What It Feels Like When No One Notices

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I fold the living room throws. There are two large crotcheted throws, one smaller crocheted throw, and a woven wool blanket. Unless someone — from the kids to my husband — drags another one in there.

In the formal living room, we have the fancy blankets: an Irish wool throw, a gifted cashmere blanket, and a fuzzy muppets-were-killed-in-the-making-of-this blanket. My husband and three sons, but mostly my three sons, pull them down, crumple them up, ditch them on the floor for the dogs to lie on, and attempt to build forts with them. So it’s left to me to pick up each one, in size order, fold it, lay it on the top corner of the couch, and repeat. By “repeat” I mean “repeat six fucking times a day.” Doing this occurs to no one else. They just pull them down again.

It’s the same thing with other piddly things in the house. I’m the one who patiently straightens the throw rugs, from the ones in the kitchen to the ones in the dining room and living room. I’m the one who picks up the fucking pillows (not so patiently) when the kids use them to build the ubiquitous forts or just fling them for the joy of flinging dense soft matter at shit.

These are the things every mama does. These are the things no one notices. And after a while, that not-noticing becomes a drag on the soul. You feel futile. You feel like you don’t matter. You feel like no one cares about your time or ability. And it hurts.

I don’t mean the big chores. I don’t mind those. I do the laundry. I wash it, dry it, (eventually) sort it, and fold it and put it away. I clean the bathrooms — with frightening irregularity, but I do it. That doesn’t bother me. I sweep the floors. I dust. I clean up barf and dog poop. I don’t feel any resentment at these things. They get noticed, at least by me and usually by my husband, who has the grace to say thank you (even if I have to announce “I swept the kitchen floor”). His notice gives that work some meaning. Lets him know, in a small way, that I love him and the kids. Because why the fuck else would I do it?

Then there’s the shit that no one knows about. Every time I see a marble — and that’s often because the 3-year-old got into them — I pick it up. I put it in the marble container. Every time I find one of the kids’ collectible coins their grandfather got them for Christmas, I pick it up and put it in their bank. I have a circular metallic way station in the living room where I stick tiny things I don’t have time to put away just then. My family is not aware of this. I use it to stash Lego pieces and plastic soldiers and dice and marbles. The fact that this is in the middle of a side table and no one knows about it deflates me a little.

There’s some famous Catholic story about cathedrals, about how we know the architect but we don’t know about the quiet laborers who actually made the beauty we see. This is supposed to be a metaphor for self-sacrificing motherhood. See, we don’t need notice because we’re just doing our jobs and that creates beauty. Is this stuff my job? Probably. But I’m not asking to weasel out of it. I’m asking for someone, anyone, to look at me stooped down, fishing a pack of crayons out of the dog bowl, and say, “You’re doing good with the details, Mama.” Or maybe, “I saw you fold that throw six times today. You’re a hero.”

These things probably sounds whiny to some people. Suck it up, buttercup, they’re going to tell me in the comments, this is what you get when you signed up to be a stay-at-home-mom with small kids. And maybe it is. And maybe a good dose of Mary Poppins would help me out. But I just cannot summon it when I’m digging a Lego shard out of my German Shepherd’s paw. It’s not that these tasks particularly suck. It’s that my own family is either oblivious that I do them, or takes for granted that I will. Neither option is particularly palatable.

I put up the hand towels in the bathroom. I take out the trash, not only in the kitchen but in the rest of the house. I lay out the kids’ clothes, including their pajamas, right on down to their underwear, which I have to make sure is the right size. I pick out their shoes. I pick out their hats (they burn easily). I put the medicine away after we’ve all been sick. In fact, twice a year or so, I go through the medicine and make sure none of it’s expired, then make a list of what we need. I make sure the kids have sunscreen and their favorite snacks. I do all of these things, and it is all unseen. The bulk of my day is unseen, with no one to tell about it. Is this what it means to be a mother? Is this what it means to love? Because — and I’m going to be completely honest here — this part sucks ass.

I tried to tell my husband about it. He seemed to understand. He told me I shouldn’t get so upset when I see a mess, and I told him I get so upset when I see a mess because I’m the one who has to fucking clean it. He recommended that I practice saying, “Not my mess,” and making the kids do it. So I do. I try. And it helps a little. But I worry all of it is falling on my oldest, and that’s unfair, and makes me feel bad for a whole different reason.

And so I fold. I pick up titchy little toys. I arrange pillows. I put away pens. And I wait for someone, anyone, to notice.

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