The "Busy Mum" and Man Flu: A Revelation


Firstly, if I ever see another "as a busy mum" ad, dosing herself up with painkillers to continue with her day of food prep, day-care drop off, corporate slaying and smiley, even-tempered child-cuddling in the evening, I think I might pierce my fingers through the screen to scratch her perfectly complexioned, dark-circle-free skin. Secondly, if I again see my (male) partner or someone else's on the couch, silent and unmoving under a blanket with “man flu” while their children require attention slightly out of their arm's reach, I might just flip my lid. So why is it that women with pain or illness are told that “the show must go on”, while colleagues miraculously cover dad’s workplace jobs while the world’s media whispers in his ear “yes my son, rest deeply in my bosom”?

1. Men’s health concerns are more likely to be taken seriously. This systematic review of scientific research, published in 2018, concluded that when men report pain to their GPs, he was likely to be believed, have it investigated and adequately treated. The author concluded that when a woman reports pain, she is more likely to be labelled as “emotional”, be prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication and be referred to mental health clinicians. Women’s health policy is, in general, woeful: PM Scott Morrison recently said (in national Parliament, I might add) that the solution to women giving birth on the side of the highway between Yass and Canberra following the 2004 closure of Yass’s maternity services was to upgrade the Barton Highway! If you’re not going to be believed on the severity of your symptoms by the experts (especially if they are recurrent) and the PM thinks roadworks can replace birth centres, what’s the point of going to the doctor?

2. Women’s care work is assumed and (largely) unpaid. This starts as a biological requirement from the implantation of the embryo, is most obvious during the labour (work) itself of birth and continues through production of breastmilk. Clearly, if I am sick, my husband can't suddenly lactate and take this task off my energy-draining list, but the uneven care ratio between women and men continues well beyond the time of breastfeeding to span generations below, above and alongside their own (70% of primary carers of elderly parents are women). Even in situations where both parents work full time, the care of children is, across the broader population, overwhelmingly provided by women. Mums are statistically more likely than dads to take time off work if kids are too ill to attend school or daycare, even using up their annual leave while dads refuse to use their sick/carers leave days to care for sick kids. Worryingly, carers leave and sick leave are drawn form the same pool, so mums are required to weigh up whether to take this leave when their kids need it or when they themselves feel poorly. (I have a separate blog on the economics of motherhood in the works which will be published soon, so will stop my lengthy rant on this point here.)

3. We are socialised to believe that women remain primarily responsible for all non-occupational family tasks. The ads mentioned at the start of this article are prime examples of this mainstream narrative - I’m certainly yet to see a “as a busy dad” ad for painkillers. Television shows from Peppa Pig to The Simpsons to Modern Family all portray the clumsy dad who provides monetarily but is generally clueless in the domain of child-raising. Can you think of one show where this role is reversed? If you can, please enlighten me. The only variation on this rule I can think of is “Bluey”, where both male and female dog parents are involved in childcare and play. It is notable that this is not a coincidence but a conscious effort on the part of the writers - if it was the norm to portray capable male parents they would not feel the need to discuss it as a statement or intention.

In response to statistics showing that more American men believe a family functions best when the mother stays home now than they did in the 1980s (83% in 2014 compared to 55% in 1984), writer Jessica Valenti noted:

While men might not necessarily say a woman’s “place is in the home,” they will say “she’s better at it,” or “she just cares about cleanliness more.” There’s an understanding that it’s no longer acceptable to make broad statements about women’s roles, but the expectation that women will handle everything in the domestic sphere remains."

From a young age girls are socialised to believe that if they do not do something, it won’t get done, so we soldier on and shoulder an unequal burden within our family structures because the “show must go on”. Men don’t seem to have this pull, and are more inclined then to listen to their bodies rather than their internal to-do list if they feel unwell.

4. The pervasive myths of perfect motherhood make us feel like no one else could possibly do our job, even for a day or two. It is generally accepted amongst child development researchers that secure attachment to a parent figure in the first three years of life is required to facilitate optimal neural development and stress resilience of the child. Generally in Australia this responsibility is placed squarely on the (biological) mother, along with the notion that she must provide 24/7 care for the child and that she must sacrifice her own needs for the good of her children (this aligns with our society's focus on "intensive mothering" practice, described by Sharon Hays in 1996). If she puts her needs first by resting, she may feel she is neglecting her children and is therefore a bad mother.  In a classic case of the double-edged sword, this also prevents other adults around her from learning the intricacies of that child that would make her feel more comfortable leaving her child in their care, making her feel trapped by motherhood.

5. We value ourselves by our “doing”, not by our “being”. If I am a mum, and I’m not busy, am I good enough? If I don’t engage in paid work, yet I am not wholly responsible for my family’s affairs and organisation and taxi service and washing and feeding and bathing and bill paying and all the ‘doing’, am I worthy of being ‘provided for’ financially? If my children see me taking a break when I have a headache, even though the house is a mess, or if I'm exhausted serve fruit or freezer food for dinner instead of cooking a meal, will they turn out to be ‘lazy’? If so, what does their ‘laziness’ say about me as a mother? What does it say about my gratefulness if the "show" doesn't "go on", and I don't tidy up the house or change my children's breakfast-covered shirt before my in-laws come over?

Stop here and take a breath. This is the point that got me about man flu. Yes, I am mad because of the social and economic factors above, but if I am honest with myself, those are not the reason why man flu gets me so riled up. I am angry because of the stories that play in my head about equating my measurable productivity to my worth, because the work I do as a mother is not measurable. If I am to overcome my anger, which seems directed outwards at the unfairness of parenting but (for the most part) really isn’t, I need to realise that my resentment is not for my sick husband, but for the stories I tell myself, the ones that see me taking panadol and ticking things off lists when I really could be having a lie down instead.

As I wrote that last sentence, I felt my shoulders drop, my jaw relax and my heart open a little. I am annoyed at the gender-based inequalities in our society but no longer angry with my legitimately-ill male partner, and curious about where this new revelation may lead. It is the hardest pill to swallow, but that perspective shift is powerful. It is something I can change right now, rather than waiting years and decades for gradual shifts in broader medical, economic and familial branches of society to respect the (inherent) worth and (separate) work of mothers. How can that happen if I don't respect myself, and help other mums do the same? I don't value my child for what she DOES or what job she will DO when she grows up, but WHO she is now, and WHO she is becoming. It is liberating to think I could give myself and the adults around me the same compassion and patience I extend to her.  Now to put "self-compassion" on my to-do list...


If the notion of shifting your perspective for greater compassion has peaked your interest, I strongly recommend you check out both Nourishing The Mother podcast and the work of Dr. Sophie Brock. These sources of education and empowerment have elicited many "lightbulb" moments in my parenting journey to date.


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