FATIGUE AND THE HOMEMAKER
BY DR. JAMES DOBSON
American women are facing a severe crisis of identity, brought on by persistent challenges to everything feminine–everything traditionally “female.” Suddenly, within the past few years, many women have begun to question who they are and where they are going in this rapidly changing world. This tumultuous upheaval of roles has strained members of both sexes and undermined the foundations of the home, producing widespread dissatisfaction with life as it is.
In an attempt to understand the specific causes and treatment for feminine dissatisfaction and unhappiness, I have identified ten “Sources of Depression” which are commonly expressed by women in my Family Life Seminars or in counseling situations. They are: absence of romantic love in marriage, in-law conflict, low self esteem, problems with children, financial difficulties, loneliness, isolation and boredom, sexual problems in marriage, menstrual and physiological problems, fatigue and time pressure, and aging.
The most common source of depression as rated by study groups was low self-esteem. Eighty percent marked this item within the top five, while 50 percent placed it as number one. The following, however, deals with the second most frequently indicated problem: fatigue and time pressure.
Flip Wilson once said, “If I had my entire life to live over, I doubt if I’d have the strength.” There must be many women who agree with him, for fatigue and time pressure ranked as the second most frequent cause for depression among those completing my questionnaire. As I have journeyed across the United States, from the metropolitan centers to the farms of Iowa, I have found extremely busy people running faster and faster down the road to exhaustion. We have become a nation of huffers and puffers, racing through the day and moonlighting into the night. Even our recreation is marked by this breakneck
How frequently does your head whirl and spin with the obligations of an impossible “to do” list? “I simply must get the bills paid this morning and the grocery shopping can’t wait another day. And my children! I’ve had so little time to be with them lately that we hardly seem like a family anymore. Maybe I can read them a story tonight. And I mustn’t neglect my own body; exercise is important and I’ve got to find time for that. Perhaps I could ‘Jump Along with Jack’ on television each morning. My annual physical is overdue, too. And I ought to be reading more. Everyone knows that it’s important to keep your mind active, so l just shouldn’t neglect the printed page. If I could get into bed an hour earlier each night, I could do plenty of reading. And we really should be taking more time to maintain our spiritual lives. That’s one area we cannot afford to neglect. And what about our social obligations? We can’t expect to have friends if we never get together. The Johnson’s have had us over twice now, and I know they’re waiting for us to reciprocate. We’ll just have to set a date and keep it, that’s all. And there are so many things that need fixing and repairing on the house. And the income tax is due next month… I’d better block out some time for that. And I–excuse me, the phone is ringing.”
So we’re too busy; everyone can see that. But what does a hectic pace have to do with depression? Just this: every obligation, which we shirk, is a source of guilt. When there are more commitments than we can possibly handle, then self-esteem is further damaged by each failure. “I’m really a lousy parent. I’m too exhausted to be a good wife. I’m disorganized and confused. I’m out of touch with the world around me and I don’t have any real friends. Even God is displeased with me.” Truly, overextended lives contribute to emotional pathology in numerous ways. It was this source of frustration that the women reflected on my questionnaire.
Vince Lombardi, the late, great football coach for the Green Bay Packers, once gave an inspired speech to his team at the beginning of the fall season. His comments were recorded that day, and have considerable applicability to our theme at this point. Coach Lombardi was discussing the impact of exhaustion on human courage, and he made this brief statement: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all!” How right he was. Physical depletion renders us less able to cope with the noisiness of children, the dishwasher that won’t work, and the thousands of other minor irritations of everyday living. It is also said, When you are tired you are attacked by ideas you thought you had conquered long ago. Perhaps this explains why women (and men) who are grossly overworked become cowards–whining, griping, and biting those whom they love the most.
