Working Mums Should Be Smashing Plates, Not Keeping Them Spinning

During lockdown, I unconsciously shouldered the emotional labour and needs of my entire household.

This story is part of Black Ballad’s takeover of HuffPost UK, a week-long series by Black women on parenting, family, and our post-Covid future.

It’s a cliché, I know, but when I think of work-life balance, I think of a performer spinning plates. The performer manages to get the plates on their sticks spinning in unison, then never takes their eyes off them – constantly evaluating which one might fall, which one is doing OK. They never look away from the plates, they never relax, never rest. Their eyes and body constantly move from one potential smash to the next.

It’s me. I’m the performer. And the plates are my responsibilities.

Before the pandemic, I was on maternity leave. My eldest had afternoons in preschool and I was at home with a five-month-old in a breastfeeding bubble of coffee and catch-ups with other mums or nursery-rhyme-singing baby clubs. I’d be returning to work earlier than planned, but with reduced hours for the next six months and from the privileged position of working from home. Life was rhythmical and reasonably predictable. Just how I liked it.

Then along came ’Rona, forcing its way into our lives and forcing the doors of our home shut. Initially, things were good. Like most well-meaning parents, I created a colour-coded timetable that included arts and crafts, baking and PE with Joe. I revelled in how much time we were getting to spend as a family, how my husband and I no longer had to pretend we enjoyed going out, and how we were creating beautiful memories.

And then my persistent friend, anxiety, came to join the party.

Piotr_roae via Getty Images

At first, it made itself known quietly, whispering concerns about screen-time or how bored the three-year-old was starting to look. Then the voice became louder and more consistent: “Will a three-year-old with already delayed speech development learn to speak functionally if he doesn’t see other people?” Then it became an unavoidable roar: “What if you or your husband get the virus?”, “Who will look after the children?”, “What if you both die?”

The panic attacks started in earnest, and I did what I normally do in a bid to keep the anxiety at bay – I set up my plates and started spinning

From the time I woke up until the time I went to bed, I kept busy. Life became an endless commitment to the things I needed to do. I unconsciously maintained the structures of patriarchy, shouldering the emotional labour and needs of my entire household. I needed to allow my husband to work uninterrupted, to stimulate the development of a baby, to offer play and educational opportunities for a pre-schooler. I needed to keep the house clean and make home-cooked meals three times a day.

Work felt like a saviour at times, a place I could feel successful and more than a food provider and boo-boo kisser, yet it was still another plate.

“As the woman, I must protect, feed and care for my family while my husband works – and keep up with my career, right?”

I worked on my phone while breastfeeding, when the boys had gone to sleep, on weekends. One of my managers even told me off for working more than the hours I had agreed to.

But it was my responsibility, right? As the woman, I must protect, feed and care for my family while my husband works – and keep up with my career, right? That’s how patriarchy works.

So, the anxiety would not go away. It couldn’t. Because no human, woman or otherwise, could keep their eyes on all these plates.

The origins of the custom of Greeks smashing plates are vague and varied. Is it the ancient practice of displaying one’s wealth, a ritual of mourning, or just a stereotypical image perpetuated by lazy foreigners? I like to think it was started by a woman who became fed up. Maybe a woman who’d experienced a mental shift after a massive event or trauma like a global pandemic. A woman who decided that it was no longer her responsibility to keep the plates of patriarchy spinning; instead, she’d smash them and dance in the shards.

As lockdown eases, this is the image I am taking with me. My husband is reducing his work hours, allowing me not only more space to work during the day, but also to take more time for me. More time to smash the plates.

This article was commissioned for HuffPost UK by Black Ballad, the lifestyle platform that tells stories of human experience through the eyes of Black British women and elevates their voices. If you would like to read more, become a Black Ballad member to get unlimited access to content, events and discounts, and to connect to its community of like-minded women.

Camilla Ru