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.
Comparatively few of my time- and spirit-consuming duties at home got noticed, let alone earned accolades or thanks. Like many women, I spent my days in a blur: managing a challenging job while pressing family members into contributing something while I did everything else. “Doing it all” — while sensing an unnamed, mounting resentment about it.
Then my two oldest sons left home. I slowed down, caught my breath. And saw — really saw — what should have been obvious:
My life was completely out of balance. And like Ilena, I was no longer sure who I was. I still felt blessed to be a wife and mother to guys I adored. Yet I was also an award-winning writer, lauded critical thinker and public speaker.
So why was I the person doing an inordinate amount of our family’s scutwork? The one whose writing on deadline my son Darrell, 21, felt free to interrupt three times to quiz about a shirt stain? “You already think I’m your nurse, your maid and your shrink,” I snapped. “Now I’m a laundress?”
Like a hospital orderly calming a mental patient, Darrell patted my shoulder, “You’re a mom,” he said. “You’re all of those things.”
I’d stopped working at The Washington Post’s downtown offices after his baby brother’s birth. Abandoning the office meant saving money on work clothes, lunches, gas, parking, and gave me more time to write and to mother my infant. Sure, I was vulnerable to distractions, interruptions, the misperception I was always available. But I was freed from pointless meetings, making myself presentable before rushing my boys to school, and pushing deadlines to dash home to feverish kids.
Yet my world shrank. My home and the people in it went from being important to being my entire focus.
A valued part of me was disappearing.
* * *
But who, really, was to blame for that? I remembered a morning that I pulled myself out of a juicy writing stream to make fresh coffee. Filling the coffeemaker, I noticed the dishrag was filthy and thought, “Gross — better wash a load.” On my way to the laundry, I spied some dishes covered with half-eaten food. Scraping them, I heard the phone ring. Damn. By the time I turned on the washer, 40 minutes had passed — and I’d internally listed the sins of every male — my boys, my husband, the dog, God — who had a hand in the bedlam.
In the midst of my Oscar-worthy soliloquy, I remembered: I could have just made the coffee. Any honest exploration of women’s outrage at our unbalanced contributions must acknowledge how we feed the problem. The secret pleasure we take in being so essential. The time we save and arguments we avoid by “just doing it.” Hate half-folded clothes and barely scrubbed dishes? Do them yourself. Detest your mate’s frown when, for the third time, you ask him to walk Prince? Do it yourself.
More than once, I wondered, “Why can’t guys see what needs to be done right under their noses?” One day, while picking up the 700th wadded-up tissue from the floor, I realized the answer:
Hard-wiring. Prehistoric men were hunters. Stalkers of prey needed laser-like focus to track their quarry; every unnecessary detail faded. Centuries later, guys in my house were similarly riveted by SportsCenter and Playstation 2. Women, I realized, are hard-wired to be multitaskers-or multi-seers. The hunter’s mate needed eyes that could sweep vast landscapes, assess her child’s, mate’s and elderly kin’s wellbeing while locating food, medicinal herbs, poisonous plants.
Centuries later, the forces that rocked the nation’s social and economic firmament have barely tweaked men’s and women’s basic natures. I was grateful for the opportunities provided by the women’s movement. Yet I felt frustrated by the flip side: Doing nearly as much at home as my 1950s counterpart, with as little appreciation.
Where was the victory in that?
* * *
It’s time I addressed the feeling that transformed Ilena’s face, and routinely engulfed me as I made my Invisible Woman rounds in my home.
I’m talking about anger.
I’m talking about the rage familiar to nearly every woman who has a significant man in her life, the acrimony she feels when he displays the stubbornness, contempt or willful blindness toward women that can infect the most enlightened man.
Women’s anger often appears out of thin air. I can’t count the times my husband has blurted, “Why are you so hostile?” during seemingly innocuous arguments in which my face and voice morphed into a slasher flick villain’s. There’s nothing pretty about this kind of rage, so many of us bury it — until it explodes.
Sometimes we don’t need words to express it. Most people would describe me as warm. Yet sometimes when a guy irks me, a glance my way suggests that thoughtful woman has evaporated.
In her place is an identically dressed stranger wearing The Death Look.
Unlike women’s typical expressions, The Death Look wishes instant annihilation upon the man who summons it. Recently it appeared on the face of my friend Anne after her husband announced he’d made a major decision for them both without discussing it with her. “Was that okay?” he asked.
After the Death Look froze him, her intrepid spouse dared to ask, “Why did you look at me like you wanted to kill me?” despite her answer being obvious:
She wanted to kill him.
Oh, all right, Anne didn’t want her husband dead any more than I’ve wanted my brothers, sons, mate or male friends I’ve shot The Death Look at disappeared. What we long to obliterate is the impulse that makes them ignore, dismiss, snap at or go back on their word to us.
Other weapons in women’s anger arsenal include sarcasm, shouts, slammed doors, withheld affection and sex, brooding silences and, rarely, physical violence. Because the intensity of these responses is often out of proportion to the actions that inspire them, I’m convinced women’s fury can be traced to the centuries of oppression they’ve endured.
From the beginning of time, men have been angry at us, too. We terrify them — through our sexual power over them, our different-from-their needs, our ability to bear life, our connectedness to, well, everything. Fear has inspired them to deny our intelligence, burn us at the stake, bar us from pulpits, prohibit us from voting and otherwise disempower half of humankind.
As a black woman, I see women’s out-of-nowhere acrimony as symptomatic of the wrenching pain felt by members of any long-oppressed group. Too often, women are assumed to be less important and capable than men. We’re paid less by some, shushed for speaking disconcerting truths by others, and treated like walking breasts and butts by far too many. These nicks and bruises accumulate like ash, gas bubbles and dirt in a dormant volcano.
Once, I reveled in the cleansing, “Oh, yeah!” I felt releasing my wrath — until I noticed how much it depleted me. The tense silence that invariably followed such explosions felt nothing like the peace I craved.
Women’s rage often doubles back on us. Draining us, it alienates those whose empathy and support — not fear and resentment — we hope to engender.
* * *
At some point between fuming about my workload and wondering why anyone so blessed could feel so unseen, I realized: My problem wasn’t just with men, but with women. One woman: Me.
The hardest place to look when you’re assigning blame is the mirror. But some women just didn’t have my problem. Yes, many had mates and kids who gladly contributed more around the house. But there also were women whose shrewdness, self-discipline or training helped them get more of what they needed from their families. Other women simply put up with modern life’s messes. Still others happily took on most family-related tasks — it was as instinctive to them as writing was to me. I admired these women, wished I was one of them.
But I wasn’t. I needed order. And I wasn’t just annoyed by what my guys didn’t see and fix — I was fed up with the part of me that couldn’t stop seeing and fixing stuff for them. Rejecting that giving impulse felt impossible. Surrendering to it felt like defeat.
I knew I was as smart and as capable as any of the men I’d given to — and that for all my anger, I loved having a life where I could use my gifts in both my home and my career. Feminism had provided the blueprints for striking down the barriers that would have prevented that. I couldn’t have been more grateful.
But where was the blueprint for changing . . . me?
From the book “Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving” by former Washington Post columnist Donna Britt. Copyright 2011 by Britt. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown. All rights reserved.