If fatigue and time pressure produce such a strain, why do we permit ourselves to become so busy? Well, for one thing, everyone apparently thinks his hectic pace is a temporary problem. I have heard all the reasons why “things are kind of tough right now.” Here are the four most common for the young family:
1. Jerry just started this new business, you know, so it’ll take a few years to get it going.
2. Well, Pete is in school for two more years, so I’ve been trying to work to help out with the finances.
3. We have a new baby in our house and you know what that means.
4. We just bought a new house, which we’re fixing up ourselves.
To hear them tell it, there is a slower day coming, as soon as the present obligations are met. But you know it is an illusion. Their “temporary” pressures are usually sandwiched back to back with other temporary pressures, gradually developing into a long-term style of living. My secretary taped a little note to her typewriter, which read “As soon as the rush is over, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. I’ve earned it, I deserve it, and nobody is going to keep me from having it.” Time proves, however, that the rush is never over. As the Beatles said of women in their song “Lady Madonna,” “See how they run!”
No one “runs” much faster than the mother of multiple preschool children. Not only is she rushed from morning to night, but she experiences an unusual kind of emotional stress as well. Youngsters between 2 and 5 years of age have an uncanny ability to unravel an adult nervous system. Maybe it is listening to the constant diarrhea of words that wears Mom down to utter exhaustion. Hasn’t every mother in the world had the following “conversation” with her child at least a million times?
Johnny: Can I have a cookie, Mom? Huh, Mom? Can 1? Can I have one, Mom? Why can’t I have one? Huh? Huh, Mom? Can 1? Mom? Mom, can 1? Can I have a cookie now?
Mom: No, Johnny, it’s too close to lunch time.
Johnny: Just one, Mom? Can’t I have just one little cookie now? Huh? Can I? I will eat my lunch. OK, Mom? OK? I will eat all my lunch. OK? Can 1? Just one? Spotty would like one, too. Dogs like cookies, too, don’t they, Mom? Don’t they? Don’t dogs like cookies, too?
Mom: Yes, Johnny. I guess dogs like cookies, too.
Johnny: Can Spotty and I have one? Huh? Can we?
Although Mom began her day with a guarded optimism about life, these questions have reduced her to a lump of putty by 4 p.m.
My wife and I observed this process in action while sitting in a restaurant in Hawaii last summer. A young couple and their 4-year-old son were seated near us, and the child was rattling like a machine gun. If he stopped even to breathe, I couldn’t detect it. Nonsensical questions and comments were bubbling forth from his inexhaustible fountain of verbiage. It was easy to see the harassment on his parents’ faces, for they were about to explode from the constant onslaught of noise. Finally, the mother leaned over to her son and without moving her lips she sent this unmistakable message through her clenched teeth. . . one syllable at a time: “Shut! Up! Shut! Up! If-you-say-one-more-word-l-will-scream!” We had to smile, for her frustration was vaguely familiar to us. This young woman told us at the checkstand that her verbose son had talked from morning to night for two years, and her composure teetered on the brink of disintegration. As we left the restaurant and walked in opposite directions, we could hear the child’s fading words: “Who was that Mom? Who were those people? Were they nice people, Mom? Do you know those nice people, Mom?…”
Mothers of children under 3 years of age are particularly in need of loving support from their husbands. It has certainly been true in our home. How well I remember the day my wife put Ryan, then 4 months old, on the dressing table to change his diapers. As soon as she removed the wet garments, he made like a fountain and initialed the wall and a picture of Little Boy Blue. Shirley had no sooner repaired the damage than the telephone rang; while she was gone, Ryan was struck by a sudden attack of projectile diarrhea, and he machine-gunned his crib and the rest of the nursery. By the time my patient wife had bathed her son and scoured the room, she was near exhaustion. She dressed Ryan in clean, sweet-smelling clothes and put him over her shoulder affectionately. At that moment he deposited his breakfast down her neck and into her undergarments. She told me that evening that she was going to re-read her motherhood contract to see if days like that were written in fine print.
