" If families were afforded compensation for work at home--we could use the payments to buy rest, retreating time, time off, help, support, therapy, healthy food, and all the things people need to feel happy and good." - Elizabeth Sullivan

by Elizabeth Sullivan, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern

Years ago I worked as  community organizer in urban parks around San Francisco. There was this one woman whom I grew to really love. She was this incredible, generative, creative force for good in her neighborhood--she was raising money to have 3 or 4 different small parks renovated, she was creating programs for all the local kids (like working in the community garden and then cooking the food they grew)--amazing stuff. She was everywhere in that ‘hood, and a mom and a partner too. Not a person with much money: she had a full-time job besides all her unpaid work.

She was inspiring in person too--funny, wise, open. But she was secretly tired out. And she was occasionally discouraged, though she did not tell too many people that. It was hard to raise the money, it was hard to be in the middle of all the politics of community development and maintain a sense of joy.

I found myself fantasizing about a retreat center for her, and for all these invisible ladies, all over the world, who do all the deep, desperately needed work of the family and the community. My mom is one of these ladies: making sandwiches for the women’s shelter, teaching preschool, quietly showing up for all kinds of needs in her family and community.

So of course partly I was imagining the retreat center as a place to finally rescue and care for my mom--my own long-time fantasy. I felt I really knew how to create and provide this particular place--my main thought was that these ladies do not want a uber-fancy spa or luxury apart from the world. The kind of retreat that would serve them would be meaningful: beauty and nature, readings, reflection, rest. They would like music, prayer, gardens, bathing, quiet, the chance to see children playing sometimes but not be responsible for sunblocking and cleaning up after them. Maybe a foot rub or someone to wash and cut their hair. Simple refreshment.

I still can’t believe that there are not wages for housework and child-rearing. It’s the most important work and it is all done for free. No wonder it drives people so crazy at times, and sometimes to divorce, to child abuse, to misery and alienation. It exhausts and depletes people, and we are made to feel personally ashamed for that truth, imagining that everyone else is handling it with much more grace. A recent book on motherhood I saw had the subtitle, “Loving Your Family Without Losing Your Mind”. 

Of course, lots of us also love it and value it--it makes life meaningful and spiritual--but these seeming contradictions do not mean it is not work worthy of proper compensation. If families were afforded compensation for work at home--we could use the payments to buy rest, retreat, time off, help, support, therapy, healthy food, and all the things people need to feel happy and good.

This all came up for me again recently because I am a Mama and I am at times exhausted and overwhelmed and *I* am getting a retreat. I’m getting a week by myself at Squaw Valley Writer’s Community to write poems and sleep as much as I want and wander around on my own time, doing what I like. I feel like I won the lottery and I KNOW I am going to be a better partner and mom and community member when I return.

It got me thinking about how much I still wish there were a way to offer moms and dads, and activists, and everyone really, retreat. Time away from responsibility and everyday cares: withdrawal to a place affording peace, quiet, privacy, and security. Seclusion, meditation (formal or otherwise), and a chance to reflect and think. Let’s redefine this as a basic need.

I wish it could be a gift everyone gets; but this is not that kind of society. But perhaps it can help, a sense that we should be doing this, that it is healthy? A shift into feeling that everyone needs retreat and refreshment. Perhaps if it were more of an understood need, more people would figure out a way to give it to themselves.

Can you slip away for a bit? Can you give your family the gift of a refreshed and inspired parent? I hope for this for you.

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is in a 2012-2013 Fellowship at the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center, a program of SFCP. She practices in San Francisco. 

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