Last week, I read a holiday newsletter from a brilliant writer I really admire, Anne Helen Petersen, called “The Mom Does It.” It was shared among several of my friend groups. The thesis wasn’t unique: Moms do it all, whether they want to or not. A central aspect of this is holiday cards, which she described as “the most visible and performative component of (bourgeois) Holiday Magic.” She also called out the Vacation Mom, an “obligatory, performative, and highly gendered role” that requires booking hotels, planning itineraries, you know the drill.
I think I was supposed to feel seen, but I actually ended up feeling like a loser. This was just the latest in a barrage of articles with a similar message. What about moms who actually enjoy doing this stuff? Aren’t we above judging each other? I know plenty of women who actually relish planning trips, sending holiday cards, or — gasp — even cleaning. Does admitting this make me less feminist, enlightened, or evolved? Or am I actually a step ahead for being open about what I like, social mores be damned? We are not always martyrs, and we don’t need to feel brainwashed or be called performative by other women for doing so. Some motives are actually pure, and we don’t deserve condescension or require rescuing.
Lest you think I am some retro-alien visiting from 1952, let me state unequivocally: There is something important to be said for emphasizing that women do more than their fair share, questioning why, and pushing back against structural norms that repress us financially, psychologically, and in any other way.
This week, a poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research came out with new but not shocking data that mothers are more likely to shoulder a swath of responsibilities, from providing transportation to handling family meals to doing household things — such as, presumably, sending cards and planning vacations. But what if they sometimes kinda like it?
In this climate, I’ve found that it’s deeply uncool to confess that you enjoy doing some of that dirty work lest you appear weak, silly, privileged, or uninformed. Holiday cards encapsulate this bind. My highly nonscientific survey conducted among mothers across Greater Boston this week confirmed that they are indeed polarizing: Some think they’re a sorry excuse for long-lost roommates to brag. Others think they cause too much stress, from finding matching outfits to forcing tweens into the shower to convincing a squirming toddler to smile, dammit, while bribing him with toys, video games, and IV sugar delivery. I get it. I, too, have been on many a text thread where I wondered if the hue of marigold in my husband’s shirt matched my toddler’s rumpled corduroys.
But … it’s also kind of fun? There is a danger in ascribing societal flaws to simple pleasures. Sometimes things that seem frivolous actually do have honest meaning, one woman told me, and I completely agree: So many people told me how much they enjoy sending and getting cards, receiving something tactile in an isolated world. This year, when sending (and hand-addressing!) mine, it was a chance to deliberately remember friends who supported me when my mom died in June. It wasn’t a chance to tout my flawless family or to one-up anybody. I have neither the funds nor the patience to hire a professional photographer, and the perfection ship sailed in 2010 or so. I put together a collage of iPhone photos in which nobody looked insane, had some fun designing the font, and addressed them while listening to an old Todd Rundgren album. Go ahead, judge me. But I won’t judge you by assuming that something is terribly wrong with your family, your executive functioning skills, or your priorities if you don’t send me one.
So yes, the current narrative of women-as-martyrs has its place; so does the discussion of invisible mental loads. But it’s also strangely repressive, because it strips us of agency should we enjoy doing tasks that pigeonhole us as trapped. One of my friends secretly confessed to me that she loves cleaning, because she finds organizing her closets therapeutic. Another enjoys doing the carpool shuffle because she gets all the middle-school gossip that way. These are not heiresses without jobs. They’re slogging through like the rest of us and snatching pleasure where they can — even if that pleasure is often defined as labor.
All I’m saying is: Don’t let headlines or statistics make you feel somehow out of step with reality or enlightenment. You’re not a disgrace to feminism if you enjoy vacuuming. You’re not a performative striver if you actually love creating holiday cards. You’re not a bourgeois mom-bot if you plan vacations. It’s OK to sometimes enjoy the grind. Ignoring judgment is the greatest liberation of all.