Superwoman and Creativity
My consulting work has been steady lately. The right projects with the right level of commitment seem to be coming my way with reasonable consistency, allowing me to work and exercise during school hours and still do everything in the house during non-school hours. This should be celebrated on some fronts. I have achieved what I set out to. I have a reasonable income stream. I work from home. I am fit. I cook marvelous dinners. I parent effectively (or effectively enough) and am there for most events in my children’s lives. My house is sufficiently immaculate. I volunteer and just ironically received an award for my efforts. I attend book club and read the books. I sleep well. I carve out some time (not enough – it is never enough) for writing.
But at the same time my day has become a series of tasks that must all be done with a high degree of efficiency or the whole house of cards will collapse. There will be no healthy tasty dinner. I will lose my fitness level. I will not be seen as super performer at work (and let me assure you I am probably not). If people ask me how I am, most of the time my only honest answer is “shitty” because I am not enjoying any moment (except my workouts) and I am trying to figure out how I am going to get through all my remaining tasks that day and my mind is often casting ahead to the next day where the same number of tasks await me. Not surprisingly shitty is not really how I want my life to be defined.
So why shitty? I really have by most accounts a great life. I have found a reasonable balance. After all I did downhill ski without guilt for three days in a row last week with my children. But after skate skiing for an hour through deep wet snow on Tuesday (cause that is better because you work twice as hard), I came across a friend standing alone in the snow, and she looked at me and said. “I think I have become a shrew and I don’t want to be a shrew.”
I started to wonder if I too was becoming a shrew. If the number of tasks I was required (or I required myself) to perform was simply too much and it did not leave space for me to tolerate general inefficiency and lackluster effort in others (mostly my husband).
Then I started to wonder how it was affecting my writing. It is hard to feel creative when you are bogged down with a never-ending list of small required tasks (that my husband probably does not even know that I do, but would notice if I did not). Other writers, such as Steven Heighton, have noted the importance of solitude and the need to avoid interruptions like email when writing. But the multiple tasks required of the modern woman every day are equally intrusive. This is compounded by the fact that my job, because it consists of many small contracts, often mirrors the multi-tasking approach that I must take to managing the home, so I never get long stretches of time in which I am not having to shift from one thing to another.
Why do women feel pressured to do everything while men do not seem to? Paula Nicolson, author of Having it all?: Choices for today’s superwoman points out that because men can father many children in their lives where as women can have only a few, women’s investment in their children is much higher, which makes them more nurturing and self-sacrificing and prevents them from being as aggressive with their own agendas as men. Thus while men see arriving home as an end to their primary source of stress, women see it as the beginning of a second source of stress as they start their “second shift” as coined by Arlie Hochschild.
This is compounded by media images in the last two decades. We have been bombarded with images of women having it all, with Kelly Ripa bouncing around her house like a lunatic claiming that “you can be even more amazing”. Meanwhile, as Terry O’Reilly noted in CBC’s wonderful The Age of Persuasion The Happy Homemaker: How Advertising Invented The Housewife (Part Two), the imagery of men has shifted from “daddy knows best” to that of hapless buffoons that can’t even navigate a fridge.
I am not saying that men are hapless buffoons, and acknowledge that many of them have taken on significant roles in the house. But I do believe the buffoon imagery has had an insidious effect, allowing men to do a bit less and giving them permission to cast their wives as bitches. Whatever the men don’t do, the women often have to pick up becoming ever more bitchy and shrew like in the process, which just amplifies the cycle and leaves women crumbling under a weight of guilt at the end of the day and men confused as to why their wives are so bitter. Somewhere in there I am also supposed to provide my husband with marital relations, which I would rather provide to my fantasy lover who was smart enough not to procreate with me.
Ann Patchett, an extraordinary writer, has been very open about the fact that not having children was a conscious decision related to putting her writing first and suggests that women who want to be writers and have children must find husbands that want to do at least half or more than half of the work associated with child rearing. This is hard to do, and although some modern men profess that they will do half the work, and believe they will, they often don’t. Part of this is that they just don’t agree on the scope of the tasks. Men are often more inclined to be satisfied with good enough, whereas women are more inclined to insist on domestic perfection. Even though many men do what their wives request of them, they don’t see the importance of it, which forces their wife to bear the burden of being the taskmaster.
So what are suggested solutions for women writers? I don’t buy the finding time to nurture yourself approach. I simply don’t have time for that. I sleep, exercise, read and spend time with friends. A pedicure or a massage are just going to add to my guilt.
Leave your house in a mess. Yes maybe for those of us who don’t find that emotionally disturbing (there is evidence to support the fact that some people require tidiness for their brains to function).
Ask your husband to do more. I’ve tried that and although he tries for awhile it just doesn’t quite take enough of my plate as I still need to organize and prioritize the “more” that he does.
Quit your job. This is being touted as the solution by some high achieving women who return their exclusive focus to the home. I have done this and it is not awful, but you do feel frighteningly dependent and inferior. I know you are not supposed to – that it is a team effort and being a stay at home mom should be absolutely applauded. But the evidence still shows that most women feel they are giving up too much of their self-esteem by giving up paid work. Besides we need the money I bring in. Now if I could get paid to write, maybe it would all work out. But that is just not a realistic expectation in the writing world.
Better scheduling. I have also tried this. I write every Monday or I write between 9 and 11 each night, but invariably work comes creeping in. People who can only meet on Monday or a task that must be done or the whole project will go off the rails. And then the harried feeling creeps in. It is no wonder that the word harridan is very similar to harried.
Run away. It is no wonder that some women feel pushed to do this and I have run away temporarily on a 4 day writing retreat where I don’t feel any compulsion to clean my host’s filthy stove or give a shit that I just spilled coffee all over his counter (although I did wipe it up). I will return home having pressed the reset button and feeling great. But it won’t last. I will be once again harried and lacking creative time.
Perhaps I just need to write The Shrew’s Guide to Happiness and be happy with it.
Photo Credit: anneheathen via Compfight http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/