminated time” because it pollutes every other thought or experience of the day.)

And I know how easy it is for both men and women to fall into these traditional gender roles in a way that can feel patently unfair, exhausting and often, enraging.

Why is it so easy? Because of the dearth of egalitarian role models and the wealth of stereotypical images like the ones on these mom calendars that serve only to reinforce long-held cultural assumptions that “good” moms should be solely in charge of all things domestic.

And you know who else hates these calendars? Jim McKenzie.

McKenzie is founder and editor of Every Little Thing! Birth and Beyond 360 Magazine and is in the midst of organizing a Dads Convention in Florida. He and his wife equally share work and caring for their seven children, and is on a mission to upend traditional gender roles.

He home-birthed each of his children. His sons do laundry. His daughters love super heroes. Everyone does dishes.

“When I see these calendars, I just roll my eyes,” he told me. “A certain segment of society hangs onto the notion of ‘Dads go to work.’ We’re trying to bring parenting into the 21st century and promote the concept of shared parenting. But these images of incompetent fathers just perpetuate the myth that we’re all jokers.”

In a fascinating book about to be published by two psychology professors at the University of Mary Washington that I had the privilege of reading early, Miriam Liss and Holly Schiffrin write that irritation over the unfair division of labor can take the joy out of even the happiest unions. They cite studies showing that women who perceive that the division of labor is unfair are more distressed, more unsatisfied in their marriages and are more likely to consider divorce.

What’s more, another study found that men typically relax in leisure after work, but that women bustle around doing household chores after a long day at work, keeping their cortisol levels high, which can lead the body to produce more fat and can make falling asleep more difficult.

They write that women, no doubt because of centuries of domestic labor, tend to care more about the state of the house, fear that they’ll be judged more harshly if it’s a mess, and so end up doing more, sometimes spending as much as three hours a week “redoing” chores that their spouses did that they thought weren’t up to snuff.

More work begets more work. As couples become accustomed to the woman doing more, research has found that women typically spend three times more on boring, repetitive, daily drudge work. But, in a sign that I would argue indicates how unconsciously we accept the skewed housework equation as “normal,” Liss and Schiffrin write that though surveys have found a majority of married women want to change it, less than 13 percent actually talk to their husbands about it.

And even when spouses do help with the drudge work, studies have found that what women most want is for their spouses to take some of that mental noise out of their brains and share the managing, organizing and delegating of household tasks.

That’s what my family and I have spent the last few years working to do – finally talking, finally trying to right a ship that had been badly listing to one side. It’s taken time to figure out what’s important to all of us as a family, what are standards of tidiness we can all agree on. I’ve learned to step aside and my husband and kids have learned to step up.  With more of the equal partner we both promised we’d be when we first got married, my brain no longer feels like it’s about to burst. I am no longer seething with resentment folding laundry at 2 am.

But it’s been hard work. And mom calendars only make it harder, or defeat the purpose.

Where's Dad's apron? Where's Mom's briefcase?
Where’s Dad’s apron? Where’s Mom’s briefcase?

I think of my children. If we tell our daughter she can be anything she wants to be, and we tell our son how important it is to be an equal partner raising his own children, we’re doing them both a disservice if we don’t try to model those ideals ourselves. And if we don’t surround them with images that reflect that it’s possible, not like the mom calendars that suggest it isn’t.

And that, in truth, is what worries me most.

Liss and her colleagues assessed college students’ expectations for the division of labor in their future marriages. Both men and women ideally wanted egalitarian partnerships. But while men believed that could happen, women figured they’d end up doing the majority of the housework and child care anyway.

In the end, a friend showed me where I could find a generic family calendar covered with nothing but the outlines of leaves. I just hung it up on the wall by the fridge.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech, it is not only our workplace policies, but our expectations for who does what at home that belong in a 1960s “Mad Men” episode. And it’s about time we all turn the calendar pages several decades forward, and make a change.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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