I was checking out at my dentist's office a few weeks back, and I came up on an interesting conversation. "Christmas is for men and for children." What followed was a long vent on how these two women had to do everything related to shopping, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, and coordinating the many aspects of their particular family Christmas with their adult children. I smiled a few times, and then I couldn't help it. I said this: "You know it doesn't have to be this way, right? We can make different choices."
Both women perked up a bit and wanted to hear a little more. I told them that when I found myself in a similar situation, I spoke up and asked for help. I then went on to tell them about our new tradition of a "family gathering spreadsheet" that is created each and every time our family gets together for more than a day or two.
As the mom of a number of adult children, I sometimes find myself in enlightening conversations around how to "do" holidays. As someone who for many years was pretty much the central cook, dishwasher, decorator, and purchaser of gifts around all things Christmas, I get how so many of us end up in this position. But I also realized several years back that if I continued down this path as I age and the family numbers multiply, I would end up being an exhausted, cranky matriarch.
Over the past several years, I have ended up in a similar conversation with my friends who are exhausted after being with family during a holiday or vacation. Though women have certainly made strides in many areas, there are many studies (not sure this really needs a formal study) supporting the reality that women still do a lot more housework than men - even when both are employed full time. Just google it if you want some proof.
And within any family system, there are those who will do more than their fair share, and there are those who are happy to sit back and hang out. It is just the reality of human, and family, dynamics. Our family attempts to spread the load by using spreadsheets (though I have to get help to create these!) Each meal preparation, table setting, kitchen clean up, and any other helpful task is distributed for voluntary sign up and then assigned as needed to even things out. The reality is that there has to be a chief coordinator, and it often makes the most sense for that to be me. But I don't have to be the chief laborer. At this point, all the members of my family are able and willing to participate. When my grown kids come in from out of town, I want to enjoy our time together, and I certainly don't want to be holed up in the kitchen the entire time!
If our family hadn't switched to a more equitable labor situation when we gather, I would also have missed out on a chance for joy. One son and one daughter are now quite regular cooking buddies. I love seeing them plan, shop, and enjoy each other as they prepare food for our family. And when I get paired up with various family members for different tasks, there is an opportunity for one-on-one conversation in the midst of what is more often a big group dynamic.
This past Thanksgiving, most of our family gathered at the home of our youngest son. I smiled when we got the "spreadsheet email" from him. This is a family tradition that has rolled out into the next generation. He stepped in as chief coordinator.
If we leave family gatherings feeling resentful, angry, or taken advantage of, it is often a signal that things are not as we wish them to be. Interestingly, as I interacted with the two ladies in the dentist's office, they started to backtrack and say things like, "my daughters just expect me to wait on them when they walk in the door," and "I know I am the one who has created this situation." I sensed that they felt powerless to change the family dynamic.
In my experience, the first step was to notice that I really wanted things to go a different way. Then I had to speak up and begin to figure out how to make that happen. We really don't have to do what we have always done. And sharing the load has so very many benefits - to all. And like the title of this blog says, if I could package this family gathering load sharing thing and sell it, I would be a millionaire. I talk to a lot of frustrated women.
In what creative ways do you and your family share the work when you gather together? What changes would you like to make in this area? January is a great time to set a new intention. Happy New Year!