No discussion of maternal fatigue would be complete without mentioning the early evening hours–unquestionably the toughest part of the day for the mother of small children. Much has been written lately about the international “energy crisis,” but there is nothing on the globe to parallel the shortage of energy in a young mother between 6 and 9 p.m.! The dinner is over and the dishes are stacked. She is already tired, but now she has to get the troops in bed. She gives them their baths and pins on the diapers and brushes their teeth and puts on the pajamas and reads a story and says the prayers and brings them seven glasses of water. These tasks would not be so difficult if the children wanted to go to bed. They most certainly do not, however, and develop extremely clever techniques for resistance and postponement. It is a pretty dumb kid who can’t extend this 10-minute process into an hour-long tug of war. And when it’s all finished and Mom staggers through the nursery door and leans against the wall, she is then supposed to shift gears and greet her romantic lover in her own bedroom. Fat chance!
Let’s look at the problem of fatigue and time pressure exclusively from the perspective of children. How do they cope with the constant rush and scurry within the family? First, children are often aware of the tension, even when we adults have learned to ignore or deny it. A father recently told me he was putting on his toddler’s shoes, and he didn’t realize that he was rushing to complete the job quickly. His 3year-old quietly looked up at him and said, “Are we in a hurry again, Daddy?” Zap! The arrow struck his heart. “Yes, son, I guess we’re always in a hurry,” he said with a sigh of regret.
The viewpoint of children was beautifully represented by a little 9 year-old girl, who composed her idea of what a grandmother is supposed to be. This piece was submitted by a nurse, Juanita Nelson, and appeared in the employee newspaper at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. I think you will appreciate the incredible insight of this third grade girl.
What’s Grandmother? by a third grader
A grandmother is a lady who has no children of her own. She likes other people’s little girls and boys. A grandfather is a man grandmother. He goes for walks with the boys, and they talk about fishing and stuff like that.
Grandmothers don’t have to do anything except to be there. They’re old so they shouldn’t play hard or run. It is enough if they drive us to the market where the pretend horse is, and have a lot of dimes ready. Or if they take us for walks, they should slow down past things like pretty leaves and caterpillars. They should never say “hurry-up.”
Usually grandmothers are fat, but not too fat to tie your shoes. They wear glasses and funny underwear. They can take their teeth and gums off.
Grandmothers don’t have to be smart, only answer questions like, “Why isn’t God married?” and “How come dogs chase cats?”
Grandmothers don’t talk baby talk like visitors do, because it is hard to understand. When they read to us they don’t skip or mind if it is the same story over again.
Everybody should try to have a grandmother, especially if you don’t have television, because they are the only grownups who have time.
How’s that for sheer wisdom from the pen of a child? This little girl has shown us the important role played by grandparents in the lives of small children . . . especially grandparents who can take their teeth and gums off! (I am reminded of the time my 11-month-old daughter was given a hard cookie by a little boy. His older sister scolded, “She can’t eat that, you dummy! She has rubber teeth! “) Regardless of the condition of their molars, grandmothers and grandfathers can be invaluable to the world of little people. For one thing, “They are the only grown-ups who have time.”
It is interesting that our little authoress made two references to time pressure. How badly children need adults who can go for casual walks and talk about fishing and stuff like that . . . and slow down to look at pretty leaves and caterpillars . . . and answer questions about God and the nature of the world as it is. I dealt with this responsibility in my book Hide or Seek, and feel my message should be repeated here.
Why do dedicated parents have to be reminded to be sensitive to the needs of their children, anyway? Shouldn’t this be the natural expression of their love and concern? Yes, it should, but Mom and Dad have some problems of their own. They are pushed to the limits of their endurance by the pressure of time. Dad is holding down three jobs and he huffs and puffs to keep up with it all. Mom never has a free minute, either. Tomorrow night, for example, she is having eight guests for dinner and she only has this one evening to clean the house, go to the market, arrange the flowers for the centerpiece, and put the hem in the dress she will wear. Her “to do” list is three pages long and she already has a splitting headache from it all. She opens a can of “Spaghetti-Ox” for the kids’ supper and hopes the troops will stay out of her hair. About 7 p.m., little Larry tracks down his perspiring mother and says, “Look what I just drawed, Mom.” She glances downward and says, “Uh huh,” obviously thinking about something else.
