The Exhausting Shadow Work of Being a Modern Wife

Image source: Thinkstock
Image source: Thinkstock

“Whatever you think, honey.”

“I trust you, you always do a great job.”

“Mama knows best!”

How many versions are there of the wifely mantra that places Mama the Matriarch as the eternal source of wisdom in the household?

From the big (education, religion, health) to the small (clothing, haircuts, organic vs. regular apples) decisions in life, it can feel like women are calling out the executive orders on the home front, without any real public support for the work that they do.

In his book, Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, Harvard Magazine’s deputy editor Craig Lambert notes that the exhausting “shadow work” that women have always done — and currently perform — is something that most men simply don’t take on, even in our “modern” age.

A wife/mother’s shadow work encompasses everything from cleaning the house (a job, Lambert laments, that has “a different feeling” when outsourced instead of performed out of Mom’s love for the family) to scheduling doctor’s appointments, to shuttling kids to and from school rather than putting them on a bus.

And while women have been “liberated” and have taken on more of a role in the workforce, their responsibilities at home haven’t exactly diminished — in fact, they are perhaps more substantial than ever.

In the public sphere, shadow work has crept in because technology has taken the place of people. We’ve been forced to do our own “shadow work” (pumping our own gas, serving our own fro-yo, diagnosing that problem with our computer). Simultaneously, on the domestic front, the pressure of an ever-increasing load of shadow work for women and wives threatens to crush us until we crumble.

For the most part, I’m OK with being the chief family choreographer. But sometimes, I just get a teensy bit tired of the amount of pressure put on me.
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Call me crazy, but even though I have a husband who is always willing to support and help me so that we can both work and raise our family the way we feel is important, it still feels like an overwhelming amount of pressure on my part to be the one in charge of how everything gets done, from holidays to booking the babysitter to what the kids should wear to church on Sunday. (Because everyone knows what your kids wear is really just a reflection of you as a mother, let’s be honest.)

And for the most part, I’m OK with being the chief family choreographer. It means our house looks the way I want it to, it means holidays go the way I want them to, it means vacations and outings and even dinners are planned and orchestrated by moi. I’m good at it, I enjoy it, and I do think that a lot of the shadow work I do for our family comes naturally to me as a woman.

But sometimes, I just get a teensy bit tired of the amount of pressure on me.

The hardest part, for me, has been the fact that modern-day parenting means researching every single last thing to make the decision that is “best for us,” which is really just code for “what mom says is best.” Starting with pregnancy, it’s an overwhelming mountain of health decisions to make: Homebirth or hospital birth? Epidural or all-natural? Delayed cord clamping? Breastfeeding or formula feeding? And please don’t even get me started on vaccines, because I literally can’t even.

Being a wife these days feels like taking on the “shadow work” of also being a professional researcher and doctor. There is no such thing as a blanket recommendation anymore, which, on one hand, is a good thing because one-size-does-not-ever-fit-all, but on the other hand, it’s almost as if we’ve wiped our hands and said, “Well, you women asked for it.”

Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation talking, but it almost feels like we’ve arrived at the point in working towards gender equality to know that stuff needs to change on the domestic and public spheres, but we haven’t exactly figured out how to make it all work, so the solution from (literal) mankind has been to kind of step back and say, “OK, whatever our wives want, we will support.”

Which, of course, is good in a lot of ways. But it’s still left in our hands as women to be the decision-makers and the ones expending mental energy to figure out how to balance work and home and kids. Directing our men to clean the toilet is not exactly the same as having a man just clean the toilet, you know? We’re still exerting the shadow work of directing the home front, no matter if we’re physically doing it, with the added visible work of working for, you know, money.

Don’t get me wrong — choices are good, power is good. But for some reason, it almost feels like it’s a woman’s world orchestrated behind the scenes, minus any of the benefits of a starring role.

Maybe it’s time to come out of the shadows?

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