As the primary caretakers in most homes, Mrs. Obama said at a 2007 campaign event, women manage an endless swirl of duties: “Scheduling babysitters, planning play dates, . . . supervising homework, handling discipline . . . keeping the household together . . . [You men] try to do your part, but the reality is that we’re doing it, right?”
Without warning, a deep sadness suffused Ilena’s face. “That speech made me want to cry,” she explained. “Sometimes my life as a wife and mother and career woman is so unbalanced, I think it’s making me crazy — or just making me forget who I am.”
She dabbed her eyes. “There’s a real irony here,” she continued. “Women who grew up after the women’s movement wanted careers, to be strong individuals before partnering up. And we are that independent woman — outside the home. But in our family relationships, that power is lost.”
This woman who had just exulted in racing her son up a mountain looked beaten. “We hate admitting . . . how we just give in and do whatever’s asked of us,” she said. “Until the day we ask, ‘What have I done?’ ”
Sitting across from her, I watched Ilena’s face harden, its sadness replaced by the grim expression — the one I call The Death Look — that I’d seen countless times in the mirror. She spoke.
“I am tired of acquiescing.”
Who isn’t? I wanted to shout. I cited the innumerable times I’d carried more than my share, halting my writing to handle crises, tackle emergencies, or to soothe, instruct, scold or advise the resident males who’d do anything for me but leave me alone.
Surprised by my sudden bitterness, I asked, “Why do we keep doing so much with so little help?” “Because no one else will do it,” Ilena snorted. “Because we can’t live in a house that looks like a cyclone went through it,” I added.
Because we’re the wife, we agreed. The mom. The girl.
Millions of Death-Look-wearing women ask, “What can I do?” yet few embrace the obvious answer: “Stop!” Stop with the cleaning, the arranging, the cheerleading, the shopping, the whole relentless shebang. Some who do stop see their homes’ disarray devolve into a chaos that’s unbearable — for them, not their families.
I considered how much more rewarded I felt for my work as a columnist. A woman can be a waitress or a CEO, but her contributions at work have a better shot at being acknowledged than anything she does at home. Whatever its size, a paycheck suggests that its recipient’s efforts merit payment. I was lucky: I got paid for work I loved, regular raises, praise from readers.