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