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When Will It Be Time’s Up for Motherhood and Marriage?

We’re apparently reliable enough to raise the next generation, but not to articulate our own experiences

Kimberly Harrington
Jul 20, 2018 · 10 min read

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Jodi Kantor, The New York Times reporter who, along with Megan Twohey, broke the Harvey Weinstein story, spoke here in Vermont back in February. Of all the ground she covered, one anecdote in particular snagged my attention. She remarked that doing something as simple as watching an old movie with her eldest daughter now meant having to constantly press pause in order to provide context for what was unfolding, and why it was problematic.

Would that have happened 10 years ago? Or even two?

These are our homes, our marriages; this is our mothering now. Mothers and wives are at the forefront of reshaping, recontextualizing, reminding, and not a small amount of revisionist history. As with gun violence, everyone seems all too ready to put their faith in the next generation to fix it, adding a whole new level of labor to the sandwich generation we already are : one whiplashed between the gender dynamics of our mothers’ Mad Men reality and our daughters’ March For Our Lives urgency. Which is perfect, really, because we didn’t have too much on our plates already.

#Metoo, Time’s Up, and industry-specific groups like Diet Madison Avenue are shifting interpersonal dynamics in ways both profound and mundane. The primary focus has been on the workplace, but working through these shifts is happening at home. For those of us who are partnered and have children, the impact comes in waves, like grief. We’re not only struggling with our own realities; we also need to wrestle with ingrained gender and power expectations in our marriages while attempting to raise our children in a way that will undo deeply entrenched beliefs around those same things.

Hey, no pressure.

Fathers have come a long way, but not nearly far enough. While men now spend more time on childcare, food preparation, and household chores than their fathers did, it’s still far less time than women spend on those same responsibilities (nearly half as much, in fact). Of course those statistics don’t take into account the ever-present mental whirring of emotional labor — a meter that is always ticking and never counted. And given that just a quarter of American fathers are the sole breadwinners of the family, playing the “provider” card is a thing of the past (or, it should be).

So to recap, we’re asking men who haven’t been able (willing?) to meet women halfway on the significant labor of running a household and raising children to also catch up on the intricacies of gender and please do it yesterday for the love of God.

We — who live in these bodies and are used to holding keys clutched between fingers when walking to the car and who are used to being passed over for a promotion in favor of an incompetent male coworker who is just better at bluster — are asking our partners to assume experiences they have likely never had, and likely never will. We are asking them to be better, instantly. We are asking them to be us.

Even those with progressive feminist mothers, most men — white men in particular — have been raised in a culture that has elevated their voices and prioritized their comfort and happiness. We’ve all been steeping in a culture lousy with entertainment that regularly presents female complaining as an expected baseline — as natural and annoying as a swarm of mosquitoes. Something to be ignored at best, squashed at worst.

Is it just that we’re all used to being comfortable with the discomfort of women? Is it because girls are born into a life of guaranteed pain in a way boys are not? The eventual periods, tender breasts, penetration as a natural consequence of medical exams and sex, and if you’re headed for motherhood? Well, welcome to Discomfort & Pain Central.

So we women, we mothers, are used to the turned cheeks, the glazed-over eyes as we try to be understood as having something a bit more compelling to say than the mwa-mwa-mwa of Charlie Brown’s teacher. We are used to feeling your impatience and indifference; we learn it as girls. That we talk too much, that we have nothing to say, that we are frivolous. Girl talk.

We are used to it at doctor’s offices and in hospitals, where we are in pain, where we know something isn’t quite right, where we are scared. We hear it in the many stories of women’s pain being brushed aside and discounted, most recently in Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman and Sick: A Memoir from porochista khakpour.

We are used to it in this country, where we are losing our babies and losing our lives because hey, we are just women complaining. A recent NPR and ProPublica investigation showed that mothers in the U.S. are about three times more likely to die during childbirth than mothers in Canada or Britain. And as jarring as that statistic is, it becomes exponentially horrifying when you consider that for every mother who dies, another 70 come close.

All because no one listens to us. No one believes us. No one takes us seriously.

We are used to it as we watch press conferences and courtrooms packed with primarily white men as they decide what women can and cannot do with our own bodies. We are used to thinking this is as worse as it gets, and then it just gets worse.

We are used to it at work, where we are told to pump breast milk in a break room, in the bathroom, behind a door with no lock, in a space without privacy — or to just not to pump at all, because gross. Where we are told to take the joke, take the fall, take a lesser job, a lesser raise, a lesser role because of our children but funny how those fathers just keep moving up and up and up, using the labor of their wives as rungs.

We are used to it from a culture that both infantilizes us and has us praying at the altar of self-medication. We brush off real mental distress and are told, both overtly and implicitly, to keep our uncomfortable conversations to ourselves. We are told that “mommies night out” and “mommy juice,” served up in puff-painted fish bowl-sized wine glasses — as if all motherhood-related problems can be solved with crafts and alcohol — is the only way to handle all this mommy stress.

We are used to it at home, where we try to frame every horrifying reality for our children — sexual assault; school shootings; ready for prime-time, hoods-off racism; the criminalization of and discrimination against every imaginable ‘other,’ children being ripped from their parents’ arms; every immoral failing of a man in power (there are so many!) — in a way that doesn’t send them spiraling into the utter depths of anxiety and despair. And while we’re at it, our culture adds to the To-Do list: Unbreak boys. Fix that whole toxic masculinity thing while you’re at it. It’s on you. You are the mother.

