Mothers, Labor, and Conduct: Then and Now

Alicia Andrzejewski //

I am a mother. I am angry and exhausted. Thinking through anger and exhaustion are crucial to medical humanities as a full and robust field.

According to early modern conduct books, Robert Cleaver (1598), in particular, I must “stand in a reverent awe” of my husband, even if I have cause for anger:

Yet she must bear it patiently and give him no uncomely or unkind words for it, but evermore look upon him with a loving and cheerful countenance; and so rather let her take the fault upon her than seem to be displeased. (qtd. in Henderson and McManus 53)

My partner, my husband, is a wonderful man, but even when—especially when—such a man errs, Henry Smith (1591) argues that while husbands “must hold their hands,” “wives their tongues” (53).

I have never been beaten. Smith suggests I am supposed to be grateful.

But I’m not.

I cracked this morning, when I watched my partner get up for what felt like the thousandth time and get straight into the shower while I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, my toddler literally pulling me from the bed—to get her diaper changed; to make her breakfast; to read her a book. I had coffee? Maybe?

How do I conduct myself as a working mother from day-to-day? I’m stunned all of the time. I exist in a stupor of exhaustion. How do deadlines get met or writing done? In fits of inspiration, love, and fury, I suppose. She goes down, to sleep, and I don’t have time to clean my desk; to take a walk; to go to yoga; to think; to prepare to write. I just write, furiously.

Today, instead, I made a list itemizing household labor. I don’t know why, but I was shocked:

Item: (Ali) Evie’s entire morning routine (diaper, breakfast, clean-up)

Item: (Ali) managing and purchasing all household items

Item: (Ali) vacuuming, mopping, dusting, cleaning sheets (not nearly frequently enough)

Item: (Ali) managing all childcare; managing most extended family affairs; managing the budget

etc.

This unfair division of labor has been addressed in recent articles (see The New York Times “What Good Dads Get Away With” and Harper’s Bazaar‘s “Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden“). And, yet, I walk my daughter to daycare on Tuesdays and Thursdays and look at the remnants of breakfast on her face; the sleep in her eyes; the binky in her mouth; her lack of 100+ words or whatever she “should” be able to say by now, and I thinkI’ve failed. (I feel I should note, here, my partner always picks her up.) My daughter might watch six episodes of Sesame Street in a row when I have to work on the days she isn’t in care (most). She often eats tortilla chips for a snack. I don’t always look upon her, or my partner, with a “loving and cheerful countenance.”

Wait. I have broken conduct; I have babbled; I have spoken; I have been “full of tongue” (qtd. in Henderson and McManus 54). In this way, however, I have followed in the footsteps of other women from the past, women who, “setting aside all fear…have adventured to show [their] imperfections to the view of the world, not regarding what censure for this shall be laid upon [them], so that herein [they] may show [themselves] a loving Mother and a dutiful wife” (qtd. in Henderson and McManus 54-55).

We are loving and dutiful people, mothers, parents—even if we speak, even if we refuse to hold our respective tongues. According to these early modern conduct books, I am also my child’s spiritual, moral advisor, and according to the many voices I encounter daily, from the media to my own family and friends—I still am.

And I want better for her. Exhaustion, anger, the redistribution of laborthese are medical issues. I want my daughter’s tongue to be free; the division of labor in her household to be fair; and her expectations for her partner’s conduct to extend beyond not being “beaten.” I want more energy for her than I have right now. I want her and her partner’s expectations of one another to extend beyond the ability to “bear…patiently.”

And so I speak, I write.

Works Cited

Henderson, Katherine U., and McManus, Barbara F. Half Humankind : Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640. University of Illinois Press, 1985.

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