The Elastic Band vs The Helium Balloon by Claire Reid
When you see the words own their own, they are great, completely non-threatening words. “Working”: it feels purposeful, driven, active. “Mother”: it feels safe, warm, nurturing. Now, let’s try put them together and have them compliment each other rather than compete against each other for your attention. Not possible. Well, not in my experience anyway. There is always fierce competition and one will inevitably lose out at any given time; it then becomes a moment-by-moment negotiation as to which word will lose and which will win. Toddler starts fondling in the knife draw, mothering wins. Email comes through from a new client who has just viewed your portfolio, work wins. Baby wakes up and is still in the sleepy cuddly mood, mothering wins. And so on. So, what has all this seesawing between definitions made us? Serial apologizers and time-bargainers, and I think I know why. We have added a whole lot of other definitions to each word. Mothering now seems to include sugar-free, toddler-approved masterchef; interior designer and full-time cleaner; baby stylist; and witty banterer IRL and on social media. In the same way, work seems to now include an extra level of proving yourself and thanking those who give you the chance to do so.
With all that in mind (things we have heard time and time again), I decided that I didn’t want to use this space to circulate the same narrative. You know the one; the one where we do it all and still apologize that we haven’t done more than that. We replace our bodies (once our babies have finished suckling at them for hours on end) for elastic bands. We stretch ourselves so thin that if we don’t inevitably snap, we will surely fray. And fray I did, as I’m sure you have too (or are currently). But if we want to keep the aforementioned duality of ourselves, the working and the mother, then something has to give. I’m certainly not willing to give up my work, and financially it isn’t an option. Also, I have become quite fond of this little person who conveniently learned to smile the day of my first blocked milk duct.
So here I am, presenting a new narrative. One that will hopefully become a new conversation, which could then become a real shift. A shift that takes us from an elastic band to a helium balloon. I don’t use this metaphor to imply that we should be so full up that we bounce around the roof joyfully, but perhaps we can hover. Just above the mess. Have enough helium left in us that we can literally live above the floor (at the exact right height to turn the kettle on or pour a glass of wine).
If we think of ourselves as helium balloons, then we can start to see when people are sucking the life right out of us, for their own benefit. And what’s a helium balloon without any helium? Just a shrivelled up piece of limp, stretched plastic on the floor surrounded by other discarded party paraphernalia. Okay, I think I have taken that metaphor about as far as it will go.
So, what is the new narrative? It’s one where we let things go (insert obvious reference to Frozen) and accept that the house it not going to look like a reveal from The Block for every playdate, and that it’s fine if our kids want to rock around in gumboots and a nappy. Let’s start to present a new vision for working mums to live by – scratch that – for all mums to live by. It’s a vision where some things just have to give, and there is no need to apologize for it … really.
One of my new mum friends is this vision to a T and how refreshing it is to have her in my life. Her advice - which was always my mum’s advice too funnily enough (although it often takes an ‘outsider’ to tell us before we listen) - was to start learning the word “no”. If we keep saying “yes”, nothing will change. If we keep doing it, it will keep getting done. By us. And we all know that the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different outcome. It’s time to call tools down and stop doing more than our fair share, more than what even needs to be done. Our toddlers are professional no-ers. And often it’s not said in defiance, it’s just an honest response. “Could you clean up the books before you take out the trains?” “No, mummy.”
“You have to finish your pumpkin before you get some ice cream.” “No thanks, mummy.”
So I started to see this as something to emulate when having those daily discussions with my own guilt. “Do the dishes before you sit down and binge watch the OC, pretending that you still relate to Marissa and Ryan more so than their parents.” “No, thanks.”
“Make something healthy for the kids to have at the beach tomorrow after you answer the 48 missed emails from today.” “No.”
“No” is a completely viable response to the extra definitions tacked onto our roles as working mothers. If we collectively agree on a different narrative, a different vision, and a different expectation, then we can make some real change. Something we can all do to start building the blocks in the right direction: don’t clean up before your next visitor. I dare you. And … don’t apologise for the mess. I double dare you.
Claire Reid | Hovering helium balloon in training.
I am 31 and my daughter is almost 3. We are from Perth and this year I applied for a creative writing Master’s program in Stockholm University. So alas, we are currently living in Stockholm for 2 years while I study, freelance with my clients in oz, and spend all other time with my hilarious toddler. While living in Sweden is a whole other article (just the vision of parenting equality here is something we can all take home) this article is focused on the definitions we place on ourselves as working mothers and the defiance we need to take against them.