We are used to it in our government, where, out of 535 members of congress, just 112 are women (and five of them represent non-voting districts, like Puerto Rico). The first time a United States Senator, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), brought an infant to the Senate floor was just months ago. Yet in the United States, there are over 40 million mothers with school-aged children. There are more women than men, period. We are the majority. When women do run, they need to be utterly extraordinary — like 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes or MJ Hegar, who is essentially an action movie superhero — unlike the pedophiles, out and proud racists, serial abusers and just less-than-stellar white guys that set the political bar these days.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

Even after all of this, after we absorb the scope of it, and even occasionally allow ourselves to feel a glimmer of hope that things are changing, we’re still tasked with tackling all of this with partners who still, if they were being honest, think that maybe we’re just being a little too sensitive.

There is plenty of lip service being paid to women right now. Women tend to get a lot of attention where there is money to be made, reputations to burnish, feminist t-shirts to print. I have witnessed an astonishing number of men jumping on this cultural shift bandwagon via social media, rah-rah-ing in public while, in the shadows of personal interactions and direct messages, are still quite fundamentally themselves.

When I share those stories with my husband and his response is, “Oh, that’s too bad” I can’t help but explode because is it too bad that I’m angry? Or is it actually too bad that some of these men are full of shit? That they’re doing a spit and shine, “pivoting” at work, at home, and on social media? Who is the “too bad” for, exactly?

So it takes tears and anger to be heard. It takes constantly correcting how fathers talk to daughters — and sons. It takes little cracks in our relationships to be understood. And you can’t tell me that all of those cracks aren’t doing permanent damage. More than once I’ve heard, “How many divorces do you think are going to come out of all this?”

Sometimes you can see something a thousand times and feel like you understood it, that you knew how it worked, that it was just as plain as the nose on your face. But the fallout of #Metoo, Time’s Up, the Women’s March, and other female-driven uprisings has made me feel the same way I did when I first noticed there was an arrow in the center of the FedEx logo: like a dope. The current plight of women and mothers and girls is one I can’t unsee or simply accept as “just the way things are.” I have been living it but not properly offended by it. I let the clarity I felt at 20 dissipate into the fog of The Real World. A world of taking the joke, brushing hands away with a forgiving laugh, trying hard not to be a bitch (I never quite succeeded at that). I am not alone. And so many of us are seething with decades of sudden clarity at our backs.

To be clear, I am not trying to conflate the most awful of violations — rape, assault, harassment — with who is or is not doing the dishes. But I think it’s worth asking, why is it so hard to listen to and care about women? Why is it so hard to care about mothers? Why can’t you just take our goddamn word for it sometimes? We’re good enough to gestate and birth and raise children, sometimes putting our own lives at risk, but not credible enough to articulate what is happening in our own lives? Why do we have to constantly present our case to culture, at work, and in our very own homes?

Clearly, caring about mothers is inconvenient. Because if we truly cared about mothers, we would support pay equity, early childhood education, maternal care, family leave, sexual harassment policies paired with real consequences, and freedom of reproductive choice. We would need to do more everywhere, on every level. We would have to rethink just about everything. We would, at the most basic level, have to listen.

Experience tells me that my daughter, at 12 years old, may be in the final days of feeling like her body is her own. A body that is uncomplicated and good, an unproblematic body. And that my son, my white son, at 14, will continue to enjoy the privilege of having a body that is wholly his. And if he is in pain, if he feels discomfort, no matter what he wears or where he works, he will be listened to and taken seriously. He will always be believed. And anything he does to ally with girls, with women, will always be seen as extra. Not a must have, but a nice to have.

So perhaps I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, more than a little frustrated, and beyond caring when men demand an audience and a thank you for the slightest of gestures. And while I tell myself that the right thing to do is to feel grateful for any shift in the right direction, I’m just tired. Even with a husband who does more than almost any other husband I know, I wonder if it’s enough, if it will ever be enough.

I want men, husbands, partners to know that “not being a rapist” is not the rallying cry we’re impressed with right now. I do not want to hear that because you are a good guy, because you like #Metoo posts on Facebook, because you wear a cool feminist t-shirt out in public, that you have done enough. There are more of you, the men who want to help, than there are rapists and abusers and dudes who grab ass because it was right there. To lift a phrase, the only way to stop a bad guy with a penis is a good guy with a penis.

There is profound power in your words, actions, and thoughtful dialogue, and you know this. In fact, you have lived an entire life experiencing it. If you are actively benefiting from the emotional and spiritual and physical labor of women — from your wife, from the mother of your children — then it’s time to start recognizing it and step up. It’s time to catch up, fast, with how you are speaking to your children (not just your daughters). It’s time to take a real look at what your partner is doing every day to enable your life, and the lives of your children, and figure out how you can help. Do not ask her how you can help. That’s actually not helpful. You are smart, figure it out. It’s time to defend the encroaching stripping-away-of-rights that women are facing on almost every front — not because some relationship in your life has allowed you to suddenly see women as actual human beings deserving of equality, but because you quite literally wouldn’t exist without women. And because it is the right thing to do.

If you’ve learned anything by now, let it be that women compare notes. That we are angry. That we know how much we’re doing. (Do you?) We know how much still needs to be done. We know that our children are the first and best opportunity to change things in profound ways we can only begin to imagine. We know we are winning some battles but losing so many more. We feel less safe now than we did just 18 months ago. We are exhausted.

And, increasingly, we feel we have little left to lose.

Kimberly Harrington is the author of AMATEUR HOUR: MOTHERHOOD IN ESSAYS AND SWEAR WORDS (Harper Perennial). She is a regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and her work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Cut. Funnier things happen over on Twitter.

Written by

AMATEUR HOUR (2018) and BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY (2021) | The New York Times, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Cut | kimberlyharrington.me

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