Ten minutes later, Larry asks her to get him some juice. She complies but resents his intrusion. She is behind schedule and her tension is mounting. Five minutes later he interrupts again, this time wanting her to reach a toy that sits on the top shelf of the closet. She stands looking down at him for a moment and then hurries down the hall to meet his demand, mumbling as she goes. But as she passes his bedroom door, she notices that he has spread his toys all over the floor and made a mess with the glue. Mom explodes. She screams and threatens and shakes Larry till his teeth rattle.
Does this drama sound familiar? It should, for “routine panic” is becoming an American way of life. There was a time when a man didn’t fret if he missed a stage coach; he’d just catch it next month. Now if a fellow misses a section of a revolving door, he’s thrown into despair. But guess who is the inevitable loser from this breathless life-style? It’s the little guy who is leaning against the wall with his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans. He misses his father during the long day and tags around after him at night, saying, “Play ball, Dad!” But Dad is pooped. Besides, he has a briefcase full of work to be done. Mom had promised to take him to the park this afternoon but she had to go to that Women’s Auxiliary meeting at the last minute. The lad gets the message–his folks are busy again. So he drifts into the family room and watches two hours of pointless cartoons and reruns on television.
Children just don’t fit into a “to do” list very well. It takes time to introduce them to good books–it takes time to listen, once more, to the skinned-knee episode and talk about the bird with the broken wing. These are the building blocks of esteem, held together with the mortar of love. But they seldom materialize amidst busy timetables. Instead, crowded lives produce fatigue–and fatigue produces irritability–and irritability produces indifference–and indifference can be interpreted by the child as a lack of genuine affection and personal esteem.
As the commercial says, “Slow down, America!” What is your rush, anyway? Don’t you know your children will be gone so quickly and you will have nothing but blurred memories of those years when they needed you? I’m not suggesting that we invest our entire adult lives into the next generation, nor must everyone become parents. But once those children are here, they had better fit into our schedule somewhere. This is, however, a lonely message at the present time in our society. Others are telling Mom to go to work–have a career–do her own thing–turn her babies over to employees of the state working in child-care centers. Let someone else discipline, teach, and guide her toddler. While she’s at it, though, she’d better hope that her “someone else” gets across the message of esteem and worth to that pudgy little butterball who waves “good-bye” to his mommy each morning.
Summary and Recommendations. From this discussion of the universal problem–fatigue and time pressure–what related concepts do wives most wish their husbands understood? It is my belief that feminine depression associated with the hustle and bustle of living could be reduced significantly if men comprehended and accepted the three ideas which follow:
1. For some strange reason, human beings (and particularly women) tolerate stress and pressure much more easily if at least one other person knows they are enduring it. This principle is filed under the category of “human understanding,” and it is highly relevant to housewives. The frustrations of raising small children and handling domestic duties would be much more manageable if their husbands acted like they comprehended it all. Even if a man does nothing to change the situation, simply his
awareness that his wife did an admirable job today will make it easier for her to repeat the assignment tomorrow. Instead, the opposite usually occurs. At least eight million husbands will stumble into the same unforgivable question tonight: “What did you do all day, Dear?” The very nature of the question implies that his wife has been sitting on her rear-end watching television and drinking coffee since arising at noon! She could kill him for saying it.
Everyone needs to know that he is respected for the way he meets his responsibilities. Husbands get this emotional nurture through job promotions, raises in pay, annual evaluations, and incidental praise during the work day. Women at home get it from their husbands–if they get it at all. The most unhappy wives and mothers are often those who handle their fatigue and time pressure in solitude, and their men are never very sure why they always act so tired.
2. Most women will agree that the daily tasks of running a household can be managed; it is the accumulating projects that break their backs. Periodically, someone has to clean the stove and refrigerator, and replace the shelf paper, and wax the floors and clean the windows. These kinds of cyclical responsibilities are always waiting in line for the attention of a busy mother, and prevent her from ever feeling “caught up.” It is my belief that most families can afford to hire outside help to handle these projects, and the money would be well spent for such a purpose.
