Recently I asked my daughter, who was visiting from out of town, to walk the dog before she left the house. She cheerfully said “sure” and went about getting dressed to go out while I went out to the
store. When I returned, she was rushing to put her coat on and said, “Mom, I’m running late. I won’t have time to walk to dog – my friend is waiting for me.” Typically, I would have thought, “Well, I don’t want to keep her friend waiting. I’ll just walk the dog myself”, but this time, I said, “Nah, could you just take her around the block before you leave?” which she did.
Sounds simple, huh? But that was hard for me. Typically, I would justify why my daughter didn’t have time and step in to pick up the slack. I could easily have taken the dog out – she’s my dog, after all. But I’d asked my daughter well in advance and the fact that she didn’t put that on her mental “to do” list was more my fault than hers. It’s because of all those years in which I’ve permitted my family to take advantage of me in order to avoid feeling guilt.
I later mentioned the incident to my other daughter, also visiting from out of town, and she said, “Yes, mom, she took advantage of you. We all do!” And that was a real eye-opener.
Women know this well. We swell with pride when someone says what a “good mother”, we are, what a “good wife”. But what does that mean? It means, selfless. Putting everyone else’s needs before our own and feeling good about that – like it’s what a woman should be doing. The last thing a woman wants is to be called selfish – it’s the meanest curse. So we’ll permit our families to take advantage of us in order to steer clear of guilt - that bad bad feeling inside which makes us feel we did something wrong. And women are phobic about being perceived as having done something wrong.
We train our families to take advantage of us, and then feel angry and resentful when they do. My kids do tons for me – we are very close and depend on each other for the big things in life mutually. But I’m so used to being the good mom that I hardly notice when I encourage my family to make the assumption that I always make – that I’ll take care of things – I’m a good taker-carer.
For women to correct the balance, we have to be ready to say “no” or insist on things we need help with, even if it is not convenient for the other person. I often hear women say “I don’t want to have to ask,” but you do – you have to ask and expect that it will be done. Don’t be ready to capitulate at the first sign of resistance. We have to learn to tolerate our family grumbling as we institute our re-education campaign – that mom doesn’t need to be seen as the ultimate helper. That our family members are just not that helpless.
So next time my daughters are visiting from out of town, you can bet that they will be walking the dog around the block – twice!
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life.