My friend called to postpone our afternoon meeting. She told me, sounding enthusiastic, that she plans to clean her home, to play a little with her daughter and her son so they won’t feel neglected, cook a quick meal, go shopping for the following week, take a shower, and then hang out with me in peace. Later she called me again. “You know those YouTube videos where a woman cleans fast forward, and the chaos slowly turns into perfect order. It’s so satisfying. I’m still collecting toys, peeling stickers off, cleaning play-dough, watercolors’ stains, and the thought that everything will be clean and in order calms me down. Because the chaos outside is chaos inside,” she concluded wisely, still believing that her plan was one step closer to her desired peace. Not two hours passed and my friend phoned again. “My daughter is always around; I don’t have the time, she wants to play; she asked for pancakes, so I’ll make a few. Some problems occurred at work, I need to send them one document, but I will be there.”
I didn’t manage to tell her not to hurry, and that she doesn’t have to be all over the place. She works from home as a freelancer, but the thing is that I wasn’t able to get her image out of my head: a frustrated octopus that cannot achieve it all. He needs at least five more tentacles. I started laughing, but sadness flooded me immediately. New Viber message: “It’s not satisfying, it’s frustrating,” and a photo to prove it: she’s laying on the floor, me assuming that she had just cleaned it, between pancakes, slices of pancakes and jam, and her daughter on top of her with a smiling, messy face. My friend wasn’t in the mood for a laugh. And obviously, there was a gap between the plan imagined and the realization of it.
My friend was trying to finish her studies at the university for almost seven years. The only thing she succeeds in doing is to take good care of her home and her children; she’s not included in that care. She needs some time to take a deep breath and listen to her thoughts. “What will become of me when my children grow up?“ Once she shared her fear with me. “I’ll become a useless member of society. I won’t be helpful to anyone, at least for myself.“ Her life dissipates somewhere down the road, between the obligations and the worries, and ends up in a blind alley. In the meantime, her husband went fishing with his friends after a long, hard week at work.
For a start, let’s look at the facts. Recent findings show widening the gender gap in unpaid work in the household, i.e., the pandemic contributed to longer hours women spend at homes taking care of the children and other people. When day-care centers closed, women were hit the most. I was curious to see the statistics in my country North Macedonia compared to the rest of the world, and I discovered that there isn’t much difference.
I was thinking about when and how this all began. How did it come to be here? And it leads me to the moment when a girl is born. She automatically receives an invisible gift. You all probably remember that moment when fairies in the stories give blessings for different virtues to the newborn child. There’s a special package for baby girls: clean the house, wash, cook the meals and take care of everyone–children, husband, parents–but herself. What kind of mother would she be if she was to pamper herself!? Selfish, of course!
What’s wrong with this image? Many things are deeply rooted in the mental matrix of most people. The famous phrase–Sharing is caring, is just that an empty phrase. A strict division of responsibilities shouldn’t exist, only arrangements and cooperation, and a manifestation of care for the other.
This burden of care and inequality in the household is the women’s barrier to employment participation. This inequality spreads to all levels of society. And how is a woman to become the best version of herself, a famous phrase lately, when she needs to be reminded of her own existence, her own substance that contains all her ideals, desires, and passions forgotten along the way.
What’s scary is that children internalize the messages they hear from their environment, and a vicious circle repeats itself. Little girls identify themselves with their mothers and form an image about their lives as adult women: invisible, unpaid, unvalidated, with no self-worth and self-respect, they give up on their academic careers. On the other hand, boys see their fathers as strong, they look at all those male advertisements for power protein things, and they learn from a small age that “boys don’t cry” or that “boys will be boys,” and that’s why they are the breadwinners at home, they for sure have more enormous salaries, have the “real jobs.” Therefore, they need to rest and relax when they come home. He provides for the house, and she’s expected to do everything else in the household besides her job. Adults perpetuate the same messages at home, in schools, so this gender stereotyping continues. We force children to live up to our expectations, so they lose themselves in the same labyrinth.
What kind of future do we want for our children?
P.S. My friend didn’t make it to our meeting. Some other day, maybe next year, if we are to be optimistic.
P.P.S. She still hasn’t found the time to finish her studies.