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For me, the concept of expressing gratitude is like eating kale. Someone told me it was good for me so I started doing it without asking any questions. I was recently surprised to learn that actually saying, out loud, the things you’re grateful for releases serotonin in your brain AND reduces anxiety. Now with that information, I knew it was time to think about what I’m thankful for in a different way.
I spent over a decade working as a waitress and as a personal assistant. If you aren’t familiar with what those jobs include, it’s a lot of anticipating other people’s needs and apologizing when I expressed my own needs (that’s on me). I became a mother at the end of 2021 and quickly realized how I operated as a human before wasn’t serving me. I needed to become a leader. Even if I wasn’t ready.
Sharing Household Labor
One of the best things my husband and I did before becoming parents (besides taking shrooms in the desert – pre pregnancy of course) was to divide up all our household labor. We took stock of everything: ordering diapers, doing laundry, grocery shopping, being in charge of our social calendar, who holds the remote while we binge-watch television. Now I don’t remember actually assigning duties but we just sort of fell into which ones were best suited to our strengths. We got the idea from Eve Rodsky, whose book Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) suggests treating the division of household labor like you’re running a Fortune 500 company. Rodsky says that Zillion dollar corporations have a company handbook that outlines each employee’s role, not a couple who resentfully trades off doing the payroll.
So we divvied up all the jobs in our life in a way that felt equitable and respectful, and for a while, it worked great. We were effusive with each other when one of us performed one of our designated tasks. “The kitchen looks really nice,” I would say to my husband, whose assigned role was to clean the kitchen, “thanks for cleaning it.” Yes, I was thanking him for doing something we’d both agreed was already his responsibility, but that didn’t matter. It’s nice to be thanked for doing something, even if you had to do it because it’s your job. It felt good to feel thankful.
Mechanics of Motherhood
Somehow, even though we’d divided up all the physical tasks required to keep our home life from crumbling into ruin, I hadn’t anticipated just how much time I would be with the baby compared to my husband. Part of it was the mechanics of motherhood: I breastfed exclusively for the first three months, then I switched to combo-feeding before feeding with infant formula. I was physically attached to my child for almost the entirety of my day, all day, every day. And when I wasn’t, when my husband fed our son, I would say “thank you.” Every time my husband held the baby so I could go to the bathroom or take a shower, I would say “thank you.” It started to really eat at me. Why was I saying thank you to the father of my child for being a parent? He didn’t thank me for anything I did with the baby. He hadn’t even thanked me for turning his sperm into a person.
NO Thank You
So, I started to consciously NOT say thank you. Instead, I would say, “Here’s the baby, I’m going to take a shower.” Or “I need you to feed the baby, I have a meeting.”
And my husband? HE DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE THAT I WASN’T SAYING THANK YOU.
During our pre-baby division of labor, we’d used positive feedback like managers making their employees feel appreciated. I see you, I see how hard you’re working, and I am thankful for it. But at work, there’s an implicit subtext when your boss thanks you for doing your job: If you don’t do a good job, I will take this job away from you and then you will be unemployed, lose your home, health insurance, and then you will starve to death.
The omission of “thank you” became a cesspool of passive aggression.
Motherhood is hard. It’s not just a single task I’d been dealt, it was a million tiny moments of un-assignable and incalculable work.
And all that work, all the undefined labor—both physically and emotionally—was making me a bad boss in the work of our life. I was withholding praise to prove a point. “I can’t do X because I have to do Y or else it doesn’t get done.” I was not grateful. And it didn’t feel great.
Self-Care for Mom
Now, it wasn’t all bad because no one tells you that becoming a parent means making two hundred decisions a day and frankly, I needed to become more clear about what my needs were. To survive. My husband’s late Aunt Riva once told me, “you have to take care of yourself because no on else will and if you don’t, you’ll kill yourself.” She was a working mother when it was radical to be that.
Not saying “Thank you” every five minutes helped me take charge of what I really needed in those moments to feel grateful in my life.
I’m learning now, in real time, that my original “Thank you’s” after our son’s birth were actually “I’m sorry’s.” When I thanked my husband for feeding our son, I was actually apologizing for needing to take a break from the thankless, never-ending task of keeping my child alive. Between me and you, I really thought I was more evolved than that.
I know that keeping our baby alive isn’t my sole responsibility. But when they’re so little it’s hard to not feel that way. Yes, millennial dads spend outrageously more time with their children than their own fathers did but that shouldn’t diminish the mother’s work. We CAN and we SHOULD celebrate the generational changes without feeling like mothers got demoted at the same time.
The best advice I got before delivering my son was from my friend, Claire. She said, “you’re going to want to do everything yourself but lean away from that and let him (your husband) in. It’s the only way it will be close to equal.” And it really is such a muscle that I have to continually work.
Thank You in Marriage
I’d like to say that I’ve perfected the usage of “thank you” within my marriage and that all of the things I’m grateful for live openly on my bathroom mirror in lipstick. I’d like to tell you that my serotonin is flowing freely and continuously through my brain. But I haven’t and it’s not. I’m working on it and getting it wrong. A lot. I wish examining something didn’t take up as much brain capacity as it does, because in order to get to this place I had to share it during my postpartum support group—crowdsourcing at its finest!—and then talk about it with friends and coworkers ad nauseam.
I guess we went into parenting thinking we—my husband and I, but also women as a whole—had evolved so much that we could stop apologizing for needing to take up space, and then I hear new parents describe taking care of their children as “babysitting” if they aren’t the designated caregiver (read: mom) and suddenly I’m right back in that cesspool of passive aggression.
I know that saying sorry isn’t a weakness. I also know that not all thank you’s come from a place of gratitude. But I’m really trying to find strength and authenticity in both of these statements AND taking breaks.
Because dear god, I’m so tired.
Thank you for reading. Genuinely.