The cure for Mothers’ Day disappointment shouldn’t be lower expectations

Don’t kid yourself, it’s never looked like this.
Don’t kid yourself, it’s never looked like this.
Image: Lambert/Getty Images
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My first few Mother’s Days after having kids were pretty rough. I wanted, essentially, to be given a “break” from being a mom. I wanted my partner to take on the mental load. I wanted some time alone. I wanted housework to get done without my delegation. I wanted the peace I never got because motherhood is so constant. It is supposed to be the one day of the year when the tables turn, and I get taken care of for a change, right?

That was never what happened. Year after year, I found myself dealing with my children’s tantrums, planning my own gift, and becoming frustrated with the housework that wasn’t getting done (because I wasn’t doing it). My mood would sour at every perceived slight—the “special breakfast” dishes that lingered in the sink, the messes my kids left behind, the whining and fighting between toddler and preschooler, the normal requests for snacks and milk (can’t you ask your Dad just this once?), my husband’s grooming products left out on our shared vanity. Each offense would leave me disproportionately angry.

By the end of Mother’s Day I would find myself more emotionally worn out than I would have been on any normal Sunday. It wasn’t that the day was particularly hard compared to most, but that my expectations for Mother’s Day were different. I wanted my entire load lifted for the day, and I was lucky to get a fraction of that.

I eventually decided I was going to evade disappointment by lowering my expectations for Mother’s Day. I began expecting a really difficult day, a day where everything would fall to me (as per usual), a day when I would need extra patience with all those around me. The mind trick worked for a couple years. I had happy-ish Mother’s Days because I eliminated any hopeful expectations. I was able to see the bright and special moments that I lost in my resentment in previous years. It didn’t feel particularly celebratory, but Mother’s Day was now a slight improvement on the average Sunday. I felt appreciation for my husband cooking me breakfast, for my kids planting flowers with me in the yard, for the little gifts and any housework that got done without my guidance.

I was simply expecting too much, I told myself. That was the problem with Mother’s Day. On the surface this seemed true, because with my expectations quelled, my resentment over everyday inequalities remained buried. I didn’t have to look at the root issue if I simply treated the symptoms.

But the truth is my expectations really weren’t the problem. The problem was that I felt like I was taking care of everyone else all the time, and that I would never, ever get a break. The problem was that in asking my husband to “be me for a day,” I was asking for something inherently unfair. I was asking to invert a burdensome workload that was making me crack beneath the pressure. My days consisted of exhausting myself with emotional and domestic labor until I had absolutely nothing left. I felt like I had no time, no focus, no mental space, and no emotional energy at the end of each day.

One Mother’s Day, the whole facade came crashing down. After my husband failed to get me the cleaning service I had requested as a gift (he said it was too much work to call around, get quotes, get recommendations, fit it into the schedule and budget—you know, do the things I would normally squeeze into my schedule), he left me to care for our three children while he cleaned the bathrooms as “my gift.” I spent the day catering to everyone around me in a way that felt more intense than normal.

When I stumbled over the gift wrap box my husband had left in the middle of our closet, it was the final straw. I didn’t want to ask him to put away the item he had gotten out in the first place. I didn’t want to mind-trick my way through another Mother’s Day.

What I wanted, what I really wanted, was a partner who was doing his share. Not just on Mother’s Day. Every day.

The problem with Mother’s Day isn’t that women want too much, but that we’re expected not to want anything at all the other 364 days of the year. Many women feel as if Mother’s Day is the only day of the year they can truly express their needs, or, even more powerfully, their wants (which mothers are not “supposed” to have). Yet even in making the smallest push for a day’s worth of equality, they are often left wanting. To a certain extent we can change our attitude to make the inequities in our relationships bearable, but that doesn’t change the inequity itself.

Expecting less is not a real solution—it’s simply a way to mask the problem. Moms need partners who pull their weight all the time, not just on one special day. Men can notice when the laundry needs to be folded or take over the bedtime routine. They can do it without their partners asking, and better yet, without asking their partners for praise like it’s extra-credit work, like it’s not their job.

I want us to have celebratory Mother’s Days, ones where we truly feel appreciated and seen for the work that we do. In order to have that, we need partners who not only recognize our daily efforts, but whom step up to meet us where we are—who understand that emotional labor is their job too. Maybe if we know the dishes will be done before we get up, that homemade breakfast in bed will actually be a good Mother’s Day treat after all.

But first we need to address how we culturally view Mother’s Day as the singular exceptional day when women can expect men their partners to take on emotional labor. We really need to examine why motherhood (as opposed to fatherhood) is so mentally and emotionally taxing. We take a celebratory day and turn it into a desperate effort to get a break, but we need to look at how the imbalance of emotional labor is what is breaking us in the first place.

Instead of looking to the past and congratulating men on how far they’ve come, it’s time for our partners to look at the imbalances we face here and now. Why are women still telling men what needs to be done, or faced with the prospect of doing everything themselves? Why are women pressured to show endless gratitude for partners who do only a portion of the domestic and emotional labor we do constantly and thanklessly? Why can’t we—why shouldn’t we—ask for more?

We may have been culturally conditioned into these separate heteronormative spheres regarding emotional labor, but that doesn’t mean we cannot grow beyond the norms that no longer serve us (if they ever did). We need to start rethinking what equity really means, not in relation to the past but in relation to one another. We need men who show up for their lives so women can start fully living theirs.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.