Dr. Amanda Watson is a local author, feminist and mom. I had an opportunity to interview her recently and we had great conversation about pandemic work life, raising kids, and her new book Juggling Mother: Coming Undone in the Age of Anxiety, which talks about the disproportionate caregiving demands placed on women in society, in business and at home. Juggling Mother is a great read with smart but accessible language. With the pandemic, its release couldn’t be more timely.
Dr. Watson and I had a great conversation about our own lives and experiences of carrying the load of childcare while working from home — now often while on Zoom calls. The existing pressures placed on women and moms has always existed, but our current climate is bringing to light the fact that, without women’s invisible labor, the workforce infrastructure we depend on is simply not possible to sustain.
“The load that is unfairly gendered and racialized has been known to the people doing it, and to researchers, for a very long time. Decades. It’s been in the scholarship for a long time… especially through the 80’s as women became more attached to the workforce,” says Dr. Watson, “But I could not have predicted that women would be ejected from the workforce this way. And that we would have to take on more of the load. The cracks in the system are just too obvious to deny now. In a way, I’m hopeful that seeing how impermanent our attachment to the workforce is — based on what’s happening around us to our families — is so telling that we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to begin with.”
Her words helped articulate something I’ve thought about for a long time: if women aren’t providing the foundation of uncompensated labor, things seem to fall apart; but also, a woman coming undone is a luxury afforded only to the most privileged among us.
In order for a woman to unload a burden, she is tasked with ensuring that it can be sustained on its own or by someone else, and that is rare because of the expectations placed on women to care for everyone and keep everything together — even and especially at the expense of ourselves — and to make it look easy or manageable even when it is crushing us.
Dr. Watson suggests that the pandemic unintentionally provided opportunities for women to get real with each other and their colleagues about what life is really like for them, and called attention inside ourselves about just how much we have been expected to juggle in life and work. Prior to the pandemic, women were expected to hide our stress, overwhelm, and even our motherhood for the sake of professionalism and success. The phenomenon of inviting our clients and coworkers into our homes via Zoom meetings created a glimpse into what we are all actually trying to manage each day.
“At the beginning of the pandemic — you know, when we’re suddenly on Zoom, and kids are running in the background — I was really watching how we were interacting,” Dr. Watson said. “It became sort of … funny to ask people how they were doing. I was watching what we would say to one another, because we were all about to explode.”
Has vulnerability about things like anxiety, procrastination and overwhelm become more socially acceptable because of the pandemic and the sudden necessity of Zoom meetings? Dr. Watson thinks so — at least sometimes.
She reflected on her experiences and observations of the ways she has changed, yet noted that there are times she still feels pressure to perform that she’s got it all together.
“[One of us would] say, ‘Oh man, today is so wild. I have not gotten to my inbox yet.’ Those are things that I would never have said prior to people Zooming right into my living room. And at the same time, I have not really been willing to totally let it go. I still found myself the person on the call, who nods along in a way when other people are venting. I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s hard.’ It depends on the setting, but when I feel a power imbalance, or when I feel nervous about the potential consequences of being seen to be dropping the ball, I have still been unwilling to let that guard down. I’m not very proud to say that because I’m also trying to be vulnerable, and not continue living the irony of the book. This is a work in progress.”
Dr. Watson mused that perhaps the reason she felt compelled to write Juggling Mother was because she “was the worst culprit.”
“I felt that I was always performing quite a bit and could reflect on exactly what I said that would still give people the impression that as I was burnt out, I was still not failing at work,” she said.
Still, she is hopeful that all of us are learning that it’s okay to talk about when the load we are carrying is too much.
We went on to talk about how women and other marginalized folks fill in the gaps with unpaid work when defunding and privatization of institutions affect vital areas of society, such as education and health. Dr. Watson observed that we have always expected women, but particularly mothers, to do this work.
She credits anti-racist and feminist organizing to women stepping up when the powers that be continually fail our communities, but also recognizes that that in itself can be unavoidably exploitative no matter how women choose to respond. Because our society knows that women will not leave people behind, it leaves the labor of community care-giving and justice to women who are giving their time, love, energy and resources.
“It’s not the formal political sphere,” she says, “It’s the informal, political grassroots work. I struggle with the fact that that ends up being… the backbone of keeping capitalist systems that are harmful, running.”
Dr. Watson remembers the women’s strike a couple of years ago, and how it seemed like a great idea, but she knew that mothers wouldn’t outright refuse to provide or support people that they saw in need.
“I remember thinking ‘Cool, but of course we can’t do that.’ Of course, you can’t not change the diaper and you can’t not pick up the slack or not go pick up the medication for your friend and drop it off for them. I really struggle… I worry about if that work ends up being resistant or if it’s just always a bandaid.”
Both she and I shared that both optimism and deep cynicism live within both of us in regard to this complex relationship that women’s caretaking has with larger societal failures and scarcities. The emotions and thoughts that arise are of both compassion and resentment, hope and frustration… and that pendulum swings back and forth, sometimes wildly, as we try to find and maintain our footing.
Dr. Watson’s long-term goal as a scholar is to shape conversations about gender, race and work so that we can talk about unpaid work and begin to push care into the center of political conversations. With Juggling Mother, she aims to make women’s unpaid work more visible, and facilitate thoughts and conversations about the fuzzy line between invisible work and labors of love.
She says, “I want the book to be a part of mobilizing that load.”
Dr. Watson’s book, Juggling Mother: Coming Undone in the Age of Anxiety, is a great read and a wonderful gift for mothers who need to feel seen and heard. You can buy her book at https://www.ubcpress.ca/the-juggling-mother or your favorite bookseller.