The suggestion of hiring domestic help may seem highly impractical in this inflationary economy where everyone has too much “month” left at the end of the money. However, I am merely recommending that each family reevaluate how it spends its resources. This matter was first discussed in Hide or Seek, and at the risk of redundant, I am again quoting from that volume:
Most Americans maintain a “priority list” of things to purchase when enough money has been saved for that purpose. They plan ahead to reupholster the sofa or carpet the dining-room floor or buy a newer car. However, it is my conviction that domestic help for the mother of small children should appear on that priority list too. Without it, she is sentenced to the same responsibilities day in and day out, seven days a week. For several years, she is unable to escape the unending burden of dirty diapers, runny noses and unwashed dishes. It is my belief that she will do a more efficient job in those tasks and be a better mother if she can share the load with someone else occasionally. More explicitly, I feel she should get out of the house completely for one day a week, doing something for sheer enjoyment. This seems more important to the happiness of the home than buying new drapes or a power saw for Dad.
But how can middle-class families afford house-cleaning and baby-sitting services in these inflationary days? It can best be accomplished by using competent high school students instead of older adults. I would suggest that a call be placed to the counseling office of the nearest senior high school. Tell the counselor that you need a mature, third-year student to do some cleaning. Do not reveal that you’re looking for a regular employee. When the referred girl arrives, try her out for a day and see how she handles responsibility. If she’s very efficient, offer her a weekly job. If she is slow and flighty, thank her for coming and call for another student that following week. There is a remarkable difference in maturity level between high school girls, and you’ll eventually find one who works like an adult.
Incidentally, if your husband is saving for that new power saw, it might be better to eliminate one of your own priority items the first time around. Either way, don’t tell him I sent you!
3. Husbands and wives should constantly guard against the scourge of over-commitment. Even worthwhile and enjoyable activities become damaging when they consume the last ounce of energy or the remaining free moments in the day. Though it is rarely possible for a busy family, everyone needs to waste some time every now and then–to walk along kicking rocks and thinking pleasant thoughts. But as I have described, the whole world seems to conspire against such reconstructive activities. Even our vacations are hectic: “We have to reach St. Louis by sundown or we’ll lose our reservations.”
I can provide a simple prescription for a happier, healthier life, but it must be implemented by the individual family. You must resolve to slow your pace; you must learn to say “no” gracefully; you must resist the temptation to chase after more pleasures, more hobbies, more social engagements; you must “hold the line” with the tenacity of a tackle for a professional football team, blocking out the intruders and defending the home team. In essence, three questions should be asked about every new activity, which presents itself: Is it worthy of our time? What will be eliminated if it is added? What will be its impact on our family life? My suspicion is that most of the items in our busy day would score rather poorly on this three-item test.
You’ll have to excuse me now; I’m late for an appointment.
Questions and Answers
Question: How do you feel about employment for mothers of preschool children? What part does their “outside” work play in the problem of fatigue and time pressure?
Answer: It is reasonable, isn’t it, that one cannot carve 40 choice hours from the week for an investment in a job without imposing “fatigue and time pressure” on the remaining portion. Thus, I am strongly opposed to the mothers of preschool children holding down full-time employment in situations, which do not require it. Yet we are currently witnessing a vast movement of women into the commercial world with numerous consequences for the home and family. As stated before, every disenchanted housewife is being offered the same solution to her low self-esteem: get a job, have a career, and do your own thing. Almost half of the women in this country are currently employed (43,256,000, according to 1982 figures provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and the totals are rising. My viewpoint on this national trend is not likely to win many admirers within certain circles, but I can’t remain silent on so important a topic. In short, I believe that this abandonment of the home is our gravest and most dangerous mistake as a nation!
