I’ve been lucky enough to be able to connect with moms from across South Africa and the world. Moms from countries where women are fully equal to men and moms from countries where they are still fighting for every ounce of recognition and appreciation. While almost every woman will assert that she loves her husband, that he is helpful and she couldn’t do it all without him, most are still frustrated by a lack of appreciation for all that they do. Even worse, some partners truly don’t even see what they do. So it’s time for us all put our foot down together, to claim what is our true role – we are the head of the household.
Now, let’s be clear here for a moment. If you’re familiar with American tax law, or just traditional family dynamics, you’ll know that men/husbands are typically considered the head of the household because it refers to the person who pays 50% or more of the household’s expenses. And yes, finances are important and can’t be downplayed – we all need money to live. Without someone earning the money, we wouldn’t have shelter, food, medical attention, education… the list goes on and on. But if money simply poured into a household, it still wouldn’t necessarily be allocated to the right places and life wouldn’t magically be organized for everyone. No, that’s the role of the real head of the household, the woman.
Still, it is worth noting that many women have known this for years and found a devious way around it. If anyone has ever watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ll remember the scene where the mother explains that men are the head of the household, but women are the neck. Men can think they are in charge of everything, but truly it is women who can turn that head wherever it needs to be. And for many relationships, I think that works. However, no one appreciates their neck unless it starts to hurt and they wonder what happened, and it can be the same for women.
A large part of this comes down to a concept that’s getting a bit more attention lately, namely “The Invisible Workload”. Belinda from Making Mountains wrote about this in a fantastic post that you can go read over here. What it boils down to is the unseen work that needs to be done around the household. The example she gives is:
It’s the small things, like noticing that your kid’s toenails are far too long, looking for the nail scissors, not being able to find them, writing down in your diary “BUY NEW NAIL CLIPPERS” and then remembering on Monday to go out and buy a pair and then sit down one evening and actually trim their nails. Sound petty and insignificant? Maybe it is. But take the mental space that one tiny task involves, and multiply it by 10s or 100s of tiny tasks per week, and you can see how quickly this workload would add up.
And that’s just it – it’s the noticing, the remembering and the following through. Sure, we can ask our partners to go to the shops, but will we be the ones making the list? I have to keep track if we have toilet paper, and if it’s a special day at Harley’s school, and if we ran out of pepper. Unfortunately, it’s also why so many women pile more and more tasks on top of themselves, even if they already work a full time job. Why send your partner to the store when you will just get a million calls or texts asking about preferred brands or where to find the paper towels? Dean has offered to help in many ways, but it’s not a matter of not doing something as well as I could, it’s that he simply doesn’t know what needs doing. That means that I have to essentially project manage our home, delegating tasks and figuring out which aspects he can and can’t do.
We had quite a laugh about it recently. Thanks to him getting the Green Card approval, it’s now time to start working through the actual logistics of moving. There is so much to do – I’ve written before about some of the logistics we had to think our way through. In order to keep the perpetual to-do list from swirling in my head, I got out the white board markers and started writing it up on the board in our study. I asked Dean to shout out things he thought of, too. He had little (read: nothing) to add to my list. Then I went off to do dishes so that we’d be able to cook and eat dinner, and I asked him to just allocate names to each item on the to-do list.
I will admit, this was, in part, a manipulation. He said he didn’t see the point as we’d probably do everything together, but sure he’d put names next to things. A few moments later he came back and hugged me, saying he didn’t know how we’d get anything done without me (manipulation worked!). It was a very sweet moment made absolutely hilarious when I went to check the white board – almost every single item had my name on it! At least he realizes that I’ll be stuck doing most of the thinking, calling, emailing, sorting and organization to do with the move.
But realistically, this is how our life works on the whole. Dean has talked about wanting to be a stay at home husband, and every time I’ve laughed. I’ve reminded him over and over again that it doesn’t mean he just gets to stay home and play games all day. He’d be in charge of organizing what Harley wears to school, making sure we have lunch supplies for her, shopping for dinner, and letting in the repair guys when they arrive to fix whatever happens to be broken at the time.
Yes, he does earn the money that pays the majority of our bills and expenses. But I keep thinking of the idea of the head of the household in the context of what a head actually does. The brain is a miracle organ, able to contain all our cognitive activities as well as everything we don’t even have to think about. If your brain and nervous system shut down, you wouldn’t be able to breathe, to digest food, to process any sensory input. As head of the household, yes, I make big and obvious decisions like where Harley will go to school, organizing our social calendar or evenings going out to dinner and planning holidays. But I also organize all the smaller, invisible things like making sure there’s snack food in the pantry, baby wipes in Harley’s nappy bag and batteries in the TV remote.
The problem comes in when partners don’t see or appreciate all the things we do, or even worse try to claim that we don’t do anything. Oh, so waking up throughout the night to take care of our child is nothing? Making sure everyone has what they need to be clean and fed is nothing? I can see the smoke coming out of women’s ears from across the world. Or how about when a partner happily takes time for himself because he needs it without first checking if his overworked and underappreciated wife might also need just five minutes alone with her own thoughts. And it’s not only when men are the primary breadwinners – I know plenty of women who work the same hours that their partners do, who still are expected to keep that constant to-do list running in their head on top of everything else.
And yes, there are some relationships where men do all those things, or at least so I’ve been told. I’ve yet to meet a woman, though, who will agree that her husband does the lion’s share of the thinking, planning, preparing and organizing. But you know, they help with cleaning up. So I suppose there’s that. I guess we can call our partners the Hands of the Household.