I recently saw a short comedy sketch on YouTube. In it, a woman is complaining to her boyfriend that she’s overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done around the house. He tells her not to worry because their kitchen counter is magical. He goes on to explain that ever since she moved in, whenever he puts a basket of dirty laundry on the kitchen counter, he comes back a day later and everything in it has been washed and folded. And not only that, the coffee table seems to have this same power, because any dishes or garbage you leave on it disappears by the next morning. So she doesn’t need to worry about getting everything done – just leave chores on the kitchen counter and dirty dishes on the coffee table and they will take care of themselves. The scene ends with him calling the police the next day because she is gone. He’s sure she didn’t just leave him, but he’s concerned that perhaps she fell onto the coffee table and disappeared. The video is called “Magic Coffee Table” and it really got me thinking about the role mothers play as magicians in their families’ lives.
Starting from the very beginning, if you carried your child during pregnancy, there was behind the scenes magic happening. No one could see all of the miraculous things your body was working so hard at all day, every day, to grow a human. No one knew the depth of your exhaustion, sickness, or pain during the process. They just saw the growing belly and then “surprise!” here’s the baby! No one sat with you at all hours of the night as you fed and rocked and soothed your baby back to sleep. They just asked how many hours the baby was sleeping at a time. No one was home with you in those early weeks as you tried to care for this brand new person, and keep yourself clothed and fed, and cared for other kids, and did the grocery shopping, and prepared the meals. They just saw a cute, happy baby and asked when dinner would be ready. No one sees the phone calls you squeeze in throughout the day to make the needed doctor and dentist appointments. They just see the calendar entries appear and ask how it went after. No one sees your brain moving a mile a minute trying to puzzle together all of the extracurriculars, and childcare needs, and camp registrations. They just see the schedules hanging on the fridge.
No one sees the work. They just see the magic. And it’s exhausting being a magician.
The mom magician works tirelessly to make everything appear effortless. She says very little about it all, often because there isn’t much time to talk about it, and she doesn’t see what would talking about it would really do. Unfortunately, because no one knows all that goes into these finished products that they see, no one understands her burden.
Why do we keep doing this? A number of reasons: there is no one else who will get these things done, we’ve asked for help or tried to explain the burden and the person we’re telling this to is unable or unwilling to help, we believe this is one of the duties of mothering, we believe our success as a mother is tied up in our magician performance, we take pride in making these things “just happen.” And I’m sure I’m missing dozens of other reasons.
Whatever the reason we’ve donned the magician’s cape, the reality is that cape gets HEAVY at times. And when it does, resentment often builds, and it builds quickly. And that resentment, mixed with a little anxiety at times, fuels anger like nobody’s business.
So what to do?
Step one: take off the cape. You aren’t a magician. You’re a mom. A mom who would move mountains for her family, but a regular human nonetheless. This doesn’t mean you stop doing all of these things, it just means you become more open about the real work that goes into all of it. You share with your partner that you’re really tired because while the baby was napping today you did two loads of laundry and prepped dinner. You ask your partner to please take the trash out for you after dinner. You say “not today, but how about tomorrow?” to a request to add an extra errand into your day because you already have more than you can realistically fit into the time you have available.
Step two: acknowledge the resentment, anger, or other feelings that come up when you think of all the behind the scenes magic you’ve been curating. As with any unpleasant emotion, we have a protective instinct to push it away and not feel it. But it contains valuable information, so it’s useful to welcome the feeling from a place of curiosity. Where is it stemming from? Is it directed at a particular person, situation, or task? For example, if I get really resentful when I think about all the work I do at my regular job all day, and then all the work I do to get the kids where they need to be with all the things they need, keep up with the house, and make sure everyone is fed, I might ask myself what part of it is most bothersome. Maybe I don’t actually mind doing those things, but I’m resentful that my husband never acknowledges how much I do. Or maybe I really hate spending all of that time in the car, and finding a way to consolidate activities would help. Depending on which of those things is fueling the resentment, my next steps look very different. In the first scenario, it seems I need to talk to my husband and tell him that I feel unsupported and overlooked when my hard work isn’t acknowledged. In the second scenario, I need to talk to my support network to try to brainstorm scheduling tweaks and see if there’s extra help available. But in either case, if I just pushed the resentment down, I would keep myself trapped in this cycle. I need to acknowledge it and look at it directly.
Step three: hold the “both this AND that.” You are allowed to want to do all the things for your family AND feel overwhelmed by it. You are allowed to feel pride at what you accomplish in a day AND be resentful that others don’t help more. You are allowed to believe that certain tasks are yours to do AND be hurt that others don’t acknowledge your efforts. These things can all be true at the same time. So often we fall into either/or thinking. Either I do all of this and don’t complain, or I’m a bad mom. Either I keep the house company-ready at all times, or I’m a terrible housekeeper. Noooooope. I can gripe about the burden of mothering AND be a good mom. I can be a good housekeeper AND sometimes let things go. I can love my kids with all my heart AND be grateful for a break from them.
You can create a wonderful life for your family AND say no more to being the silent, burdened, overlooked magician. Step out from behind the curtain, put down the cape. Share your real, authentic experience. I promise, you’ll still be magic in your kids’ eyes.