Certainly, there are stressful financial situations, which demand that a wife go to work to help support the family. And there are more serious marital disruptions where the husband either cannot work or is removed from the home for one reason or another. These problems obviously require the financial contribution of the women involved. However, to sell the concept across America that every female who isn’t “working” is being cheated and exploited is a lie with enormous consequences.
This falsehood is vigorously supported by two other myths, which are equally foolish. The first is that most mothers of small children can work all day and still come home and meet their family obligations–perhaps even better than they could if they remained at home. Nonsense! There is only so much energy within the human body for expenditure during each 24 hour period and when it is invested in one place it is not available for use in another. It is highly improbable that the average woman can arise early in the morning and get her family fed and located for the day, then work from 9 to 5, drive home from 5:01 to 5:30, and still have the energy to assault her “homework” from 5:31 until midnight. Oh, she may cook dinner and handle the major household chores, but few women alive are equipped with the super strength necessary at the end of a workday to meet the emotional needs of her children, to train and guide and discipline, to build self-esteem, to teach the true values of life, and beyond all that, to maintain a healthy marital relationship as well. Perhaps the task can be accomplished for a week, or a month, or even a season. But for years on end? I simply don’t believe it. To the contrary, I have observed that exhausted wives and mothers become irritable, grouchy and frustrated, setting the stage for conflict within the home.
Incidentally, busy wives must summon every ounce of creativity if they are to meet their many commitments. I know one mother who has developed a unique ” stalling” device for use when she is late with the preparation of dinner. She rushes into the kitchen a few minutes before her husband arrives home from work, and places one sliced onion in the heated oven. When he walks through the door, he is greeted by a pleasant aroma of, perhaps, beef stew or enchilada pie. He is so pleased by the obvious progress in the kitchen that he settles down to read his paper and await the final product. Of course, she occasionally has to explain why tuna fish sandwiches made the house smell like onion-something-or-other.
The second myth standing on wobbly legs is that small children (those under 5 years of age) don’t really need the extensive nurturing and involvement of their mothers, anyway. If this falsehood were accurate, it would conveniently expunge all guilt from the consciences of working women. But it simply won’t square with scientific knowledge. I attended a national conference on child development held recently in Miami, Florida. Virtually every report of research presented during that three-day meeting ended with the same conclusion: the mother-child relationship is absolutely vital to healthy development of children. The final speaker of the conference, a well known authority in this field, explained that the Russian government is currently abandoning its child-care network because they have observed the same inescapable fact: employees of the State simply cannot replace the one-to-one influence of a mother with her own child. The speaker concluded his remarks by saying that feminine responsibilities are so vital to the next generation that the future of our nation actually depends on how we “see” our women. I agree.
Now I ask you who disagree with what I have written; to whom am I going to submit the task of guiding my children’s unfolding process of development? Who will care enough to make the necessary investment if my wife and I are too busy for the job? What baby-sitter will take our place? What group-oriented facility can possibly provide the individual love and guidance, which my children need and deserve? Who will represent my values and beliefs to my son and daughter and be ready to answer their questions during the peak of interest? To whom will I surrender the prime-time experiences of their day? The rest of the world can make its own choice, but as for me and my house, we welcome the opportunity to shape the two little lives which have been loaned to us. And I worry about a nation, which calls that task “unrewarding and unfulfilling and boring.”
I know that kids can frustrate and irritate their parents, as I have described, but the rewards of raising them far outweigh the cost. Besides, nothing worth having ever comes cheap, anyway.
Question: Are you saying, then, that every woman should become a wife and mother, regardless of her other desires?
Answer: Certainly not. A woman should feel free to choose the direction her life will take. In no sense should she be urged to raise a family and abandon her own career or educational objectives, if this is not her desire. Furthermore, I regret the “old maid” image, which frightens young women into marrying the first fleeting opportunity, which presents itself. My strong criticism, then, is not with those who choose non-family lifestyles for themselves. Rather, it is aimed at those who abandon their parental responsibilities after the choice has been made.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1992, PAGES 3-14. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.